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Refugees in Greece send a clear message to the world: ‘Help families get back together’

By Oxfam
About 800 people are now living in these shelters provided by the UN at the Kara Tepe Camp on the Greek island of Lesvos. Oxfam is providing meals twice a day. Photo by Aubrey Wade/Oxfam

More than 50,000 people fleeing war, persecution, and poverty, are now living in crowded conditions in Greece with uncertainty and fear as Europe wrestles with migration policies.

Cecile, a 42-year-old mother from Cameroon, dreaded what would happen to her daughter if the pair stayed in their community: at 6 years old the girl would have been forced to undergo a circumcision. Golpari, who is 23 and from Afghanistan, feared the Taliban who threatened to beat her daughter and carve into her leg with a knife if she dared to send the child to school. And Gazal, who is 34 and from Iraq, said Daesh (the Arabic acronym for ISIL) took everything from his community and then killed his brother-in-law by slitting his throat.

Facing such impossible realities, each of these people made the difficult decision to give up all that was familiar and leave home with the hope that somewhere in the world they would find safety and security.

Now, their long journey halted in Greece, they are among more than 50,000 people scattered across the country in  detention centers, abandoned buildings, and makeshift camps where poor living conditions and lack of food, medical care, and information have heightened the suffering and uncertainty for many. Since the start of 2015, more than one million others like them—people fleeing war, persecution, natural disasters, and poverty—have traveled through Turkey and into Greece in search of a better life in Europe.

But in March, that trek suddenly became much harder when the European Union struck a deal with Turkey to deport back to that country all the migrants arriving on Greek islands In exchange, the EU will resettle Syrian refugees from Turkey and give the country money. Rights groups are concerned that refugees could be returned to Turkey without having had proper asylum hearings or without receiving critical information about their legal rights. With other border closings already in place to prevent the further movement of people in Europe, tens of thousands of refugees and migrants in Greece, which is still dealing with its own economic crisis, are now enduring a terrible limbo.

After surveying hundreds of people on the island of Lesvos, in Athens, and in the Epirus region of Northwest Greece, Oxfam and ActionAid are helping to spread key messages migrants need European governments to hear. Top among them is this: What families want is hope for their future—and for Europe to help them and not forget them.

“Life in the camp is very hard,” said a woman named Maisa. “One day is like a lifetime. We want to feel our humanity and to have our respect. We feel forgotten. We want the world to know what’s happening to people like us.”

Added Jialal, who is 20 and from Afghanistan, “We don’t know about the details of the EU-Turkey deal. The only thing we do know is that Europe sold us to Turkey. Turkey is making money off of us. Before coming here we thought that Europe would take care of us, but now we know that nobody cares.”

A group of men from Afghanistan volunteer in a community garden in Kara Tepe Camp on the Greek island of Lesvos. Photo by Aubrey Wade/Oxfam

Reunification and other needs

Many people in Greece are trying to reach family members in other parts of Europe, but despite EU provisions for family reunification, the process is dragging. One way to alleviate pressure on Greece and to help meet people’s urgent call to be with their families is to both speed up and broaden the reunification system.

People are also desperate for information about what their futures hold. They need to know about their rights, their legal status, and what options they have. How long will they have to stay in the camps? What services are they entitled to under Greek and EU laws? Who is eligible for EU location? Getting answers to these questions will help reduce the fear and anxiety that plague many people.

And along with information, families need access to fair and efficient asylum procedures, including basic information about when and how they can ask for it.

“Every day we are worried about the next,” said a man from Afghanistan who is now sheltering at Filippiada Camp in Epirus. “Will we still be here tomorrow? Will we be deported?”

“All we want is some information so we can have some hope,” said a woman named Sakine who is living in Katsikas Camp. “All these difficulties we have gone through—they would be easier if we knew what was going to happen. Even if they told us we would be here for six more months, it would be better than nothing. We have no information.”

Shelters line a path at the Kara Tepe Camp on the Greek island of Lesvos. Photo by Aubrey Wade/Oxfam

‘We don’t feel safe’

Adding to the stress of not knowing what the future holds is the fear many refugees and migrants endure each day: Many have reported to Oxfam and ActionAid that they do not feel safe in the sites where they are now living. They spoke of tensions, arguments, and violent confrontations between groups as a result of the prolonged stretches they have spent in poor conditions with no information.

And women particularly fear for their safety.

“I can’t sleep at night,” said a woman from Afghanistan who is sharing a tent with another woman in Katsikas Camp. “I don’t feel safe. . . We take turns sleeping.”

“We don’t feel safe going to the showers or the toilets alone,” said Tagrit, who is 30 and from Syria. “We have set up groups of six and we all go together. If one wants to go, she has to take another five women with her.”

Still, with all they have endured, people cannot give up hope.

“Divide us up among all the countries so one country doesn’t feel all the pressure,” said a man from Afghanistan. “We don’t mind. We just want to be able to go somewhere and live safely, in peace, so our children can have a proper education.”

Oxfam has been calling on world leaders to work together with the UN to provide a global solution to the refugee crisis.  Across northwestern Greece and on the island of Lesvos, we are  helping more than 3,000 displaced people in six camps managed by the Greek authorities. We have been providing clean water, sanitation services, shelter, food, and a few other basics such as blankets and tarps.


Take action now, and stand with refugees fleeing violence.