Faced with another long university summer, and wanting to put my surplus time to some use, a friend and I decided to go and volunteer in a refugee camp in Katsikas, Greece with the charity Refugee Support.
My 3 weeks volunteering in Katsikas was truly eye-opening. Refugee Support is playing a key role in helping the people that continue to arrive from the Middle East and Africa live in an overrun and increasingly inhospitable Greece.
In Katsikas camp the charity provides food and other necessities to supplement pretty meagre UNHCR cash handouts which stop after refugees have been in Europe for 6 months. The reality is that most of these people are living in camps for much longer than half a year.
Refugees have been arriving in Katsikas since 2016. The German charity Arbeiter-Samariter-Bund (ASB) built 200 or so cabins that house over 1,000 refugees. Refugee Support began its work in Katsikas in early 2017 from a hanger next to the camp, providing food and essentials, English classes, children’s activities. There’s also a vegetable garden where the refugees are free to grow their own fruit and veg. The camp is a pretty desolate place – identical white cabins, set against a harsh, arid landscape. But the hanger itself was a welcome splash of colour, painted with handprints and flags – hopeful marks left by refugees and volunteers.
Many of the refugees in the camp are Middle Eastern – mostly from Iraq, Afghanistan, Kurdistan or Syria. These people have all fled violence, – wars, state brutality, jihadist subjugation. Most have come with their whole family through Turkey, and then made the infamously perilous crossing to a Greek island by boat. There are also a significant number of Africans, predominantly from Western or Central countries. None of those whom I spoke to seemed intent on remaining in Greece, many I think sensing the economic stagnation there. Camp life is one of limbo, with everyone at various stages in the indefinitely long process of applying for papers – to Germany, Belgium, England. With European borders hardening under increasing social and political pressures from the right, success stories are few and far between.
The plight of these people is no longer front-page news. The constant clamour of online media has worn away our attention spans and inured us to the daily disasters. However, August of this year saw a sevenfold increase in the number of people arriving from Turkey by boat to the Greek islands. Turkey is now home to over 3.6 million Syrian refugees, and is finally beginning to buckle under this huge burden. Public resources are over-stretched, and social and political pressures mean that this once welcoming nation has now become a hostile place to be a refugee. Combined with Assad’s advance on the last rebel stronghold in Idlib, which has already pushed out 400,000 civilians with thousands more expected to follow, it seems that Europe can expect a significant influx of Syrian refugees in the coming months.
According to UNHCR, 76% of Syrian refugees hope to return to Syria one day. But Turkey appears to have begun repatriation prematurely, with reports of deportations and evictions of Syrians living there. Even with the civil war drawing to a close, Syria under Assad’s despotic rule will continue to be a very dangerous place. Over 1 million Syrian refugees are thought to be classified as “wanted”, and risk being arrested, tortured, or killed on returning to what little remains of their homes.
Strangely I felt more helpless when I was helping in the camp than I did when I wasn’t. Seeing things first-hand made me realise how hopeless the situation is for so many of these people, and the intractability of the crisis as a whole – an increasing number of asylum seekers, and a decreasing number of welcoming countries. Whilst this was demoralising at first, it reinforced the importance of the work of charities like Refugee Support. If there are going to be more and more desperate people stuck in these camps for months on end, then providing the “aid with dignity” that Refugee Support offers is key in making their situation bearable.
Nevertheless, beyond a certain point continuing to support the encampment of refugees by providing aid like in Katsikas becomes more harmful than it is helpful. Whilst refugee camps are often a practical necessity, they are necessarily temporary. Living in limbo like this for many months, and sometimes years on end is unsustainable, and undignified. These cramped and precarious conditions are unsafe, as the recent fire in Moria Camp, Lesbos, has made painfully plain.
For a brief period, the refugees in Katsikas camp were allowed to run their own small businesses. With the help of loans and grants from Refugee Support, people in the camp were able to begin setting up shops, cafes, schools. Unfortunately, the Greek authorities squashed any hopes of the independence and integration that this scheme could have cultivated by enforcing impossibly high tax rates, threatening fines or imprisonment if these were not paid.
Life in a refugee camp is really no life at all, and for this reason Refugee Support ended its work in Katsikas last month - a tough decision, and a sad moment for both the camp residents and all the volunteers. The charity has now begun to focus its energies on an exciting new project in Nicosia, Cyprus. A Dignity Centre has been set up where refugees on the island can come and learn skills, receive psycho-social support and where big meals are prepared for the refugee community there. A sewing cooperative has recently been set up where refugees are able to sell their handmade items online. This seems truer to the charity’s ethos, – ‘aid with dignity’ - recognising these people has having had normal lives before violence turned them upside down.
‘Refugee’ too easily becomes an all-encompassing, dehumanising identity – stateless, hopeless. Projects like this one in Nicosia feel like the most constructive way to face this seemingly insurmountable crisis. One of the things that stayed with me after my time in Katsikas Refugee Camp was the resilience and determination of so many of its residents - determination to carry on living their lives, supporting themselves and their families, in peace. Keeping them in refugee camps prevents them from doing this – it is an inhumane, short-term solution to a long-term problem. With the right support these people could be an asset to Europe. Their gain does not have to be our loss – by investing in their potential, everyone could benefit.