12 February 2016

From Skala Sykamnias, a tiny, touristy, fishing village on the north shore of the Greek island of Lesvos, you can see the coast of Turkey 6km away. All over the opposite hillside refugees from Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq and all over the world camp out, waiting to try to make it across. I spent a month in Skala, from December to January, working with a volunteer crew to receive these people.

Arrivals are relentless, every day, usually before dawn to avoid detection, hundreds take their chances on a flimsy rubber dinghy. By morning, the camps are packed with refugees, children, babies, women and men, young and old.

Volunteers are the only ones there to meet them, to give out dry clothes and a hot drink and to explain where they are and what comes next. In this tiny village of just 300 permanent residents, they don’t know what has hit them. Volunteer teams have taken the place over.

Up until when I left, there were no big NGOs operating in Skala, although it is one of the busiest arrival spots. The local government of the island was trying to get a handle on the situation and warning of a crack-down, saying ‘unregistered’ volunteers were causing chaos. But the chaos exists anyway due to the level of arrivals and the lack of infrastructure or coordinated, official response. Individual, unaffiliated volunteers and small local groupings are simply showing up and doing the work that so clearly needs to be done.

The Greek coastguard by themselves are not rescuing every dinghy in distress, and there are no “official” ground-teams or state-provided medics on the scene. Indeed, even with the combined efforts of the coastguard and volunteer teams, there are still all too many days when a painful quiet comes over Skala, following news of more drownings, or people dying even after making it to shore from hypothermia.

For the past ten days, a pilot project is being tested by the authorities, whereby refugee boats are systematically intercepted at sea by large coastguard boats, which then take passengers directly to registration points. It is unclear whether this system will be continued in the long-term, but it does mean less pressure on small towns like Skala, and reduces the risk of drownings.

Meanwhile, however, if boats are stopped by the Turkish coastguard before entering Greek waters, they are being pushed back. Volunteers can see this happening from the beach of Skala. According to the refugees I met, if the Turkish coastguard push your boat back, everybody on board will be subject to violence and detained in Turkey for three days, before being released to, inevitably, attempt the crossing again.

Volunteers step in where State authorities fail

All over Europe at the moment, the refugee crisis is being handled by volunteers; they welcome the boats in Skala, provide information and tents at the border at Eidomeni between Greece and FYROM, give out hot tea to asylum seekers queueing for registration in Germany, they are there at every stage of refugees’ journey through Europe. In a crisis where we are witnessing the abject and utter failure of official channels to respond and to cope, ordinary people of Europe and all over the world are stepping in to plug the gaps.

This reliance on volunteers is not without problems; there is no safeguarding whatsoever for children, for example. A volunteer with bad intentions would face very little accountability for the actions they could quite easily perpetrate. There is obviously a lack of professionalism, a lack of people who are trained and equipped to help vulnerable or traumatised people. There is a lack of legal expertise, and a danger that even well-intentioned, but legally incoherent, immigration advice given to refugees by untrained volunteers could backfire and result in more difficulties.

There appears to be, at present, however, no alternative. Where large NGOs and International Organisations are conspicuous in their absence, and where state authorities are unable or unwilling to provide for the basic needs of people arriving, volunteers are providing a vital service. When people arrive in Europe, thinking they have finally found a safe place to start a new life after fleeing from terrible things, I am glad that despite the chaos and the failure of many states to respect their obligations and treat them humanely, there are still people there to say “refugees welcome!”

Zoe Gardner is Communications Officer at Asylum Aid and an activist for refugee and migrants’ rights. She volunteered receiving refugees arriving by boat from Turkey with the Platanos Refugee Solidarity camp on Lesvos from December 2015-January 2016.


This article appeared in the ECRE Weekly Bulletin of 12 February 2016. You can subscribe to the Weekly Bulletin here.