Fresh Attacks on NGOs and the Fear of COVID on Lesvos

"They were supposed to find human rights... these dreams are completely collapsing."

Every 19th of August, the world marks World Humanitarian Day, celebrating the work of health and aid workers across the globe, and commemorating those who have been killed or injured in the course of their work.

We did not expect to be caught in the middle of something so violent.”

This year, one day after that event, the President of Greece came to visit the island of Lesvos, home to the largest refugee camp in Europe, Moria. President Sakellaropoulou came to inaugurate a new government-run COVID-19 clinic, which had been donated by the Dutch. Nearby the new clinic stands a Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) pediatric facility.

But before the President could arrive, trouble was already brewing.

“We knew that a demonstration could take place,” Marco Sandrone, Lesvos MSF Field Coordinator, tells me by phone. “But we did not expect to be caught in the middle of something so violent.”

A crowd of about 50 or 60 demonstrators had gathered to protest the opening of the new clinic. They clashed with riot police and were eventually dispersed with tear gas and concussive grenades, though not before pelting stones at the MSF clinic and even setting it on fire.

[The road outside the MSF clinic on the day of the attack, source: MSF]

“Most of our team was deployed to extinguish the fire,” says Sandrone. “All of this while our doctors, nurses and psychologists were continuing to see people… our clinic was full with over a hundred patients.”

Eventually, the decision was made to evacuate the clinic until order could be restored. Thankfully, nobody was injured. Though Sandrone remains outraged that such a thing could even happen in the first place.

“An attack [on] a medical facility, [on] medical personnel, [on] patients is for us unacceptable and a dangerous indicator of how the situation is developing on Lesvos.”


A Dangerous Situation

A security situation you would never imagine could happen in Europe.”

There has been local opposition to refugees on Lesvos since the camp was built in 2015. But things took a dramatic turn in late February of this year when the government announced plans to build a new, closed camp on the island.

The announcement sparked major protests from locals. Riot police coming from the mainland were initially prevented by demonstrators from disembarking onto the port of the island’s capital, Mytilene. Sent to protect the new camp construction site and maintain order, they were withdrawn from the island by Athens a few days later, to defuse the rapidly escalating situation.

That withdrawal led to what Sandrone describes as “a security situation that you would never imagine could happen in Europe.”

[Riot police clashed with locals across Lesvos in late February, source: ekathimerini.com]

Unopposed by police, demonstrators set up roadblocks around the island and began harassing and assaulting refugees, aid workers, and journalists. Many, including Irish doctor Nicola Cochrane, whose car-windshield was smashed after being stopped by locals, fled the island soon after in fear of their lives.

Thanassis Voulgarakis, an aid worker and refugee activist, was there the night the riot police were obstructed from entering the port. In the weeks that followed, he says aid workers “couldn’t go out of the house. They were targeted. We were seeing posters saying that ‘immigrants and aid workers and living in this house.’ Everyone was very afraid.”

The violence, which continued throughout March, also saw vital refugee services attacked. The week after, the School of Peace, set up by Jewish and Arab Israelis to provide education for refugee children, was burned to the ground in a suspected arson attack. Since its founding in 2017, more than 3000 children had attended the school.


‘An Antagonistic and Suspicious Attitude’

Throughout all this, the local and national government have hardly been supportive of NGOs.

“The government has publicly blamed NGOs for being a pull factor for refugees,” Sandrone explains. Voulgarakis, meanwhile, is more direct:

“The Government attacks them.”

Both men point to a new NGO registration scheme introduced earlier this year as an attempt to make their work more difficult, something Amnesty International also commented on at the time in a public statement:

“Amnesty International is seriously concerned that the rules introduced… unduly restrict the freedoms and independence of NGOs and individuals working with people on the move. The new rules appear to impose, in an apparently discriminatory manner, additional, burdensome and intrusive requirements to these NGOs’ registration and operation, including in matters of funding, which make it virtually impossible for certain NGOs to comply,” reads the statement in part.

“Over the past year, Amnesty International has noticed with concern an increasingly antagonistic and suspicious attitude of the Greek authorities towards NGOs working with people on the move. “

In fact, the new clinic donated by the Dutch might not even have been necessary, if MSF’s own COVID clinic had not been shut down by the government in July, following a fine and threats of criminal charges from local officials.


A Noisy Few

Those local officials represent a base of opposition that extends beyond the island, Voulgarakis believes. “They are called the Free Citizens… They have members on the small councils [of Mytilene]. They have connections to the mainland and the fascist groups there and in Europe.”

These connections were made clear in those days of unrest in early March when extreme right-wing figures from across Europe descended on the island to draw attention to the need to ‘defend Europe’ against the threats of immigration and Islamic terrorism veiled within.

[Far-right figures from across Europe have used Lesvos as an ideological battleground. Source: ekathimerini.com]

Such figures propagate the view that immigrants arriving into Greece from Turkey represents the front-line of a clash of civilizations in which Europeans must defend themselves from the encroachment of foreigners. This kind of discourse, focussing on Lesvos, only serves to inflame tensions further.

“How this constant confrontation between Greece and Turkey is presented by the media is escalating the frustration of the local community,” observes Sandrone.

The government, meanwhile, does little to combat the propaganda of extremists, according to Voulgarakis.

“The right-wing government finds it normal that the people become racist and fascist… the people in Greece are becoming increasingly fascist.”

Regardless, the actual number of protestors and demonstrators against refugees on Lesvos, represents “a very small portion of the population, but they are quite noisy and present in the media,” says Sandrone.

Voulgarakis is likewise keen to emphasize this fact. “We are talking about a few people,” he says.

 “Since the very beginning,” adds Sandrone, “Lesvos has reacted with solidarity to the refugees… They have been the first heroes.”

The island itself was even nominated for the Nobel Peace Price in 2016, in recognition of the efforts of the islanders to welcome hundreds of thousands of refugees who arrived on their shores.

It is clear, however, that for a nation not adequately supported by the EU and for an island not adequately supported by its own government, generally, the population is fed up with the situation.


Losing Hope

All this, of course, is taking its toll on the NGO workers still on the island.

“I can tell you how difficult it is for our staff to keep seeing the deterioration the security situation, especially for our Greek colleagues to see that there is a portion of the Greek society that is turning against them.” Says Sandrone.

“You are at home, you are in Europe, and you know that you grew up in this society, the same society that is responsible for punishing these people for crimes they have not committed.”

“I’ve worked in Africa, I’ve worked in refugee camps in other places in the Middle East; I’ve never ever seen such a complicated and difficult working environment.”

“Here. In Greece, in Europe, the living conditions are below the standards you would find in refugee camps in war zones… people are queuing all day for basic services that are absolutely not enough.”

“We are talking about an extremely vulnerable population that is 40% minors under 18, and of these minors, 70% are under the age of 10.”

[Conditions in Moria Camp are ‘worse than what you would find in a war zone.’ Source: EUobserver]

Of special concern to him is the mental health of the refugees, which, though already fragile, sharply deteriorate once they reach the camp.

“[The conditions of Moria Camp] are the primary stress factor and cause of the extremely poor mental health conditions of the people we see.

“They were supposed to find human rights, to provide their children a new life, education, medical care. All these dreams are completely collapsing when they reach Lesvos.

“And little by little you are losing hope, you see there is no hope left, no improvement in the situation.”


Imminent Threat

“The only thing you can do is decongest Moria camp and make sure services match the number of people that are stuck inside. And you should do it also as a preventive measure against coronavirus.”

Since July, COVID cases on the island have begun to spike. There were a hundred new cases reported in the last two weeks of August, out of a population of 80,000. Some restrictions have been re-implemented, but with Moria camp already wildly overcrowded, the risks are high.

“If it should reach Moria all these people [with chronic and complicated conditions] will need specialized care,” explains Sandrone. “and today the hospital is already under pressure from COVID.”

“The work the medical NGO are doing has a direct impact on the refugees but it also has an immediate impact on the public health system.”

“[They] need our help.”

As for what the government should do, Marco is clear.

“The government should take immediate responsibility to evacuate the elderly and patients with chronic diseases.”

Decongestion of the camps and relocation to the mainland is the government stated goal, though whether it can happen in a timely, humane fashion remains to be seen.

[The island has seen a recent spike in COVID cases. source: traveler-life.com]

“It is absolutely impossible to see what will be in the next few months,” says Sandrone. “We don’t know if new flows of refugees will reach Lesvos, we don’t know what the COVID situation will be. We see that it’s deteriorating, so it’s an extremely worrying situation.”

“[But] we know that it is absolutely essential that we stay here and we testify with our job to what Europe is doing.”

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