Above: Photos of the camp kitchen by Georgia Lalor.
At one point in 2015 10,000 people a day were reaching the shores of Lesvos, a Greek island close to the Turkish mainland. rabble sent Tomás Lynch to Idomeni, a camp that sprouted up on the border with Macedonia, home to more than 14,000 migrants in March 2016 to speak to some of the volunteers.
Katerina Sharma, an Irish woman from Cork who went to Lesvos three times last year at the height of the crisis was compelled in particular by the harrowing photograph of Ahlan Kurdi, the toddler whose body was washed up on a Turkish beach.
“I did night watches where you would patrol the road and have night goggles and look for boats coming in at night time. You’d have your car packed with emergency blankets and juices and bananas and clothes. Sometimes you’d come across three, four, five, six boats, sometimes more.”
The third time she went Katerina got involved with the Dirty Girls of Lesvos. The Dirty Girls is a volunteer organization that was founded by a woman named Alison Terry-Evans set up as a reaction to what was happening.
Katerina Sharma told us the story: “She was there when the people were coming in on the beaches and she found loads and loads of discarded, really good clothes that were being put to waste. It was an environmental nightmare. Because at the beginning people were picking up clothes and just bringing them back to their houses and washing them themselves – the little bit they could do. We started taking the clothes to them to get washed. We would go through them and sort them and see what was fit to be washed and to keep. They would put them in the laundry machines and get them dried and then they would sort them into jumpers, trousers, kids’ jumpers – into different categories. And then they would be distributed back out again in the camps.”
We spoke with Ayesha Keller, a member of Better Days, another NGO founded in response to the crisis about what the situation was like on the ground.
“At the time there was the Moria registration hotspot, which everyone who arrived in Lesvos had to go to, so it was the bottleneck. They had 6000 people and they literally didn’t fit inside the centre, so many of them were just camping on an olive grove. People were burning trash to stay warm. There was feces everywhere, because there weren’t proper hygiene facilities. There was no bins, so there was shit everywhere.”
Better Days set up an unofficial camp outside the Moria registration centre. Ayesha explained: “When the official charities ran out of stuff they’d be like ‘We’re not allowed to just go into town and buy shoes, because it can be corruption. We have to prove that we’ve done a proper analysis of the cheapest way to do it.’ But our volunteers weren’t bound by crazy bureaucracy. I could do a shout-out on Facebook in the morning saying we’d run out of shoes and by the afternoon or evening we’d have 500 or 600 pairs of shoes.”
The EU deal struck in March 2016 with the increasingly authoritarian Erdogan administration in Turkey was a watershed moment. As part of the deal Turkey agreed to take back all new migrants arriving to Greece by sea, in exchange for (among other concessions) €6bn in EU aid to Turkey.
Ayesha explained what happened. “The EU-Turkey deal came in and Moria was turned into a prison overnight. Normally when you have new legislation it takes quite a long time to actually come into force. All the lawyers were scratching their heads and going ‘Well, this is not how it’s supposed to happen.’ Before the law is even released they’re enacting it. Which meant the lawyers couldn’t defend people because they hadn’t even seen the law yet.”
“We’d become a bit of a Pakistani camp because in Moria they stopped registering them completely. Then one day we were warned by the police that if we didn’t get everybody registered within the next 24 hours the riot police would come onto the land and just arrest everybody and it would be very brutal.”
“We called a meeting with the elected community leaders in the camp. They decided to go in peacefully. One girl negotiated with the UNHCR and asked them to bring the Balochis [people from Pakistani region of Balochistan where an ethnic cleansing is currently going on] separately and got them asylum.”
“The others went in and shortly after 131 of them were deported. We were down by the port protesting. We just watched all these guys who’d been living on our camp for months and who’d gone in willingly because they’d wanted to protect us being handcuffed and marched onto a boat. And then our camp was empty.”
With their camp empty, Better Days decided to move to the mainland. In July 2016, in partnership with several other organizations, they set up the Elpida camp in the North of Greece, as a collaboration between the government, private philanthropists and volunteer organizations. The aim of the project was to make a camp that would be a model for all other camps.
Unlike other camps, Elpida welcomed volunteers and there was even a communal kitchen where the residents could cook for themselves, instead of relying on catered meals. Ayesha has mixed feelings about it’s success.
“Elpida was planned to be a pilot project, and there was supposed to be many more. Unfortunately we didn’t get to set up in other places because of politics. We actually solved the refugee accommodation problem in Northern Greece, but no one really wants the solution. We thought we needed to create the solutions, but the solutions are there. It’s the will to implement that isn’t.”
Nora Bomke is a volunteer with an organization called Hot Foods Idomeni. Hot Foods was originally founded by four volunteers. “They decided in Calais that there was enough help at the time and they weren’t really useful so they wanted to go somewhere else. So they drove down to Greece. They ended up in Idomeni. They went into the camp checked what they could do, and they were like ‘Well, let’s just do tea for the next day.’ Soon they were providing 4500 meals a day, and the organization calling itself Hot Foods Idomeni was born.
At the end of May the camp at Idomeni was shut down by the Greek authorities, and the people there were moved into smaller military-run camps around the country.
“It was chaos. There were hundred of buses, just loading people and leaving.” But Nora says that the official camps have not proven to be a solution. “We all really believed in these military camps and we convinced the people because it sounded great, and then at the end we saw that, for example, now they don’t even have enough blankets. In Idomeni they always had the hope of the border or a change of situation, while in camps they’ve now seen that they might stay there for years. So they’ve lost hope.”
“When the whole world starts looking at it, it’s like ‘How can the state do nothing?’ So they tried to make military camps really fast to put them into. From Europe’s point of view the refugees are done. There’s very few newspapers that talk about them, if it’s not about a death in one of the camps.”
Large informal camps like those in Idomeni and Calais drew the world’s attention to the plight of the refugees. Now that those camps have been broken up, and their residents divided up in small, isolated camps in the countryside, with access carefully regulated by the military, the media’s gaze has shifted elsewhere.
“Just because they’re refugees you can’t accept that that’s ok. If it was Spanish people fleeing to Germany we couldn’t put them in these camps. But they’re Arabs in Greece, so we stopped caring.”