ECHO HUB Leros community
Recent events in Ukraine have certainly shocked us all! Countless people have lost their homes, personal belongings, and beloved ones. They have witnessed and experienced unbelievable atrocities such as executions and rapes, and with people still fighting or simply trying to survive in the country, the war is far from over yet. Those who have managed to escape deserve all the support we can give them and fortunately a lot of solidarity is happening as fellow citizens spontaneously open their hearts and homes to those in need. And even governments with notoriously strict asylum policies such as Austria and Poland have set all machinery in motion to help refugees quickly and efficiently. Within days refugees are registered and given access to accommodation, social security, financial support, education, and work permits. Obviously, this is what is needed right now, a lot more will be necessary for the aftermath of this horrible and unnecessary war with yet unforeseeable consequences. A big part of the country's infrastructure has been destroyed, and the wounds on bodies and souls will take years if not forever to heal.
The events described have certainly overshadowed the situation of refugees stuck or still arriving on the Greek islands such as Leros, and considering the acuteness of the crisis in Ukraine, rightly so. But they also uncannily echo the experiences of those who arrived in Greece from Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Eritrea, or Kongo to name just a few war- and crisis-ridden countries. The very same Russian army that is currently raging in Ukraine, committed numerous war crimes in Syria. Even the commander in chief of the murderous 64th Separate Motor Rifle brigade responsible for mass killings and systematic rapes in Aleppo in Syria is the same one who recently stroke in Burtscha in Ukraine. – To be fair one has to mention that there was a moment of solidarity with people escaping the Syrian war in 2015, but this moment has long passed. EU borders are now tightly closed and refugees from the aforementioned countries are systematically and brutally pushed back. This year alone, we had 203 cases of pushbacks at sea, which means 4,692 lives were put at risk by Greek and European authorities. And thus, these people ask us: Why do our lives not matter? Why is it that the EU is so much more compassionate with Ukrainian refugees? How come the social and legal integration of Ukrainians is a matter of a few weeks while our lives are put on hold for years?
For a humanitarian worker focusing on the individual, it is certainly difficult to answer these questions. We do not label a person in need according to skin color, religion, or nationality, but try to assess her vulnerability and see how we can help to restore basic dignity and agency. Governmental bodies and the EU as such on the other hand do differentiate or rather discriminate by these criteria, no matter whether these individuals have experienced atrocities comparable to the ones now happening in Ukraine, no matter whether those arriving are still for a large part children and minors. This is certainly unfair and inhumane! – We see and know that the majority of those arriving on the Greek islands have gone through terrible things and still they are given a very different treatment; a treatment that leaves them in a state of insecurity and further traumatizes them. It is hard to imagine, that a single European politician would plead to accommodate a Ukrainian refugee in a Greek Hotspot camp.
In our last report, we described the opening of the new C.C.A.C (Closed Controlled Access Centre) on Leros and the so-called fast-track asylum policies, implemented in 2019 by the new Greek government and now followed by the authorities. Due to the pushbacks, few people have managed to arrive in Greece since then. For those who arrived on Leros – 170 people since December – the registration and asylum procedures start after a 2-weeks quarantine period. Once released from it, medical screenings and the interviews with First Reception, EASO, Frontex, etc. are performed. Following the new protocol, a first decision is usually given after one week – in most cases, it is a rejection, as decisions are taken very quickly and Turkey is considered a safe country for the majority of asylum seekers arriving. There is then a two-week time window within which this first rejection can be challenged, all too often without any legal assistance or interpreter. Depending on the outcome of the second decision, which usually comes after 40 days, now recognized refugees are allowed to leave the island to the mainland or – if the negative decision is confirmed – the respective person is arrested and transferred to the closed pre-deportation camp on Kos. From there the unwanted ones are supposedly returned to Turkey, or to their country of origin. – Although tough, one has to admit that the fast-track procedures are at least speeding up things and people are not left in limbo for months or years without a decision. But there are certainly leaks in the system: Foremost it is more than questionable whether Turkey can be considered a safe third country, but irrespective of this, Turkey (and many other countries) do not even accept returns from Greece. This yet leads to another kind of limbo, as these people are either endlessly kept in pre-deportation camps or – left without papers – become prey to human traffickers again. And even for the people who receive protection status in Greece, there is still a long, long way to social and economic integration, because once accepted there is hardly any governmental support. People all too often end up homeless. Athens’ streets bear witness to this.
The new camp and the now implemented procedures have led to a very different situation on Leros: arrivals are scarce, and the time spent on the island is now too short to benefit from any integration services. With a heavy heart, we have therefore decided to close our ECHO HUB on Leros. A safe space outside the camp where people are able to acquire new skills, learn a language, do sports, or simply relax, is no longer needed. This decision has been a difficult one, as the ECHO HUB on Leros has been such a special place! Six years of operations have certainly helped hundreds of people to make their minimum 1-year stay on the island more bearable and productive. Hundreds have experienced a welcoming and friendly environment, that at least partly restored their humanity and prepared them for their next steps. Hundreds have learned a new language or skill, which further helped them find employment on the islands or on the mainland. Hundreds of volunteers coming from all over the world to small Leros had the chance to meet these people and get a first-hand experience of the so-called refugee crisis and the humanitarian response to it. Many of these continue to help refugees in their own countries and keep supporting our projects in Greece. It has been an enriching and extremely valuable time and we thank you all for your support! Without your trust and solidarity, this project would not have been possible!
However, despite the closing of the HUB, ECHO100PLUS will maintain a presence on the island and the staff working in the C.C.A.C., which is now inaccessible to us, will keep us informed of people's needs. For the time being, we are keeping our clothes storage as new arrivals are usually in need of clothes and we continue to supply camp residents with hygiene items, and necessary medication. These services are still vital and we, therefore, continue to need your solidarity and financial support, as the rent of our storage space needs to be paid, medication and hygiene items need to be bought. But foremost, we strongly ask you to not forget the refugees arriving in Greece and to keep in mind, that there is a lesson to be learned from the humanitarian response to the 2022 Ukrainian crisis: This fast and efficient response should actually be the standard for receiving refugees in Europe – we have now proved that this is possible. Please let political leaders and policies not divide our compassion and solidarity with people in need, no matter where they come from!
Packing up the HUB