Volunteer team leaving Leros
We hope you are all well and safe in these challenging times.
Over the past months, events had been overturning at a pace hard to keep up with! Now, that we are all restricted to our home offices, we finally have a moment to reflect recent events, plan our future, and most importantly, update you on the situation in Greece in general and on our operations on Leros in detail.
Things already started to get bumpy in Mid-February, when the Greek Government began to implement the new asylum policies they had previously announced last autumn. These policies aim squarely on deterrence and deportation and previsioned fast-track asylum procedures to decongest the affected Aegean island camps that, at this point, already accommodated more than 42.000 asylum seekers instead of the designated 6,000. Among the first steps to be taken to facilitate the new procedures, Hotspot camps were to be replaced by "closed" detention centres, a plan that was not only vehemently opposed by Human Rights organizations, but also by the local population, who did not want their islands to become prison-sites. When the commissioned construction firms started to arrive on Lesvos and Chios, they were received with fierce protests by the locals, which riot police cut off with equally aggressive response and the situation quickly escalated. Enraged locals, who had enough of the strain of the ever-rising refugee population and the lack of support from governing bodies such as the EU, started to direct their frustration against asylum seekers and NGOs.
Amid this already tense situation, on February 27th, Turkey announced to no longer stop refugees from reaching Europe by land or by sea. Instantly, thousands of refugees started to move to the sea-shores and to the borders towards Greece and Bulgaria in the hope to be able to cross. The Greek Government immediately activated an emergency decree contained in the 2016 EU-Turkey agreement with the consequence that those arriving in Greece after March 1st, 2020 were to be detained in closed facilities with their right to apply for asylum suspended. Boat arrivals were to be transferred to the mainland, from where they should be deported to their country of origin or Turkey as quickly as possible.
But by the time this became public, the land border in the Evros region in Northern Greece had already turned into a battlefield with Greek and Turkish army violently pushing refugees from one side to the other. Thousands of tear-gassed and beaten people ended up in the no-man's zone between the borders. When 1,180 asylum seekers had arrived on the Aegean islands after March 1st, the response was no less hostile. Refugees were threatened, and within days, numerous NGO facilities on Lesvos, Chios and Samos were attacked and set ablaze by agitated locals; individual volunteers and asylum workers experienced unprecedented threats. At this point, quite a few NGOs on the islands had to cease their operations and started to evacuate their teams.
How did all this impact our operations on Leros?
The already present 3.200 asylum seekers on Leros were increased by another 252, arriving in the first days of March. The new arrivals were immediately put in detention on the Port Police premises right next to the ECHO HUB, a space unfit for the purpose, as it neither has roofed shelters, nor sanitary facilities. Luckily the over-whelmed Port police accepted our help for which we released emergency funds, and our team was allowed to supply the detainees with the basics. Our volunteers prepared and delivered formula milk bottles and baby food for the 28 children under the age of 3yrs; men, women and children were supplied with essential hygiene packs including everything from underwear, wipes/soaps, pampers, sanitary pads, etc. The 253 detainees (in the meantime, a baby had been born!) were moved to a camp on the mainland three weeks later. So far, they have not been able to apply for asylum.
All this was going on while COVID-19 started to spread all over Europe silently and more and more cases also became apparent in Greece, a country whose health system has been driven into the ground by the still ongoing financial crisis. Following the lead of other European countries, the Greek Government decided to shut all public schools, universities and educational centres on March 10th. By the 11th this included the private sectors, and on the March 12th, they shut down all asylum offices and procedures for the months to come. As a consequence, we had to close both our HUBs in Athens and on Leros and in a race against time, we started to evacuate our volunteers to get them home before the country was going to shut down completely. Luckily all of them have made it back home safely and healthily.
Since then, our concerns indeed continue to lie with our beneficiaries on the island. Should the virus contaminate camp residents, consequences will undoubtedly be disastrous, as neither camp infrastructure nor Leros' small hospital is prepared and can respond efficiently. All our efforts have, therefore, focused on assessing urgent needs and sourcing materials to help where we can.
As a first step, we managed to install more water-outlets to give people at least the possibility to wash their hands. - So far, the c 1,200 people living outside the official camp, just had a single water-outlet. To improve overall hygiene conditions, we organized and supplied the camp with 10 additional trash containers and arranged with the municipality to service them on a daily base. Another priority was to provide camp staff - doctor's team, First Reception and police staff - with protective gear, as they are currently the only ones going in and out of the camp: Facial masks, gloves, overalls, goggles and some medical supplies have been handed over to all of them about one month ago. Currently, we are busy supplying all the camp residents with the most critical protective items. Two weeks ago, we distributed a soap supply for each individual, as we received a very generous soap donation from the Greek Papoutsanis soap company. Hand-sanitizer and facial masks will follow in the next days.
In regards to our educational programmes, we are restricted, as due to COVID-19, the Hub is locked down and, our beneficiaries are not allowed to leave the camp for the time being. In order to stay in touch with our beneficiaries during this time, our teachers and volunteers have shifted Hub classes to online platforms, and we are happy to say, that quite a few residents are taking advantage of the opportunity to continue their studies.
We hope that all this will not last too long, as it is incredibly frustrating not to be able to do more for the residents in these difficult times! We thank you for your ongoing support and promise to be back as soon as circumstances allow us.
Be safe and be well, The Echo Team
New arrivals on Leros in March
Team preparing Baby packs
Soap distribution in the Leros Hotspot camp
Protective gear for Hotspot's medical team