"Future Talk" and the Volunteer Tightrope
“What surprised you the most when you arrived on Lesvos?” I asked Arne, as he drove us down the deeply pockmarked mountain pass that leads to the International Rescue Committee camp. The radio in the car was broken and nobody was in the mood to listen to the tired Kings of Leon album incarcerated in the dashboard.
“That there is no plan,” he answered immediately.
“You think, of course, in a crisis of this scale, someone has a plan. They have to. But no one does. That was shocking to me.”
A German volunteer who had been on Lesvos for five months, Arne arrived largely by accident while on a gap-year bike trip across Europe with a friend. When they reached the Turkish coast from Istanbul, they hopped on the cheapest ferry that was leaving the soonest. That ferry happened to head for Mytilene, the same port in Lesvos from where thousands of refugees are transported to Athens every day. The ferry that makes the same trip as the thousands of inflatable refugee rafts do, for less than 1/100th of the price.
“In Greece, people talk and talk and talk about what to do, and at the end of all that talking, they decide to just see how it goes tomorrow.” He said, thumbing his fingers against the steering wheel. “Every damn time.”
Arne was frustrated, and he is not the only one. As a volunteer in a crisis zone, your day-to-day experience is frequently likened to ‘standing in the dark.’ If there is a plan, nobody is saying.
Instead we read the signs; try to piece together the puzzle of what will come next. We speculate, wait, and in the meantime we prepare for contingencies. What if the numbers rise to the levels of last summer? What if they close the borders and people cannot move north? What if the long gossiped about arrival of NATO changes the smugglers routes? What if boats stop coming?
The IRC camp is located on the North Shore, a thirty-minute drive from Molivos towards Skala Sikamineas, down a ragged dirt road that every car rental agency on the island refuses to allow their cars to traverse. The road turns sharply around mountain corners and large parts of it are washed away or hollowed from the winter rains. Buses cannot reach it. Instead, refugees are transported there from the beaches in vans 8-10 at a time, and out the same way. The accepted reason for the camp’s absurd location is that it is hidden. Out of sight for the small but vocal community of Greeks who oppose the relief efforts, and out of mind.
Recently, there has been a frenzy of construction at the IRC camp. They have been building tents to accommodate over 1,000 refugees overnight, but if you ask about plans to make the camp residential as well as for transit, the staff just shrug. No one knows. So we speculate, and prepare.
In theory, the IRC is equipped to handle the majority of boats coming into the north, providing refugees with clothing, food, water, warmth, and transit on UN buses to the Moria registration camp. But recently the Coast Guard has changed its procedure. Now, instead of using small boats to intercept rafts and rescue stalled boats one at a time, the Coast Guard is using its largest cargo ship to pick up multiple boats in one go, recently up to 400 refugees, and bring them directly to port in Petra, a further twenty minutes south of the IRC Camp towards Moria. UNHCR buses then pick up refugees in Petra and take them directly to Moria, cutting the IRC out of the processing. So, as the IRC camp ups its capacity, the amount of refugees being trafficked there has been dramatically reduced. But aid organizations like the IRC play a long game. They continue to build in anticipation of demand, knowing that it is more than likely that the Coastguard will change its mind once the number of boats on the water rises to last summer’s numbers, and overwhelms their new process.
However, even the best organized and well-funded operations will crumble if they cannot bring in enough resources to meet the demand of the people they are serving. If the numbers of refugees passing through the IRC were to increase to the amount that passed through OXY camp last summer, 1,000-4,000 daily, it would be nearly impossible to carry necessary supplies down the frightening mountain road. The fleet of refugee transportation buses would be insufficient to handle the volume of people needing to come in and out. No one knows what will happen, and so we wait. We will see how it goes tomorrow.
This procedural uncertainty is not unusual, and to try and understand it is more maddening than useful. Organizations that fill in the gaps, like those that provide dry clothing, food, and medical staff to the port in Petra, try to stay as limber as possible. As volunteers, we answer the calls when refugees arrive in the middle of the night, and drive where we are directed by the Coastguard, or police, or local ministers, to help those whose methods haven’t changed in years— the refugees.
To sustain ourselves, we traffic in rumors. We discuss the rumors, repeated enough that they are considered fact, but they remain what some call, “Future Talk.” We share snippets and suspicions over vegan food on camping plates at the volunteer tent, sitting on benches that are really old milk crates covered with repurposed life jackets. We mull over changes that feel tectonic and urgent, but which no one will be able to address until they happen. It could be tomorrow, it could be two weeks. So we read the signs and wait for someone to flick on the lights long enough to give us our next instructions.
Perhaps nowhere on the island is more embroiled in mystery and this “Future Talk” than Moria.
At the moment, every refugee who arrives in Lesvos is taken to Moria, the island’s only registration camp, run by the police. When refugees are deposited by UNHCR busses at the front gate, they are handed a small, hand-cut slip of printer paper with a number. Afghans and non-Arabic speakers are handed a unique number and sent to an informal registration gate at the top of the hill. Other nationalities, indicated on a piece of cardboard strapped to the chain link fence outside, register at what is called the Syrian Gate. They are given a number between 1 and 10, which indicates their registration group.
Sometimes refugees enter the compound and are immediately shuffled through registration. Timing and luck are a big part of the equation. Arrive twenty minutes later, and you can be handed a group number that will wait for hours, maybe days, to be called by Frontex to receive the papers that grant refugees temporary legality in Greece. Miss the announcement that your group number has been called and you could wait 6 hours or more to be allowed through again. If this system sounds primitive, that’s because it is.
The Moria camp itself is an old military base and detention center repurposed for refugee processing. Built from concrete on the side of a steep hill, the compound is a series of terraces with dirt and gravel slopes that turn to mud at the first touch of rain. Leaky septic pipes create constant pools around the unlit restrooms at the far edge of the compound.
The first approach to Moria is the most shocking. The antithesis of the volunteer-run camps that are covered in peace flags and bohemian tents, Moria is all grey, concrete floors, grey concrete walls, grey tin roofs. Pro-refugee graffiti is the only relief upon the high walls that encircle the compound. The walls inside are all double chain link covered in loops of barbed wire.
The refugees are free to come and go once they have their registration numbers, but the place feels like a prison. Everyone is stopped and checked for identification by surly police officers at the gate. The yellow high-visibility vests worn by volunteers act as an EZ-Pass between all the gates and entrances inside.
The energy in Moria reflects this environment. People seem to shrink as they walk up the long driveway, past the flat buildings with barred windows, behind which unaccompanied minors wait to be transferred to a camp for more vulnerable cases.
Volunteers meet new refugees when their buses arrive at the gate and, depending on the time of day, take them directly to the registration line. We use our limited Arabic to indicate this is where they should wait, and hound refugees who speak English to translate to their groups and families. When there are a large number of arrivals, the backlog in the camp is extreme. You get to know the same people by seeing them waiting to go into the family dorms night after night, waking them up to let the cleaners in each morning. You befriend their children, who quickly learn you are the weak link for candy distribution.
They ask us how long it will take. We tell them we don’t know. We worry that the more information we give them, the more panic we will cause.
Refugees arrive anxious to leave, to register and continue their journey north. Everyone wants to move through before the borders collapse around them. Last week a woman arrived in the camp, nine months pregnant and due at any moment, travelling with four children under the age of five. Volunteers begged her to stay, to transfer to a quieter camp where she could have access to medical care, where she could give birth safely. She refused, insisting over and over again that she had to get to Belgium, that she had to meet her husband. She was given a place to stay, but in the morning when the night volunteers went to check on the family, they were gone. It is easy to lose track of people here, especially those who don’t want to be found.
They ask us again and again, “When can we register? When can we leave for Macedonia?” We reply, “Sabr.” صَبْر. Patience.
When they first arrive in Moria, new volunteers lament the lack of signage and public information around the camp. Why can’t we put up signs with basic instructions for the refugees? It would ease anxiety. It would make our jobs easier. But signs with protocol are impossible to make when that protocol is in constant flux, changing every time the police change shifts, even.
“Things change every day,” a Swedish ‘I Am You’ volunteer lamented.
“Every day?” The manager of the Danish Refugee Council said, throwing himself down onto a chair. “Every five minutes!”
Once the refugees receive their registration papers, they walk out of the camp to the highway and catch a community bus to Mytilene Port, where they buy ferry tickets. The ferry, which costs about 50 Euros per person, leaves twice a day and takes twelve hours to reach Athens.
However, Greece is in the throws of constant, nationwide strikes over cost-cutting measures and pension reforms. In the month that I have been on Lesvos, the ferries have been on strike three times. The UNHCR reports that, on average, 2,000 refugees arrive on Lesvos daily. The capacity of the ferries is less than 2,000 people, and when they are not working, the refugees are forced back into camps that become overcrowded and overflow.
Starfish shares responsibility with a couple of other NGO’s in Moria for assigning people to nighttime accommodation. Nights when the camps are full, single men are asked to sleep outside on the ground. Some are provided with small camping tents to set up on the hillsides. Families with young children are booked into small dorm rooms that fit a minimum of forty people during the busy times, and individual 17.5m2 Ikea Residential Housing Units, called RHU’s, that are shared among ethnic groups with twenty to twenty-five people packed inside with their luggage. In the last month, a total of six RHU’s have been provided with heaters. The camp has fifty-eight.
The dorm rooms are reserved for nuclear families with small children. The first few weeks I worked in the Moria dorms, refugees were provided with yoga mats and blankets to sleep on, shoulder to shoulder. One morning we received a request to tidy the rooms once the cleaners were finished and install new bunked cots inside. No one knew why we were suddenly installing the cots, though they looked great. We found out later two EU ministers were touring of the camp that afternoon. Even though these scenarios feel cheap and calculated, the bunks remain in the rooms and have dramatically improved the refugee experience.
Independent volunteer organizations have only been working inside in the Moria camp since the New Year. It was previously run exclusively by frustrated police officers, unprepared for the demands of housing and feeding thousands of refugees. According to all reports, the quality of life inside the camp has radically improved in recent months, but even now, it is poor. Volunteers within my organization and others debate in meetings whether or not we should even be involved with the operation at Moria. Does working there make us complicit in the camps shockingly low humanitarian standard and track record? Some organizations do refuse to work there, or only work with Moria in an unofficial capacity. There are reports of police brutality, although I have only seen frustrated and overwhelmed police officers shout in Greek in the faces of equally overwhelmed refugees, or shove them away from the registration entrances. It is more common to see a police officer wearing a face mask, a silent but malicious way of expressing their distaste for the people in their charge, as though refugee air is unfit for them to breathe; as though they are dirty.
Who would really suffer if the NGO’s pulled out? Some argue that there will always be groups willing to enter the camp, potentially less qualified and experienced with the demands of the camp. Who cares if it sucks, if we can make it just a tiny bit better for those inside? Does working within a system to change it make you a conspirator? Working against the system, in this case, would feel like chasing a shadow. How can you improve a camp if you can’t even enter it to identify the problems?
It is difficult to imagine what it would be like to have to stay in Moria for just twenty-four hours, let alone days at a time. Housing is technically shut from 7am to 3pm daily for cleaning, and there is nowhere for refugees to sit during the day, no covered shelter on the days when it is raining. They sit on the curbs of the driveways, on their sleeping blankets along the concrete hill. We allow them back into housing in lines so that we can get accurate numbers. We use whiteboards to record where we place them for a room, but still others follow friends and family into their assigned units so it is nearly impossible to get an accurate reading. Rooms that we write have twenty people sleeping inside might well have closer to thirty.
Moria has a vested interest in keeping conditions poor, some argue. By making this journey to asylum difficult, dirty, and generally uncomfortable, you are preventing people from encouraging others to make it.
“They don’t want these people to call their brothers and cousins in Syria and say, Habibi, friend, things are great here! So easy! Come over!” said one DRC volunteer. Despite it’s truth, it seems a hollow argument when you think about what they are running from.
The harshness of the Moria camp is thrown into sharpest relief when you walk into the camp that occupies the other side of the hill, informally known as Afghan Hill, organized by Better Days For Moria. It might as well be the other side of the moon. There is music, laughter, color, labels on buildings, and signage in every available language, even an information tent. It operates there without the permission of the police, but is unofficially essential to the continual function of Moria. It provides orientation for those getting off of buses, exceptionally quick clothing distribution, warm, balanced food three times a day, day-long Chai tea and cookie service, recreation spaces, a children’s playground, and most importantly, housing for refugees in small yurts that can be occupied any time of day. On busy nights in Moria, Better Days can take in hundreds of refugees into sleeping quarters when in Moria we would have to split families up and shove four at a time into already full RHU’s, or otherwise ask them to sleep outside.
Sending refugees to these unofficial camps overnight, or for food, clothing, and information during the day is a glitch in the system that has become an irritation to the Greek and EU ministers in charge of refugees. There is a particular breed of anarchy that lives in Better Days, this ‘try and stop us’ activism that feeds their aid. When Anthi, the minister in charge of Moria, cut off their water supply, Better Days worked with their landlord to secure their own water. The volunteer food tent (responsible for 90% of the morale of those who work inside Moria and migrate across the hill for meals) adapted to the temporary draught by serving three types of salad instead of their traditional soup or rice and curry. Chai service was not uninterrupted.
Why would the government work against a group— any group— that is providing essential aid to refugees, even if it operates outside the system? Instead of shutting it down, why not find a way to make it a part of the system? Isn’t more aid better?
The new “Future Talk” surrounding Moria promises massive changes not just to the camp but the entire refugee trail through Europe. It revolves around what we are now calling Hot Spots.
It is reported that in the future, hotspots will be set up in each major arrival point for refugees in Europe: Lesvos Chios, Leros, and Samos in Greece, and others in Italy and abroad. The hotspot in Kos was rejected by its residents. Refugees will be given three days to register upon arrival in Greece, and must apply for asylum in the Hot Spots, not in their intended country of residency. Greece will hold the refugees in residence camps, run by the army, until they are either granted asylum and redistributed throughout Europe, or deported.
The building of the army’s camp has begun, but no one is sure when the camps will become active. No one knows if NGO’s will be needed to provide necessary humanitarian support or resources inside, given that the Army is broke. It is still all Future Talk. Whether the refugees will be deported back to Turkey or not remains a contentious debate. Turkey is already the home to 2.5 million refugees, compared to Europe’s 1 million, and does not want to become a dumping ground for refugees that cannot be sent back to their home countries.
Greece is under deadline to complete the hotspot construction or face expulsion from the Schengen Zone, a fate it might suffer anyway. Meanwhile, Greece continues to strain under the pressure to deal with the refugee crisis. Many fear that the hotspots will turn into a bottleneck, or lead to Greece becoming a “warehouse” for refugees as more European countries, separated from the crisis by geography, feel validated in closing their borders or capping the number of accepted refugees.
The refugees also ask us about the future, always thinking one more step ahead. It was rumored that the Balkan route would close in 1-2 days, and for some it has. Afghans coming through the camp ask us what we know about the Macedonian border, which has followed its northern neighbor Serbia and closed its border out of fear Afghan refugees would be stranded inside their country, unable to move forward and unwilling to travel backwards to Greece. They ask us, “What should we do?”
The Afghan situation is complicated by the Iranians, who, considered economic migrants, are no longer being granted asylum in most countries. The Iranians who have made this journey are desperate people with nothing to lose, and so they continue their giant gamble. Many Iranians and have begun paying opportunistic smugglers upwards of 1000 for forged Afghan papers. It is not uncommon to find discarded Iranian registration papers or passport covers on the side of the road or along the beaches. Until a better system for identifying forged papers is developed, all Afghans will suffer in this forced limbo. Perhaps more will attempt to pass north through Bulgaria, a notoriously dangerous route.
As a volunteer in Moria, you feel the weight of this anxiety. Absent is the optimism bursting forth when they arrive on the beaches. In Moria you are powerless to help the refugees through the lines and with the police, so you do the best you can to make their days a little better. You answer questions the best you can, you help them into the correct housing lines. In the mornings when you clean the rooms you find mounds of discarded clothes, things once thought valuable now discarded in the face of the road ahead. In the evenings, you fix bottles of formula for babies, some arriving so small, born just a day or two before in a coastal Turkish hotel. You play games with children while you wait for their parents to pack their backpacks, bringing only things they can carry with them. You bring bubbles down to the registration line to provide any distraction.
My favorite thing is to take a giant bag of lollipops and walk through the camp at the end of the day. It makes people smile, I tell myself, but I know the reason I do it is entirely selfish. After a day spent in Moria, the only thing that makes you feel any better about Moria is to forget that you are there, to laugh and fool around with the children, to make people smile. The distraction is a mutual one.
Future Talk affects the Greeks too. There is talk of the summer ahead, of a poor tourist season. Vacation rentals are rumored to be at 40% of what they were last year when there were refugees sleeping in the streets for kilometers up from the harbor, with some claiming they are close to 80% down. For a community in a floundering economy that relies on summer tourist business, people are nervous about what is to come. People in the face of such a disruption to the way they live have a difficult time balancing the money they are making from volunteers in the winter, or volun-tourism in the summer, with the money they expect to lose. The Future Talk that dominates the island is fearful. People want a plan, but again they go home and say, we will see what happens tomorrow.
While we plan for every contingency, there are some we do not anticipate. As of last Friday, Starfish received a phone call from the minister in charge of Moria giving the organization 24 hours notice that their services would no longer be required in the camp. No explanation was given. Every organization that works inside the camp was surprised, and frustrated. In the days that followed, it was revealed that other groups on the island were eager to be involved inside the camp, and so it was decided by the authorities that groups should rotate. While it seems incomprehensible to treat a refugee camp like a swing set at a playground, where everyone gets a turn, to protest, fight, or even understand, is to drive yourself mad.
The volunteer inside Moria who runs the clothing distribution inside the dorms explained that when he first started providing clothing, unofficially, to refugees in Moria (necessary since many arrive drenched from head to toe) he was asked to leave. Then he was asked to come back a week later, but was not allowed to distribute clothing, only help manage the dorms. He then received an irate message asking why he was no longer providing refugees with clothing. Telling the story, he throws up his hands in resigned submission. We do what we can, in the boundaries we are given, because that it why we are here.
So we wait, and plan, and listen to the rumblings of Future Talk. We will see what happens tomorrow.