“We’ve Had Children Dying When Their Boat Capsizes, Now We Are Potentially Faced With Deaths Inside the Camps”

Kate

Kate O'Sullivan

Communications Manager, Save the Children Greece

Lesvos, Greece

October 28, 2015

Here on the Greek island of Lesvos we’ve been hit by winter. A three-day storm brought chaos and desperation during a week that saw the highest numbers of arrivals onto the island for the whole year. 48,000 people had arrived by dinghy across the Greek islands over just five days, which is more than all of last year combined. The island of Lesvos saw over 27,000 alone, and all at the worst possible time.

In normal circumstances, a storm shouldn’t be a problem on a Greek island. But on Lesvos, and across all the travel routes from here to north Europe, the lack of shelter and basic services means people fleeing war and extreme poverty are facing unthinkable conditions. On Lesvos, there have been two transits camps. Moria was for non-Syrians, predominantly those from Afghanistan. Syrians stay in Kara Tepe, and have a quicker registration process. The services in Kara Tepe have always been better; the majority of people coming here are Syrians so the majority of the response has been there, but it’s not acceptable and the consequences are now more apparent than ever.

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Save the Children aid workers distribute hot meals at Moria camp. We are maknig sure no child or family goes hungry.

Save the Children works in both camps, as do other agencies, and we provide a cooked meal once every day for between 2,000–8,000 people, depending on how many people are there. We also run a safe space for children, and for mothers who need to feed their children, as well as identifying the most vulnerable families who need extra support. We work to improve systems to protect children, especially the most vulnerable like those who are separated from their family or who arrive here alone. But there have never been enough services in Moria and every day our team works with children and families who need extra help whenever we come across them, finding doctors, getting information, referring people to other support. Recently, the camps were thrown into disarray again as registration processes were changed and Syrians were brought to register in Moria as well. People were moved back and forth between the camps, causing delays and a backlog of people stuck on the island. A direct consequence of this was the chaos that we saw during the storm, and so much unnecessary suffering.

In Moria camp, I was stopped in my tracks by a child shivering uncontrollably. She was unable to walk or make eye contact, her hands and lips were literally blue. Her mother was nearby, also unable to walk. One of our team members picked up the little girl and the rest of us carried the mother to Medecins Sans Frontieres, a medical aid agency. A crowd was gathered outside; there are just too many people in need of doctors. Minutes later, we found three young men unconscious with hypothermia, whose friends had dragged them through a hole in a fence into the camp. Working with UN staff and volunteers, we did everything we could for them while we waited for the one of two ambulances on the island to take them

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People desperately trying to find shelter at Moria camp, Greece

to hospital. One of the men regained consciousness, and tears of pain and complete anguish began to run down his face as we desperately rubbed his hands and feet to try and get any warmth into them. Like thousands of others, including children, they had been forced to sleep for three days in the field next to the transit camps because the queue for non-Syrians to be registered had been moved outside to make way for the new system. Right now, there are no toilets for those waiting in the queues outside the camp, so feces mix into the flowing streams of water. Save the Children is working with other agencies provide basic sanitation facilities but with systems and the context always changing, we need to constantly change plans to make sure we can support children wherever the needs are greatest.

Only families who had been registered were allowed to sleep inside the transit camp but that is not much better. Moria is on a hill, and most of it isn’t graveled so the rainwater turned nearly the entire area into a mud bath. The skin on every last child’s hands and feet was completely shriveled from being in water and mud for three days. People had resorted to lighting fires in the tents and porta cabins to try and get warm, and smoke billowed throughout the camp. People who’ve fled Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan, who’ve faced unbelievable violence and poverty, were breaking down in tears at what was happening. A woman from Afghanistan who was waiting in our food distribution line with her children reached out and clung to me, sobbing into my shoulder, clearly having reached her limit and needing some kind of comfort, even from a complete stranger. All day long, people were pleading for help from anybody. Mothers wrapped their babies in rubbish bags trying to keep them dry, and fathers held plastic bags over the heads of their children. We gave out all our stocks of blankets and dry clothes but there just wasn’t enough. The lack of dignity these people were facing was shocking to see, even for aid workers like us at Save the Children who’ve worked in camps, conflict areas and natural disasters for years.

To date, we’ve had children dying when their boat capsizes as they try to reach Greece by sea. But now we know for sure that we are potentially faced with deaths inside the camps.

At the border between Greece and the former Yugoslavian republic of Macedonia (FYROM), where people move onwards after the islands, the first snows are expected next month. Though there are more systems in place there, when they cross over the border, they have nothing but the clothes they wear to protect them from the elements. Save the Children is running a safe space for children there, as well as supporting the most vulnerable children who need extra help, and will be distributing warm clothes, boots and blankets for children. But we already are seeing people wearing plastic bags inside their shoes or sandals, or using litter bags as makeshift raincoats. With border crossing taking place through the night, it’s harrowing for children and adults to be making the 1.5km walk between the Greece and FYROM border, in the dark, marshalled by armed border guards and corralled through as part of a stressed and tired group of people.

Along the journey refugees and migrants take, Save the Children, UN agencies and other international agencies, along with tireless volunteer groups, are doing everything they can. But it is just not enough. The past week has been just a glimpse of what lies ahead in the coming months and it’s terrifying to think that a child could die here after they have arrived in Greece. More must be done for the thousands of child refugees and migrants who arrive here and move onwards in the hopes of safety and a better life.

To learn more about our response to the refugee crisis, click here.

Preparing for Winter as Refugees Arrive in Lesbos

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Mark Buttle

Water, Sanitation and Hygiene Program Emergency Response Personnel

Lesbos, Greece

October 20, 2015

 Arriving at the airport on Lesbos for my flight home I realized that, for a change, I was early and it being 4:45 a.m., that the airport was closed! I walked across the road to the beach, wondering how many refugees were crossing the dark sea before me at that very moment, some of whom head directly for the bright lights of the coastal airport. All was quiet, so I sat down on the wall of a tiny chapel, where I could keep an eye out, and allowed myself to doze.  
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A boat full with refugees arrives on the Greek island of Lesvos

Yesterday it had been all hands on deck as all available staff scrambled to assist with the distribution of a daily meal at Moria transit camp, completely over capacity yet again with a new influx of refugees. With thousands of people crammed into a space far too small, every available Save the Children person was wearing our red t-shirt, as over 2,000 hot dinners were served. Luckily they didn’t run out and everyone got their share.

At Moria transit camp, Save the Children has coordinated with MSF and the local government to improve hygiene conditions. As winter approaches, I know that we will need to provide hot water in the showers: in fact we will need to winterise the camp as a whole, providing better drainage as well. The existing shower block doesn’t have a roof, has no windows, and puddles form on the cracked and missing tiles of the floor: there is only cold water. Kids lose heat more quickly than adults, so they will try to avoid washing if that entails using freezing cold water. At the moment, comic shrieks can be heard as reluctant children jump under chilly jets of water. Warm water could be considered a luxury, but it is not funny to see a four-year-old crying and shivering uncontrollably, especially as many of these children are already sick and exhausted.

On Kos there are no public toilets that are really suitable for women, and new toilets have insufficient water available and are in terrible states as they are used by far more people than they are designed to. Meanwhile refugees camping on the seafront are on the promenade, literally a few feet above the sea. During the next storm they will be soaked by crashing waves.

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A mother and her young son wait to be registered at an informal camp in Lesvos so they can be transferred to Athens

As I sat on my wall, I was brought back to reality by the faint but distinct sound of a young child’s voice. They were coming. But instead of a boat landing in front of me, a bedraggled line of people appeared on the coastal road: they had arrived south of the airport, with quite a walk ahead of them to get to the transit camps, where they need to go to register before they can move onwards with their journey. “Baba…” a two-year old said to his dad, who was carrying him on his shoulders. “How far?” a man asked me simply. I could have said, “A ferry ride to the Greek mainland, then another bus or train ride to the border, then walking or catching buses through Macedonia, Serbia, Hungary, Croatia and Austria, crossing borders with no idea how to, or where to go; no idea what will happen when you arrive, or if you will be welcome, and no idea what will happen to your children over the coming years as they try to fit into a new society.” Instead I said, “About 6 miles to the registration point. Good luck.”

To learn more about our response to the refugee crisis, click here.

After Fleeing Danger, Children Deserve a Warm Welcome

carolyn lesvosI am just back from the island of Lesvos in the southeastern part of Greece, where I was visiting our programs for refugees who have made the perilous crossing from Turkey. It is a surreal experience: on the one hand a beautiful island with lovely small towns where vacationers from Europe flock in the summer months; on the other hand, a beach strewn with deflated rafts, substandard lifejackets and water bottles, with soaked families huddled together after a rough journey across the strait from Turkey. This far-flung island off of Greece is now the first landing point for thousands of refugees fleeing from Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq.

 

The trip can be deadly for children. The night I arrived in Lesvos, a one-year-old died in the chaos when he fell into the middle of an overcrowded raft packed with more than 30 people. In the dark, the baby drowned in a few feet of water before his mother could find him in the jumble of people.

 
As I sat and talked to families waiting in line for a bus which would take them down the coast to the registration camp, I was struck by the enormous hardships these families had endured along the way – and the fact that this is only their first stop in a long journey through Europe’s many borders. Many had been first displaced in their own countries by conflict, often living for years under fire, experiencing danger and violence on a regular basis. Finally they felt unable to endure another day of fear, lack food or medical services and no school for their children. They had all made the difficult decision to use all their remaining resources to try to start new lives in Europe.

 

Their journeys through Iran, Turkey, Lebanon and other routes were often marred by tragedy. One mother and grandmother cried as they described to me leaving behind a 9-year-old boy who was separated at the Lebanon/Turkey border and was denied a visa to cross with them. Another young mother told me about the birth of her 14-day-old baby while they were in Iran – on the way to Turkey from Iraq – with no hospital or help available. Despite her advanced pregnancy, she and her husband were forced to flee from ISIS and a life of constant danger. And parent after parent told me that their children had now been out of school for years and they needed to give them their future back.
In the face of this massive wave of people (more than 160,000 reached Lesvos in the month of September alone), Save the Children has been working to make lives easier. Rather than enduring the 40-mile walk, often in brutal temperatures, from where the boats land to the registration camp, Save the Children and other partners have rented buses to take families down the mountainous road. Once at the camp, we distribute hygiene kits and blankets for mothers and children who come with almost nothing but will be facing Europe’s cold winter temperatures. We have our signature child-friendly space set up so that kids can spend even a few hours playing games, getting colorful drawings painted on to their faces. These spaces bring a smile to a child that has often not smiled for many months. We also look for those children having the hardest time coping and refer them for more help. And each afternoon, we supply a cooked meal to over 3,000 people – often the only meal they may get that day.

 

The young staff here from all over the world are tremendously hard working, living together and working all hours seven days a week – they seem to never stop thinking about ways they can make our work better and respond to ever-changing demands. As those fleeing war and persecution continue to arrive, we must all remain committed to meeting their needs to the best of our ability – so that these children don’t have to spend more of their young lives in fear.

 

I am struck by one little boy I met on Lesvos named Hassan, who told me that what he wanted more than anything was to have a home again, and to not be scared. Surely this most basic request is not too much for a little boy, only 8, to ask of us.