by Costas Efimeros
Justine Grace Swaab is a journalist from Holland, she is the founder of the "Crossing Channels" initiative which collects stories of refugees who are trying to built a life in Europe. She participates in the Facebook group "Save refugees on their way to Europe
" and offers countless hours in helping them. This is a new globalized form of solidarity, via the social media, which involves people from all around the world. They have created a system of self administration similar to that of national intelligence services. They collect information about the refugees, who contact them via their mobile phones, but they don't stop at that.
Two nights ago, Justine took over the administration of a "case" in order to relieve its previous administrator for a few hours. That particular case concerned the almost three hundred castaways which landed in the islet of Farmakonisi once the boat that carried them got wrecked. Among them were women, children and a pregnant woman.
The administration undertakes to register the refugees, to warn the authorities and the various solidarity organizations and to follow the development of the case every minute. She reached us while trying to check on a rumor about four missing Iraqi refugees for whom several people claimed that they were dead.
These people have managed to create an incredible worldwide web of journalists, psychologists and members of humanitarian organizations and they will not stop until they have double-checked every piece of information. I doubt that any state run company would be as effective.
Before contacting us, Justine had already spoken to Anna, a well known activist in Leros. She had already briefed her about the claims of the refugees that they had been stranded for three days without food or water in Farmakonisi as well as the rumor about the four dead Iraqis. Anna started searching for the refugees, using her mobile phone to show photos of the missing men that the group administrators had procured. She was able to ascertain the claims about the lack of food and water and she also found the four men after 12 hours of search and contacts with the police and the various hospitals. The alarm was "turned off" and the "case" closed when one of the refugees wrote to Facebook: "we are well, we were given food, thank you very much!"
This impressive collaboration is known between the refugees and now thousands of Syrians know about that Facebook group, even before they board the boats to cross the Aegean sea. Sarah Chaara is in the US. She was also an administrator of the 300 "case" for several hours. "We now know how many boats leave Turkey, how many people are on them as well as their coordinates and destination" she says. "We have all this information that the national infrastructure cannot collect, yet when we try to inform the coast guard they treat us as if we are mad".
There are many complains about the coast guard of Leros and Lesvos. Those who are truly willing to help seem to be few and, when we tried to speak to the port authorities of Lesvos it was only once we had revealed that we were journalists that they started speaking to us more openly. There are only three coast guard vessels in Lesvos and only one of them is big. The communication between the coast guard of Leros and the solidarity initiatives is not better either.
These days, due to the bad weather, the influx of refugees has trickled down. In Leros the area of "first intercept" was completely empty for a few hours. At the same time, the administrators of the Facebook group from the US, Australia, Holland and Hong Kong knew that, in Farmakonisi, there were 300 refugees, wet, sleepless, without food or water. In the end a coast guard boat managed to approach the islet and rescue the women, children and those in medical emergency. More than 150 people had to wait for one more day, still without food or water, stranded on the barren islet.
Matina Katsivelis is a well known solidarity figure in the island of Leros. For more than fifteen years she has dedicated her life to caring for those who are most downtrodden. "Society in Greece and abroad has been impressively motivated" she says "I have never seen anything similar. We have already managed to gather the money needed in order to get the equipment needed to organize a "primary intercept" centre in an old PIKPA building. Still bureaucracy has to give way. There is no more time. Winter is coming".
Last year, Mrs. Katsiveli helped almost 3000 refugees survive through the winter. But these were 3000 people in a year. Now the refugees are more than 15000. "The problems will remain" she notes, "we cannot make it through the winter with water up to our knees. Last year, with the help of the Minister T.Christodoulopoulou we were able to operate the "Vila Artemis" which is large enough and we could accommodate some people. This year only mothers and infants stay there. It cannot decently accommodate more than 40-50 people. A solution must be found".
The solution is becoming harder due to the different opinion of the Mayor, Michalis Kolias, who supports the use of the psychiatric clinic as a "primary intercept" centre. And that, besides the fact that PIKPA has been approved, containers are already in place, and its large grounds have been fenced in order to protect the almost 50 patients who are there. "It makes no sense to use the psychiatry clinic, it already accommodates 250 patients, it's a thought as a place to "put away" people. Especially since mere bureaucratic details cause the delay of the PIKPA centre. We must not get caught in the raining season. It is useless to offer dry clothes to the refugees and then send them in the open to spend the night in the rain".
The PIKPA centre cannot be completed until a Minor Repair Study is done (that concerns the insulation of some areas and the repair of the toilets) by the city planning commission. The commission housed in the town hall. The formal excuse is that the funding is not available but many humanitarian helpers believe that this is not the truth. Particularly since the mayor's wife has recently created a NGO in Denmark which collects money, aiming at 1ml euros, in order to use the psychiatric clinic as a "primary intercept" centre".
" We are optimistic because to motivation of the society has gone beyond countries, governments and everything else" says Mrs.Katsiveli, "We now have 70 pallets with aid stocked away at the transit company since we don't have enough space to receive and go through them. We have enough clothes, we now need milk for the babies and diapers. People from all over the world have come here to help us".
One of them is Elisabeth Dimitra. She has been in Lesvos for some days now and is trying to help in any way she can. Things are different than in the small island of Leros. There are thousands of refugees. Before the call for national elections, in August, the refugees were more than the actual inhabitants of the island. More than 30000 people had occupied every corner of the island. As the tourist period comes to an end, the passenger ships to Athens have more space and the situation seems to lighten up. Yet Elisabeth is warning that:"the situation is getting worse again day by day. There are reports which are talking about a million new refugees ready to come into Greece in October. Lines are forming again for a portion of food and the tension is growing. We have had to exclude people who lost their patience. Elisabeth is also a member of the Facebook group and offers her help in the infrastructure, the search for the appropriate authorities as well as on the field. We spoke to her as she was buying garbage bags, out of her own money, in order to make the situation better in OXY, an informal welcome centre in a nowhere land between Molivos and Petra. When we asked what they needed her answer was: "Buses, buses, buses". People are stacked in an inappropriate place. They are holding pieces of coloured paper and they are waiting for the buses. "Somebody tells you to go and gather those who are holding a paper with a tree drawn on it" she says "you then have to go without knowing how to say tree in Arabic and try to communicate". After that, those who have the right colour and drawing get into a bus and head ,according to their country of origin, to the relevant centres where they are identified and registered".
"Communication between the humanitarian agencies is not good" Elisabeth tells us. In Lesvos some big humanitarian organizations are operating. The UNCHR who is building 200 small houses with IKEA resources, Action Aid, Agalia and the Save the Children. "Today we learned that a dead body was found in the sea, but other than that there is no more information. The NGO's don't communicate between them and there is no one here to organize those who are here to help without being a member of one of those organizations".
Elisabeth has to take initiative like the one she took when she decided to buy the garbage bags. In the area of Petra there is also an abandoned military base which could operate as a decent welcome area now that winter is close. We are informed that the mayor has asked the Minister of Defense for permission to use it yet the base remains closed. The reason might be that some of the islanders protested against that in a seating protest where they had brought chairs form their homes. The image of the well fed, dry and secure inhabitant who sits in his chair in order to demonstrate his apathy for his fellow human being is too sad to even ridicule.
Elisabeth tells us that the situation is a little better now, "but this wont' last long. The good weather and the increase of passenger ships (who took refugees from the islands and moved them to the mainland) helped lighten the burden. But winter is coming and we are not prepared for that. There are not enough shelters and even the small houses that UNCHR is building are not better than tents. There are rumours that bigger shelters will be built but these are not going to be ready before the weather gets cold".
When asked what the major problem is she answers: "Communication and organization. The coast guard is not cooperative, the NGO's don't speak to each other, the Municipality has not created an infrastructure of cooperation and planning, the volunteers run around without any kind of schedule or given task".
It seems that through the Web the coordination is better than on the field. A report of Leros Refugee Aid confirms just that: "There are people from all over the world who arrive with money or aid and are trying to distribute it. However, these acts of good will sometimes achieve the opposite results as, because of the lack of coordination, there are areas where help is in over-abundance and others where there is none'.
Sarah, who takes over the administration of "cases" when the European volunteers need a few hour's rest. Justine who tries to find anyone who can help and facilitate any kind of communication with the authorities. Anna who transfers sick people to Leros hospital while showing pictures in order to identify missing persons. Matina who has dedicated her every day to those who have only now made it in the news (and who were not called refugees last year). Elisabeth who hates the capital controls because she cannot withdraw enough money to give to those she sees everyday around her. All of them are links to a amazing and unprecedented chain of solidarity that crosses above the borders of the country.
This is a ray of hope in a society rife with apathy.
Besides the thousands of volunteers, and those islanders who have opened their homes to the refugees, there are also those who charge the refugees in order to let them charge their phones or rush to loot the motors off the inflatable boats that carry the refugees over the sea.
It is not only the case of the Mayor of Leros who is trying to transfer the welcome centre to another area than the one proposed by the NGO's, and which is almost ready. It is not only the empty military base which is out of use.
The unprecedented situation, due to the increased influx of refugees, has also increased the funds available to the islands local government. With the heavy winter that is coming, one would imagine that the mayors could simply rent the hotels that remain empty in the off season in order to house those who cannot afford to pay for shelter (there are many among them who can). However, the hotel owners are not willing to do that as we were able to find out for ourselves. We called three hotels in order to book rooms. During every call we were asked if we wanted the rooms for ourselves or for refugees. Once we answered that we needed them for refugees we were told that all three hotels were fully booked.
Barney Larsen is also one of those who participate in the international solidarity network. He is in Leros and offers his help according to the needs that arise day by day:"we look at the weather and we don't know if we want it to be good or bad. In the past few days it has been worse so the influx is less but we are expecting that it will soar up to 300-400 refugees per day". Barney is a Norwegian and has been living in Leros for the past three years. He is a member of the Leros Solidarity Network and he tries to coordinate those volunteers who arive on their own in the island. When we asked him what he thinks will happen during the winter he answers:"it is imperative that a solution be found but my feeling is that something is happening on a political level which I cannot understand". He is not the only one. Recently a section of the solidarity network in which the wife of the mayor of Leros participates left the organization amidst rumours of corruption.
The "internet volunteers" find all that hard to comprehend. Armed with their keyboards and their telephones they continue trying to help. Sometimes they despair at the flaws of humanity yet it is true that a computer monitor does not reflect all the ugly reality. In recent post, AJ+ presented a lifejacket salesman from Turkey who was selling lifejackets filled with grass. "The refugees have the false feeling that they are secure, yet some of those lifejackets will absorb water" said Mustafa on camera, "they are made with inferior materials but we also have good ones if they can afford them".
Last week the ITV also published a video showing a Turkish coastguard boat as it messed with a boat with refugees until it got wrecked. The refugees complain that the Turkish authorities will hinder those who buy their own boats without using the trafficker's connections. The flaws of humanity...
In the television news, the numbers of dead who get washed on the Aegean shores is gradually becoming less urgent information. The worldwide shock that was caused by the image of the young Aylan led to yet more anesthetization towards the cruelty of our western way of life. It is not unlike the Hollywood splatters where the director is constantly trying to show an even more gruesome scene in order to jolt the viewer.
In the Aegean islands the scary movie is becoming reality. And "winter is coming".