Thousands of refugees on Greek islands risk losing vital services as charities prepare to withdraw

'Who’s going to do child protection services on the island? Who’s going to do education? Who’s going to do the food?'

Robert Trafford
Sunday 21 May 2017 14:57 BST
Afghan refugees on the Greek island of Chios
Afghan refugees on the Greek island of Chios

Thousands of refugees in Greece are at risk of losing vital support as charities prepare to withdraw services from camps on the country’s “hotspot” islands, as changes to EU funding are set to leave them out of contract by the end of July.

The Greek government will take over funding and managing support services to the camps on 31 July, but aid organisations fear the prospect of a “humanitarian gap” resulting from a poorly planned transition.

Non-governmental organisations (NGOs) on the islands have received millions of euros from ECHO, the European Commission’s humanitarian division, to provide services from laundry and clothing distribution to maritime rescue and child protection.

But officials confirmed this week that the way in which ECHO supports the response to the crisis is changing. As a result, the allocation of funding, as well as the selection of projects to be funded, will soon become the sole responsibility of the Greek authorities.

“Reception facilities in the islands will be supported via the national programme,” said a European Commission spokesperson. “Funding channelled through the national programme is not managed directly by the Commission, but via the national authority responsible in Greece.”

A spokesperson for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) said the situation is part of the process of “moving from emergency response to a sustainable system”.

“The Greek government will assume greater responsibilities and take over services which are presently provided by UNHCR and the broader humanitarian community,” he said. “UNHCR supports the government throughout this transition.”

But the manner in which the proposed handover has been communicated has raised alarm, with some NGOs and local authorities relying on hearsay and rumours while others have received official instruction.

“People just don’t know what’s going to happen,” said Nicholas Millet of Be Aware and Share (BAAS), a Swiss NGO which oversees a school project on the island of Chios. “There are no clear plans for handovers or transitions, the Government hasn’t said what they’re going to take over or not.”

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Greek Migration Minister Yiannis Mouzalas recently described the current situation on the island as reaching breaking point, after a spate of problems including suicide attempts amongst the refugee population and violent attacks by far-right groups.

“Who’s going to do child protection services on the island?” said Millet. “Who’s going to do education? Who’s going to do the food?”

The Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) currently runs two restaurants serving eight hundred meals three times a day to refugees on Chios. Director of NRC’s Greek programme Gianmaria Pinto confirmed that the NGO would cease its operations there on the cut-off date, but that it would be prepared to resume services quickly if asked to.

Pinto said the decision was communicated to NRC in mid March. “The services we provide will keep running until July and then after that it’s the government – through Greek NGOs, municipalities, whatever they decide.”

Pinto encouraged the national and local government to work with NGOs to ensure a safe transition. “The municipality has to be informed and they have to start working. If they decide to hire a Greek NGO, fine. If they ask NRC to stay, we are ready to do that.”

A spokesperson for Save the Children confirmed that the organisation was also in the dark. “We’re still waiting for information about funding and operations on the islands,” she said. “It’s unclear yet how camps and services for refugees and migrants will be managed.”

On Chios island, two members of the municipal government confirmed this week that they had received no official communication from Athens regarding the change.

Pinto also said he feared for the future of the NRC’s recently opened community centre. “The day we opened we knew we would have to leave,” he said. “But it’s becoming a humanitarian hub, lots of agencies use the space.”

Médecins du Monde (MDM) provide medical services on the island of Lesvos, which is home to over 4,000 refugees, according to UNHCR. Their operations in Moria, the island’s state-run refugee camp, will stop at the end of May.

According to the president of MDM in Greece, Nikitas Kanakis, the organisation was originally told by the Greek government in March that they would have to leave Moria by the end of April, after which they began reducing staff numbers on the island. Around a week later, Kanakis said, “it was clear that they couldn’t start. They couldn’t find the people they needed and they needed more time.”

MDM were subsequently asked to remain on the island for another month. “We want to help, but it’s not easy, because we have announced to staff that their contract has finished. Now we have to ask them to return.”

Kanakis said a team from the organisation would remain on the island to report on conditions and potential human rights violations within the camp, and expressed concern that vulnerable adults and children within the camp may fall through the cracks during the handover process.

“It’s not an established team that will move from another place to there,” he said. “I have a lot of reasons to believe they won’t find all the staff that they need. But hopefully they will do it. We are waiting to see.

“It’s not a bad idea that the state will take over the camps,” Kanakis added. “The question is just how they will do it, and in a lot of cases they don’t have the experience.”

Pinto agreed that in terms of “ownership and long-term sustainability”, it was important to eventually return management of the islands to the national authorities.

“In theory this is a good step forward for the government,” he said. “In practice, though, what NRC doesn’t want to see in August is humanitarian gaps. It’s now the moment to boil down this political decision into an action plan. We still have time, the end of July is not tomorrow. But it’s not very far.”

Millet said the move had been a long time coming, but needed to be handled well. “If the government is going to take over services they need to think about how they effectively transition over from the NGOs. We are supportive of the government to take over the services but we need to know how, and we’ll support it.”

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