Why don't NGOs want to help Greece?

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Why don’t NGOs want to help Greece?

The island of Lesvos is full of immigrants, and charities don’t help. Beulah Devaney reports.

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Stefanie Eisenschenk under a Creative Commons Licence

‘She was in her 60s,’ Eric Kempson explains. ‘Her son, a schoolteacher, had died in a house fire with his wife; with her elderly husband, and a baby. So I took some of them in my car to the refugee centre at Moira. Then I went back to get the husband. And he told me the story again. “My son was a schoolteacher; he was killed in a house fire”.’

Kempson is a woodcarver living in the Molvos region of Lesvos. This is a Greek island now full of refugees from Syria and Afghanistan. Kempson has lived there since 1999. He says the island has always been popular with refugees, ‘but they used to be young Afghan men; now they’re women and children, old people, mainly from Syria’.

Lesvos has a very big immigration problem. A recent report from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) found that Greece has more immigrants from the sea than any other EU country. 68,000 people arrived in the first half of 2015. On 9 July, a BBC report found that 15,000 of those immigrants entered Greece in Lesvos. 1,600 arrived in one day.

Lesvos is popular because it is in the northeastern Aegean Sea. It is not far across the sea to Turkey. The UNHCR report says that 90% of the immigrants arriving in Greece have travelled through Turkey from countries with wars like Syria, Iraq, Somalia and Afghanistan.

When they arrive on Lesvos, the refugees have to walk 40 kilometres across the island to Moira, the only reception centre. Here, the new arrivals get papers to be able to stay in Greece for 1-6 months. They also get a place to sleep and food – they often sleep in tents on an old racetrack and the food is from the local people.

Lesvos’ population is only 86,000 and residents feel this situation is too much for them. Kempson is one of many local people who often go to the north of Lesvos to help the refugees who cannot walk 40 kilometres. He tries to bring the sick and the elderly but, after crossing the Mediterranean, a lot of them need help.

The residents of Lesvos are angry. Not at the refugees, even though not so many tourists come now because of them, but at the NGOs who check the island.

Giorgos Tirikos-Ergas helped start Angalia, a small NGO in Lesvos, to support the growing number of refugees.

‘I knew that things were really bad when I saw that all the big, international NGOs were watching us,’ he explains, ‘but we [the island residents] were still responsible for the problem.’

Kempson says the international aid agencies have offered no support: ‘The UNHCR are terrible,’ he says. ‘They have watched people suffer and suffer and suffer and they have turned it into advertising.’

There are many UNHCR reports on the rising number of immigrants in Lesvos, but it does not give any physical help.

Kempson works closely with the local Facebook group ‘Help for refugees in Molyvos’ and he spent a day cleaning out toilets at the Kara Tepe refugee camp.

The toilets had not been cleaned for two months and volunteers were doing what they could. Kempson found UNHCR representatives taking selfies in front of the toilets. He asked if they were going to help with the cleaning, and they left.

One Syrian refugee said the camp smells like the dead bodies he saw in Syria. But there is still no official group from UNHCR there and the Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) team only arrived after weeks.

Kempson is angry at these organizations. It would be easier to understand the UNHCR if their many reports, appeals and press conferences helped Lesvos.

There are some international NGOs on the island: MSF recently offered a bus to take old and sick refugees to Mytilene (close to the refugee centre) and Amnesty International has released a report on the crisis which made the European Union (EU) think again about its plans to move refugees.

All the other international NGOs are following the UNHCR and are only passive observers.

I contacted 12 international refugee NGOs for this article, and only 8 responded: 4 said they are not responsible and 3 said that they weren’t interested in helping Greece.

Only Oxfam agreed for me to quote them. They said ‘we understand that many people in Greece are in difficulty, but Oxfam is not able to give the financial support these people need. So we do not have plans to work in Greece at the moment.’ But Oxfam Italia gives this ‘financial support’ in Italy.

More than 60% of the refugees on Lesvos come from Syria: a country in a civil war that has forced 7.6 million people to leave, say the United Nations.

Many NGOs have worked a lot in Syria, and are doing more work in Iraq and Somalia. But since the start of the Syrian civil war in 2011, refugees have been coming through Turkey towards Greece. The crisis is now worse because of the problems with Italy’s Mediterranean search and rescue programme, the Greek economy and the Syrian war.

The NGOs have not adapted to this changing crisis. ‘The EU is responsible for the welfare of migrants who want to enter and get asylum in the EU in Greece,’ says Oxfam. ‘The EU must help all people who need help in the Greek crisis, Greeks and migrants who come to their borders because of war, abuse of rights and inequality.’

This is what most NGOs think. But the EU has not supported the refugees of Lesvos. Recently, the UN told them to do more.

These organizations are separate from the governments, so why are they waiting for governments to do something? NGOs are still happy to say that they do not need to help because Greece is in the EU.

Greece’s geography position is not good for the citizens of Lesvos. But it is also hiding the difficulty many NGOs have about Greece.

‘People who donate money usually want to know exactly what their money will do. And the NGOs also talk about their work in the same way eg. “your $50 will buy mosquito nets for a family of four”,’ writes Dinyar Godrej.

NGOs working in Greece could say exactly what help they offer, but many people who could give money think that Greece is not a country in need. Most people think that OK, the refugees are living in tents, with not much medical assistance, relying on Greeks for food, but at least they’re not in Syria any more.

This is wrong. It does not include other problems eg. human trafficking, hygiene, post-traumatic stress and various other risk factors.

For now, the people of Lesvos have no help. Because of the geographical position, it is one of the main places for refugees crossing the Mediterranean. And because Greece is in the EU, international NGOs can justify why they do not help.

So the people of Lesvos have to try to support thousands of refugees in the Greek crisis. And international observers think: how bad do conditions in Lesvos need to be before refugee aid agencies stop hiding behind the EU and start helping?

NOW READ THE ORIGINAL: http://newint.org/features/web-exclusive/2015/07/21/greece-aid-lesvos/ (This article has been simplified so the words, text structure and quotes may have been changed).