A critical time for refugees: campaigning for immediate policy change!

by Kirsty Evans, Campaign Coordinator, Europe Must Act

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Why is this such a critical time for people in the camps of the Aegean islands?

Coronavirus has restricted the operations of so many NGOs on the Aegean islands. From those who organise human rights observations at sea to those who run projects on and off camps, from legal advice to medical support, from emergency response to informal education, grassroots NGOs (who have filled vital gaps since 2015) have either been unable to operate, or seriously restricted in their roles. We know there are violations at sea, we know injustices are onshore and in camps, we know ‘non-refoulment’ (International Humanitarian Law) is being flouted BUT we cannot report what we cannot see.

This quarantine period has spotlighted the gaps that exist. Coronavirus has not only made clear the ways in which people's basic needs in camps are not being met, but also the direct actions being taken by authorities which worsen people’s well-being at this crucial time. Immediate steps absolutely have to be taken by Greece and the EU to decongest the hotspots and address the shortage of necessary, life-saving supplies.

When cleanliness is vital, hygiene kits are not available on camp and running water is irregular and insufficient. When a strong immune system is necessary to fight the virus, nutritious food for a healthy diet is inaccessible and drinking water quotas sometimes unfulfilled. When we should be social distancing, those in overcrowded hotspot camps are left to fend for themselves.

How has this affected NGO operations on the ground?

The NGO I am currently a coordinator for operates in the field of Emergency Response. Pre-corona, we attended every boat landing on the island to ensure that those transferring to damaging, uninhabitable, dirty, dangerous island camp structures had some basic supplies to take with them. We were there on the beach, on the roadside, or at the port, to welcome every person that had risked their life and boarded a boat in the hope of something better, something safer.

"There is neither NGO oversight at sea nor onshore."

Pregnant women received maternity kits and new-borns, a new, warm set of clothes; men, women and children got thermals, blankets, food and water; everyone was treated kindly and with care during their first moments in Greece. Since coronavirus struck, we no longer attend landings. People who do reach our European shores now get no supplies from us; we do not know the reception they receive when they land. There is neither NGO oversight at sea nor onshore. This is really concerning. Reports we read and accounts we hear are troubling. Our inability to respond and to ensure dignity in reception weighs heavily on our tired minds. People arriving on our shores are people no different to us, they have just been dealt a different hand. We Europeans should not disconnect from our duty to others, our social responsibilities to our human family during a time of global crisis.

How have I (and others) responded effectively during coronavirus?

In one year, on Chios and Lesvos, and for a brief time in the Balkans, I have every day seen the negative impacts of the EU-Turkey deal and gross violations caused by the hotspot set up. I have seen conditions worsen in camps as the political will exists to make camps hostile environments – this includes having restricted water supplies, irregular waste management, aggressive police responses, misinformation intended to confuse and limited legal and medical support. Authorities, too, are put under increasing pressure as demands from government structures pressure them to control that which is uncontrollable. Human lives are put indirectly, unnecessarily at risk in grossly overcrowded camps.

"It was scary, we were under threat, but we understood the frustrations of many local Greek islanders."

I was on the ground as a wave of anger and violence took over in February – this was directed at camp residents, authorities and grassroots NGOs. It was scary, we were under threat, but we understood the frustrations of many local Greek islanders. Ultimately, as numbers of people fleeing to safer shores has risen once again, and the EU Migration Deal has not adapted to the reality on the ground, Greece and Greek citizens have felt abandoned by EU Member States who should have shown solidarity, flexibility and provided structural support.

As a response to the critical situation, I was part of a team of volunteers who decided to set up a campaigns group, Europe Must Act (EMA), to raise awareness of what was happening on the Aegean islands.

Why are you targeting the EU?

Leaders need to understand the impact of their actions. Policies cannot be developed without clear communication channels between legal experts and those with real-life knowledge. Feedback must be considered when concerns are raised by those with lived experience – when criticism is voiced constructively, it is our representatives’ duty to listen and adapt.

We recognised that the only way to get long-lasting change was to channel our demands more directly. The only way to be noticed was to raise the voices of those living, volunteering and working in the Aegean and to encourage European people to speak out against the conditions. We still believe that the majority of Europeans agree that we should have a humane, fair EU Migration Policy that sees hotspot camps decongested and people relocated fairly around Europe, treated with dignity at all steps of their journey.

To first get noticed at the EU level, we wrote an Open Letter to the EU Commission and EU Parliament demanding decongestion of the Aegean Islands, a replacement to the EU-Turkey deal and dignified reception, relocation and integration of people. This was signed by 100,000 people, over 160 NGOs and 10 MEPs. After a meeting with Ylva Johansson (EU Commissioner of Home Affairs), we realised that to force the positive change we demand, we require representation at the municipal level from citizens, local politicians and NGOs alike. If pressure comes from the city level, this will be raised up to regional and national levels and so on to the EU where the compassionate change can be enacted.

"We are ignited and effused by each and every person who has shown support for our social movement."

From our overwhelming response and support, we can see that our initial beliefs were correct. To date, we have mobilised 40+ cities to set up solidarity chapters using our Cities Must Act project. In Germany, we collaborate with Seebrucke to enhance the capacity of their existing chapters. We recently collaborated with other NGOs to host an Action Day on 23rd May. The response was overwhelming, EMA was represented online and in the streets of 50 cities across 8 European countries with citizens projecting the hashtag ‘We Have Space’ in our cities for refugees and asylum seekers. Our next event will mark World Refugee Day on 20th June.

Is it challenging to organise under lockdown?

In some ways, lockdown came at the perfect time. It gave us time to reflect on the issues on the ground and consider what strategies were best to tackle the complexities caused by the EU-Turkey Deal and poor policymaking. It has provided us with breathing space from our hectic lives responding to the growing needs and human rights violations here on the Aegean islands. It allowed the opportunity to discuss our movement and reach out to other grassroots NGOs to gain their insight and input. Now, as restrictions ease, it is vital that we build on the momentum and push peacefully for positive change. We are ignited and effused by each and every person who has shown support for our social movement.

From our representation at the city