Visiting a refugee camp in Greece

One of the most discussed global issues this past year has been the “European refugee crisis”. When I was in Greece this week, I visited a refugee camp for the first time. I wasn’t sure what to expect but I knew the best way to understand the situation was to speak with those affected and experience their environment for myself.

The camp we visited was Skaramagas which is located a short distance from Athens. It is run by the navy and operated by NGOs; we met with representatives from both as well as the refugees living there. I was there alongside a few of my colleagues from the World Economic Forum Global Shapers.

Hosting 3450 refugees, Skaramagas is the largest refugee camp on mainland Greece. As a former navy shipyard, the camp is one of the most developed in infrastructure. Most people resided in container homes equipped with small kitchenettes, washrooms, heating, and beds for eight. There were also over a hundred undocumented refugees who were sleeping in tents. As we go into the winter months, there is growing stress and concern for how those living in tents will cope. In many other refugee camps, relying on a flimsy tent for shelter is an everyday reality.

As a displaced person seeking asylum, having your legal papers means everything. If you don’t have your papers, you are not recognized as a person by the government and hence ineligible for distributions and services. It shocked me how much emphasis one piece of paper had — it could make or break the course of a refugee’s life.

Most of the residents were Syrian nationals, followed by Afghans and Iraqis. Nationality plays a significant role in the entire asylum-seeking process as only nationals from countries that meet a certain threshold of refugee status are eligible for relocation. Almost half of the residents in the camp are children. In Skaramagas, a small school has been established where around 600 children receive 90 minutes of schooling per week, focusing on lessons like languages and maths.

Political conflict seemed to follow the refugees wherever they go. The camp residents and administrators alike cited security issues to be a major problem in the camps, with no security enforcement present and a very small staff to resident ratio. Fights and violence break out every night, often between different nationalities due to things like food and distributions. The residents do not feel safe where they live.

I think because we were walking with the navy commander and looked visibly different, we were repeatedly stopped by the residents greeting us with requests for aid. When would the septic tanks be fixed? Would the pipes finally be mended? What about the food? When I asked one of the refugees how long he’d been here for, he promptly responded with “7 months and 12 days”. Every morning he’d wake up and count the days.

The frustration felt by the residents and camp administrators was tangible. Both parties are waiting on something bigger to be done. This thing seemed to be a change from government and policy.

Generally, what we saw took us by surprise. Skaramagas is not fully representative of the other refugee camps out there; it is mostly in a basically decent condition and the reality is worse in many other camps. With the winter months quickly approaching, it is difficult to imagine the challenges that face the refugees ahead. Many are still sleeping in tents and most camps are already over capacity.

Afterwards, we met with UNHCR Greece where they gave us context on how we could best help. The more we learned, the more complex and dire the problem got. The number of refugees worldwide has reached a record high, with 65 million displaced peoples across the world and an average of 24 people displaced every minute of every day (2015). Much of the refugee situation may geographically be taking place in Europe, but this is clearly a global issue. I have a newfound respect for countries such as Greece that shoulder much of the frontline responsibility in this refugee situation.

It’s easy to feel helpless when faced with a problem as massive as this. The best thing we can do is to talk with those affected and who see the problems first-hand. My biggest takeaway here was empathizing with their frustration when I shook their hands, talked with them, and listened first-hand to their situation. When we asked the camp residents and administrators what the biggest problems facing them were, we were able to draw an understanding of how we might be able to help.

The most direct thing we can do in our everyday lives is to aid the mentality shift and public attitude towards refugees across the world. In many places still, the current attitude towards refugees is toxic, propelled by vile political campaigns and misinformed media that capitalize on the tragedies of conflict. We need to challenge people who hold these toxic views and actively encourage dialogues that are shaped on facts over campaigns. Governments and policies will change only when its citizens demand them to, and that begins with everyday people like us.

This isn’t a European issue, it’s a global one. And we’ve all got a role to play in helping channel a mentality shift towards refugees. At the end of the day, we are all human.