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Family separation prevents refugees’ integration, warns report

Refugees living in the UK are prevented from successfully integrating into British life because they are unable to be reunited with their loved ones facing danger, Oxfam and the Refugee Council warned today.

 

 

A new report, Safe but not Settled, highlights how refugees’ gruelling experiences of conflict, persecution or abuse are exacerbated by the UK’s restrictive approach to refugee family reunion.

 

Current rules only allow adult refugees to be reunited with their spouses and children younger than 18, when family members are located outside of the EU. Furthermore, legal aid has not been available for refugee family reunion since 2013 (excluding exceptional case funding), making it even more difficult for families separated by war and persecution to reunite.

 

This approach means, for example, “that three children who escaped to the UK with their parents cannot bring their grandparents to join them, regardless of how close they were to them before they left, a separation that has left the children distressed to the extent of self- harm. It means that Sayid, whose teenage brother is fleeing both ISIS (also known as Daesh) and the Syrian army, cannot reunite with him in safety in the UK.” It means that siblings are scattered across continents, as young people under 18 can reunite with family members elsewhere – but those over 18, cannot.

 

The psychological and practical cost of such rules are profound. Thirty-three of the 44 families interviewed in the report were unable to focus on activities essential to integration, such as learning English, because they were preoccupied with worries about family members, experiencing feelings of guilt or struggling with mental health problems.

 

Aster, an Eritrean woman who was persecuted for her religion and forced to flee, shares her story in the report. After a long and perilous journey, including time in prison where she was physically and sexually abused, she finally arrived in the UK in 2016. Despite being finally safe, Aster is desperately worried about her children.

 

She knows the chances of reuniting with them are slim. Her two sons have managed to escape to Ethiopia, but they have both contracted malaria and have no one to care for them – and, as they have now turned 18, they are no longer eligible to join her here. It was too dangerous for Aster’s daughter, aged just 16, to travel with her brothers – so she now lives alone in Eritrea. Her options are slim: marry for her own protection, or be conscripted into the army.

Aster said: “When I think of my children, I am always sad and I cannot enjoy life or take any part in anything…I’m doing my best, but I can’t fully concentrate on anything I do, all the time I am stressed, thinking about the day when I will be reunited with my children.”

For many refugees, family reunion is prohibitively expensive due to the lack of legal aid. While the application itself is free, legal advice and interpreters are often needed to help newcomers navigate the UK’s convoluted immigration rules. The report notes that “there can be very many costs hidden in the application process: in one case, a family reunion application was delayed because the family could not afford to fly a separated child to the nearest UK embassy to be interviewed for the application.”

 

The report comes ahead of a crucial debate in Parliament, where MPs will consider changing the law to enable more refugees to be reunited with their loved ones. The Refugee Family Reunion Bill will be debated on 16th March, and calls for:

  • Child refugees to be able to sponsor their parents and siblings under the age of 25.
  • Adult refugees to be able to sponsor their parents; their children under the age of 25; and their siblings under the age of 25.
  • The reintroduction of legal aid for refugee family reunion.

 

The report demonstrates, with irrefutable evidence, the human cost of separation. This bill gives us the chance to make a difference: can you write to your MP, and ask them to attend the debate?

 

The anguish of separation is, for so many people, beyond imagination or comprehension. But for those fragmented families, it is an all too painful reality. This Bill is our chance to help loved ones to reunite, and give families the opportunity to start the next chapter of their lives – together.

 


Help Refugees is proud to support the #FamiliesTogether campaign, led by Amnesty International UK, British Red Cross, Oxfam, Refugee Council and UNHCR. Can you write to your MP, and ask them to support the campaign’s asks on the 16th March 2016? Thank you.

 

 

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Eritrea in Focus: What’s Going On In Africa’s “North Korea”?

The exodus of Eritrean citizens fleeing from their homes is a story that has gone largely untold among the myriad tragedies of the current refugee crisis.

 

According to a UN estimate, 4,000 Eritreans are leaving their country each month. Many of these are making the dangerous journey, across borders and oceans, to Europe. Unlike many asylum seekers, however, Eritreans are fleeing not war but an authoritarian government that has all but eliminated civil liberties in the country. What are the government measures making so many to flee the country and what is the UK doing to help those reaching Europe?

 

A former Italian colony, Eritrea gained independence from Ethiopia in 1993 after 30 years of conflict. Isaias Afwerki, the leader of the victorious People’s Liberation Front, has ruled as president ever since.

 

Having rebranded his party the People’s Front for Democracy and Justice (PFDJ), Afwerki soon consolidated power and began eroding the post-independence hopes of democracy and civil freedoms in the country. He refused to implement the 1997 constitution or hold the elections it promised, sinking the nation into a state of oppressive totalitarianism. The UN has this year condemned the ‘unending, brutal human rights violations’ that the Eritrean state has subjected its people to, stating that they amount to ‘crimes against humanity.’

 

 

So, how has President Afwerki created an African equivalent to North Korea? Politically, the absence of an implemented constitution means that the PFDJ has been allowed to quash pluralism. Opposition parties are illegal and elections have never taken place since independence. Basic frameworks for the protection of civil liberties, such as rule of law and a fair justice system, do not exist.

 

In the absence of these legal protections, Eritrean citizens are vulnerable to the whims of the authoritarian state. Arbitrary arrest and unlawful killings are common, and it is estimated that thousands remain in indefinite detention without a legal process, including a group of 21 politicians and journalists who were jailed in an infamous crackdown in 2001.

 

The most notorious of the Afwerki’s brutal policies is the forced and indefinite military conscription that men between the ages of 15 and 50 must undertake. The president has kept the nation on a war footing as a result of the sporadic conflicts with Ethiopia that have arisen since independence, using this state of emergency to suppress the population into inescapable military commitments. Officers are given a shoot-to-kill licence to deal with deserters; Amnesty International reported one incident in which 11 were shot and killed after attempting to escape a military camp.

 

Eritrea was beaten to last place by North Korea this year on the World Press Freedom Index after eight years at the foot of the list. After a brutal clampdown in 2001, Eritrea became the only African country without a single privately owned news media organisation. A tiny proportion of the population have access to the Internet (just 1%), but even this is under the complete control of the government, who shut down all access in times of unrest. Unlike other developing African countries, the people of Eritrea have not benefitted from the growing availability of mobile phones, and have the lowest user rates in the world.

 

This strangulation of civil liberties has caused a mass exodus, with hundreds of thousands of citizens escaping the country in recent years. Defying the country’s restrictions on freedom of movement (which sees many detained or shot as they attempt to cross the border), Eritrean refugees can be found from neighbouring Ethiopia (where over 168,000 are currently) to Europe.

 

Despite its small population of around 5 million, Eritrea was the largest source of African asylum seekers entering Europe in 2015, with over 47,000 applying for asylum. This trend continued into 2016, in which some 40,000 travelled to Europe in search of asylum, with yet more individuals being hosted in precarious conditions in neighbouring countries.

 

Statistics from the Migration Policy Institute show that, while acceptance rates into the UK are generally high for Eritrean asylum seekers, inconsistencies and a lack of clarity in refugee policy regarding refugees from the Horn of Africa has led to many being unfairly denied entry and, in many cases, has caused individuals to be sent back to Eritrea. Though 2016 did see an improvement, the UK’s acceptance rate dropped to 47% during the height of the refugee crisis in 2015. Even then, a large proportion of accepted applications were only successful after appeals and multiple court hearings.

 

President Afwerki’s totalitarian rule in Eritrea is a crisis that cannot go unnoticed. Under his rule, Eritreans have no freedom of movement or expression, no system of justice, and they face the threats of murder, detainment, and indefinite military conscription. Eritreans continue to make up a significant proportion of asylum seekers both in the region and in Europe. That a country with such a small population is producing so many refugees demands recognition.


This piece was written for Help Refugees by Nick Jeyarajah, freelance journalist. 

Help Refugees supports grassroots services and aid for refugees and displaced people across Europe and the Middle East. Our work depends on the generosity of people like you. Please, if you are able, donate here. Thank you. 

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Layla and the Lovebug: A Community Chooses Love

This winter, we have been amazed by the generosity and creativity of our supporters’ fundraising efforts. From upcycled candles to football matches, mini-festivals to themed parties, your kindness – and that of your friends, colleagues and communities – has been expressed in imaginative and inspiring events across the world! One of these was Layla Fraser’s magical musical evening – which she has written about below. Layla, we’re so grateful for everything that you have done for Help Refugees – thank you! 

 

“Okay, so I guess I’ll start from the beginning. My family and I first got involved in the Calais Jungle in Autumn 2015. One thing we did was to move an electrical generator into the camp, so that refugees and volunteers were able to charge their phones. The generator also supplied electricity to surrounding charities in the camp. We stayed there until summer 2016, a few months before the demolition of the Calais Jungle in October 2016. Since then, we haven’t had much involvement with refugees in Europe as part of an organisation, apart from personally staying in contact with friends we had made.

In October 2017, I really wanted to find a way to get involved again – and one that wouldn’t be too difficult for me to keep up with, alongside my full time job in England. So I ended up going to the Help Refugees warehouse in Calais to volunteer there, and I absolutely loved being involved again – and seeing some of the friends I had known from before that are still in Calais.

It was a privilege to hear people’s stories, to meet so many like-minded people that all had this crisis and these precious people’s safety as their priority, and to be a part of that community for that short time. But, I knew early on that this wasn’t the last time I would be there. You first choose love, but then you action it, and you live it out. Choosing it is just the start of what becomes habit. And I was hooked.

Layla's community fundraiser

You see this kind of suffering of these people that are just trying to be warm and safe like we all take for granted. And they are right on your doorstep. At this point, you can’t just sit back and watch…you must do something about it.

I saw on Help Refugees’ Instagram that December would be a fundraising month for them, and anyone could get involved. So, I did! I talked to a local independent bar in my town about hosting a fundraiser there, talked to some local bands about performing some acoustic tunes, finalised a date and everything happened from there. I organised it all in the space of about three weeks, and people loved getting involved and coming alongside me to help out.

I made a public Facebook event, made posters and put it up in public places, and asked shops if they would be willing to donate anything as prizes for a raffle I wanted to do at the fundraiser. So many did! Just to give some examples, we had ten free coffees from Cafe Nero, a gift box from Lush, a six people pamper party ticket for The Body Shop…and so many more! Another venue in my town even offered to get involved in the next fundraising event and host it for free! People love to CHOOSE LOVE alongside you, and it’s amazing.

Layla's community fundraiser

So after all the organising, it’s time for the night…and who doesn’t like to party for a good cause? We covered the place in fairy lights to set the scene, with acoustic music and conversations as we sold raffle ticket by raffle ticket with the prizes shining on the table. I started off the night with a brief background of the charity, and how people could expect their money to be put to good use. I talked a bit about other ways to donate, the Choose Love store and the current situation faced by refugees in Calais. I informed people of the need in Calais, and told them how easy it is to get involved out there – to make the food for refugees there, to donate and sort the gloves that warm their hands. How much easier and more freeing it is to be on the frontline, than it is to take a back seat and watch it all through a pixelated screen. I could see little fires lighting in people’s hearts as they realised they could give that weekend in February or that week off in April and spend it doing something different, something that really helps other.

Then we sang our little hearts out for a while before calling out the winners of the raffle prizes. This was perhaps the highlight of the evening for me as it was a vibrantly beautiful representation of the community that had come together for this cause. Of faces that I recognised and ones that I didn’t, all together in laughter and excitement – and all donating time, effort, thought, prayer and pounds to a cause that they saw needed them in that moment. A picture perfect moment of a group of people choosing love together, and I feel honoured to have created the space for people to do that in this time. That is what it’s all about…creating a space for people to choose love. So, I really encourage you to go ahead and organise a fundraiser in your communities.

Layla's community fundraiser

 


Help Refugees is so grateful to Layla for arranging this amazing fundraiser, and to all of the bands who played and people who donated there. If you are feeling inspired, and would like to organise an event, you can find out more here or get in touch at fundraising@helprefugees.org. We couldn’t do what we do, without people like you. Thank you.

Photo credits to Andy and Esther Teo of Photocillin Photography.

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Greece Diary: Athens, Day 2

Amelia, one of the Help Refugees team, is currently visiting the projects that we support in Greece. She is writing a series of updates from the trip, and has just travelled from Northern Greece to Athens. She will be based here for a few days (you can read the first installment here), before going to Lesvos.

 

Athens is home to a huge range of organizations, from local groups to major international NGOs, who provide support for refugees and displaced people. Many also offer assistance to local people at risk of destitution, the number of who has increased drastically since the enforced imposition of austerity measures. The diversity of association is reflected in the huge range of services that they provide, from skateboarding classes to shelter for vulnerable women.

 

I visited the Athens Solidarity Centre (ASC), managed by Solidarity Now, which is conveniently placed in the same building as the municipality’s office. The ASC operates as a hub for a range of organization and types of support, and includes social services, legal support, medical care and child-friendly spaces. There is on-site child-care – in a room full of toys and games, with a projector for movies in the evening – which means that parents can leave their children, while they have appointments in the building.

 

I picked up a copy of Migratory Birds in the waiting room, a multi-lingual newspaper (Greek, Farsi, Arabic and English) that is produced by and for young people in Greece. Although I couldn’t read the bulk of articles, there was beautiful artwork in the paper – which you may have seen on our Instastories last week! – done by the young people who had put it together. Not only does the paper provide a visible example of what inclusion can look like, it is a vital tool through which young people can exercise their rights of freedom of opinion and expression.

 

Help Refugees works with Solidary Now on their housing programme, Solidarity Homes. It has provided apartments for six families, of which one is a Greek family at risk of destitution. Those living in the accommodation continue to access the support offered by the ASC, including education – the family that I met commented on how difficult Greek was, but how wonderful their teacher was at helping them to fall in love with the language. Nadia, one of the beneficiaries of the programme, is quoted saying that “we really feel at home [in our apartment]. And that gives us strength to try and make it; to find work, to pursuit our dreams, to improve our life. After a long-long time, my family and I close the door and feel safe again.”

 

I later met with Sarah from the Refugee Info Bus, a group that I first knew when we were in Calais – they now work in both Northern France and Greece, on Samos and the mainland. The bus provides Internet access in mobile vans in France, allowing displaced people to make contact with loved ones at home, as well as rights-focussed education and preparation for asylum admissibility interviews.

 

The group have recently begun Yala Nhki (Let’s Talk) videos, which discuss the politics and practice of applying for asylum in Greece – and which are viewed tens of thousands of time. One that I found particularly interesting was on the Joint Way Forward, the 2016 agreement between the EU and Afghanistan, which was produced in collaboration with Generation Outside of Afghanistan. Some of the Info Bus team will soon be based in Samos to help asylum seekers prepare for their admissibility interviews – and will be the only group on the island offering such support.

 

The next morning, I went to the other side of Athens to see Seeds of Humanity’s new centre. The top floor of their building is an amazing, multi-functional medical space: there are two dentistry rooms, staffed by volunteers (included a recent dental graduate who speaks both Arabic and Greek!); a gynaecology room and a paediatric space. There is an activity space the floor below, where adults will soon be able to leave their children during medical appointments, as well as an infants-only space and a physiotherapy room. Filling the gaps in medical care, and particularly dentistry, is essential for the wellbeing of refugees and displaced people in Athens – many of whom wouldn’t otherwise have remedy for their illnesses.

 

That afternoon, I had a series of informative – if heart-wrenching – conversations with a volunteer with significant experience in anti-trafficking, and the legal coordinators from Refugee Legal Support.

 

The risk of exploitation faced by migrants and refugees in Greece is well-documented, for both adults and children alike. As I mentioned in my previous piece, unaccompanied minors are at acute risk – their obvious vulnerability is compounded by the lack of shelter that is available to them. The absence of a well-resourced referral mechanism, specialised support or safe accommodation for victims of trafficking or exploitation paints a grim picture for the reality faced by many in Athens.

 

Refugee Legal Support is a voluntary organisation, run by experienced lawyers practising in EU asylum and international protection law. They operate a pro-bono clinic in Athens, that has a particular focus on family reunion via embassies and reunification under Dublin III. The situation in which they operate, however, remains challenging: the Greek Dublin Unit is under-resourced and overburdened, and many applications are only submitted after deadlines have passed. Yet they have fought difficult cases and won (you can read client testimonials here), and the determination and commitment of their coordinators – and, I’m sure, the rest of the team – was obvious. It was a privilege to meet their team, and I strongly encourage anyone reading this to further investigate their work.

 

I’m going to Lesvos tomorrow, so will update you from there soon.

 

– Amelia x

 


 

The featured image is of the Refugee Info Bus at work, and it was members of their team who took the photograph. You can find out more about their work here.

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‘One day I’ll confess my sins to the Lord’: French riot police admits to violence

A veteran CRS officer has revealed the extent of police violence towards refugees in northern France. The 40-year-old riot police officer – who wishes to remain anonymous – has worked in the ‘Jungles’ of Nord Pas de Calais for over 15 years.

Speaking to Haydée Sabéran from Ebdo Journal in France, the CRS officer said: “Oh, I have destroyed many encampments, I have emptied canisters of tear gas to contaminate people’s sleeping bags… In Calais I follow orders and I don’t think. … I [have] colleagues who set tents on fire so badly that the fire brigade had to be called.

“I’ve been going to Calais for fifteen years. I’ve known Sangatte, makeshift camps, the jungle, and today the post-jungle era. At the moment there are no actual shacks, only small tarps hidden as well as possible, because they know that if we find them we’ll kick them out. It’s not the CRS’s fault, it’s the system’s. We are asked to look busy, to evict people, to arrest them... I detach myself from the all of this. Maybe one day I’ll confess my sins to the Lord!”

He continued: “We could put 1,000 CRS here – but as long as England is over the border from Calais there will still be migrants here. Even without blankets and water. Politicians are trying to deter them from coming. But that’s not going to happen.”

These revelations raise questions about the £45 million the British government has this week promised to provide for French border security in Calais.

A Refugee Rights Data Project report, “Twelve Months On”, released in October last year, found that 91.8% of refugees in Calais had experienced police violence. Though charities working on the ground in Calais have reported the police brutality refugees face for years, this is the first time a CRS officer has gone on record to reveal the extent of the violence.

An excerpt from the Ebdo article. Picture: Twitter

Annie Gavrilescu, Regional Manager for Help Refugees in France, said:

“The police brutality we have seen inflicted on refugees in Northern France needed no more confirmation than the tear gas burns on people’s faces, the broken bones and bruises, and blankets being stolen. However, while Macron is threatening to take charities exposing this to court for defamation, his own security forces have now admitted the violent treatment witnessed by aid workers, the Human Rights Ombudsman and Human Rights Watch.”

Daniel*, from Cameroon:
“We are here in the borders of Calais. Life here is not good with us and the way police treat people here is not good. The police come and destroy those tents… They come in the night and destroy our tents.”

Another ‘Jungle’ resident, Omar*, said:

“The police come and take our sleeping bag or tent, and crush, I mean rip, our tent. They use some blade and they spray inside. We don’t talk with them… We can’t because our condition is very bad. We didn’t talk with them because our eyes, our mouth, they all is spray.”

*These names have been changed.

You can read the full transcript below:

Being a CRS officer in Calais, I know it’s a useless job’

For fifteen years this forty year old has been intervening in the ‘jungles’ of the North of France and the Nord Pas de Calais area. He wishes to remain anonymous to recount his everyday life.

Oh, I have destroyed many encampments, I have emptied canisters of tear gas to contaminate blankets. In Calais I follow orders and I don’t think. I unplug my brain, I know that all of this is useless. I even have colleagues who set tents on fire so badly that the fire brigade had to be called. Sometimes a police officer loses control because he’s tired, exasperated or for lack of experience. I have hot-headed colleagues who don’t think like me: ‘Let it go man, don’t worry about it. It’s not because you’re going to gas more migrants, beat up a migrant or steal their covers that’s it’s going to change the world.’

I’ve been going to Calais for fifteen years. I’ve known Sangatte, makeshift camps, the jungle, and today the post-jungle era. At the moment there are no actual shacks, only small tarps hidden as well as possible, because they know that if we find them we’ll kick them out. It’s not the CRS’s fault, it’s the system’s. We are asked to look busy, to evict people, to arrest them. When you are young you don’t understand: you ask yourself ‘Why aren’t they being deported? But once you’ve been to Calais ten times, all of this starts to go right over your head. If someone asked me to plant carrots, or go shrimp fishing I would say ‘yes, sure’. What’s important is my security and that of my colleagues. That we come home at the end of the day, safe and sound and without any injuries. I detach myself from the all of this. Maybe one day I’ll confess my sins to the Lord!

All of this is very expensive, it costs us millions. For example, every time we come here on a mission, we stay in family resorts or hotels for a month. But when we need more people on the ground, like during the dismantling of the jungle in 2016, some of us had to sleep at a hotel at the Bay of the Somme – an hour and a half drive from Calais. I wonder if you understand just how mad this all is.

Living conditions at the border in Calais

Living conditions are worse than ever before in Calais

Migrants keep coming to Calais to try and cross into England. While this is happening, the port and the Eurotunnel are becoming harder and harder to access. I have visited the security control installations at the port – it’s like Star Trek up there. First of all, there’s a visual inspection carried out by lorry specialists able to detect secret compartments and false floors. Then there’s a CO2 detector to check whether anyone is breathing, and then there’s the scanner, a big machine that takes some sort of x-ray of the truck. It’s an insane system from start to finish. They also have a heartbeat detector: they put what look like battery jump-starters on two parts of the lorry, and see the results on their screen straight away. They asked me to test it by stepping into the truck, and straight away I could see my heartbeats appearing on the screen. All around the area there are cameras, there’s barbed wire and security patrols. It’s a perpetual race to top security. One thing’s for sure – this generates jobs alright! But because it is harder and harder to cross, ‘jobs’ are created for other people as well.  People from Calais are getting involved in mafia systems. Fishermen and people on tourist ships too are crossing that line.

When migrants try to stop trucks by putting tree branches, trollies, tyres, and blocs of cement on the road, or by throwing rocks at windshields, we chase them with tear gas grenades. We use night-vision goggles and try to keep the migrants as far away from us as possible. When we’re outnumbered we don’t leave the vehicle, we just throw the gas from our windows. The migrants are determined, in a state of ultimate distress, but 90% of the time they move on without us needing to force them to. We do need to be on our guard though.

Some smugglers take extreme risks because of the high sums of money at stake. Early January, one of them charged a CRS group with his car at full speed. He got two years in jail.

If we had a Prime Minister who had the balls, we would tell the English: ‘we’ll tear your le Touquet treaty to shreds, deal with the migrants in Dover for all we care’. We are meant to be watching the border, which means dealing with people coming in – not with those trying to get out! Now, we are preventing illegal migrants from leaving France. At one time I was really mad about it, and would tell people ‘I work for England’. Now I don’t feel anything about it really. We could put 1000 CRS here – but as long as the land of England is over the border from Calais there will still be migrants here. Even without blankets and water. Politicians are trying to deter them from coming, but that’s not going to happen. Maybe it’d disgust someone unconvinced and undetermined – but it won’t deter these people. They are coming from war-torn countries, from dictatorships, from countries with big economic or climate change issues. They left their families behind, walked for thousands of kilometres in difficult conditions, and have been left in the hands of the mafia. I tell myself, if tomorrow France was at war and I had to leave for Afghanistan… If someone told me ‘Kandahar is a pretty nice place apparently,’ and I had to hit the road, I would be scared shitless! Having to cross borders, walk for months, cross seas and sit in jails…

But let me tell you, I have a harsh vision of all of this. If war broke out in France I would stay and fight, even with my family here. I have empathy for the migrants because of the travel conditions, that’s true, but at the end of the day I don’t have a lot of respect for them. I think they are cowards who refuse to die for their country. I have never had a conversation with a migrant. It’s been years since I’ve seen one from less than ten meters away.

***
Testimony written down by Haydée Sabéran.

The full article is available in ebdo, and is not yet available online.

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Greece Diary: Athens, Day 1

Amelia, one of the Help Refugees team, is currently visiting the projects that we support in Greece. She is writing a series of updates from the trip, and has just travelled from the North – you can read about her time in Thessaloniki here, here and here – to Athens. She will be based here for a few days, before going to Lesvos.

 

The differences between Thessaloniki and Athens are subtle, though certainly present. Many of the issues remained the same, formal accommodation being the most obvious; however, the city and the response to so many of these questions felt more overtly political. Occupied squares and graffiti (resisting fascism and welcoming refugees and migrants, for the most part) all bore witness to both the challenges, and the responses, faced by newcomers. One thing is clear, though: as in Thesslaoniki, there is an incredible range of groups who offer diverse support to those who need it.

 

My first visit was to Velos Youth Centre, a safe space for 16-21 year olds that was established by Refugee Youth Service. On the 6th floor of an apartment block, it is light and spacious – with a gorgeous balcony outside, where young people can do craft activities or relax with their friends. The centre’s dedicated staff provide a range of support and advice on the multifaceted issues faced by young people in Athens, from education to asylum, psychosocial support to housing.

Accommodation is a major issue faced by unaccompanied minors, due to the overwhelming lack of capacity in specialized shelters and spaces. The most recent figures estimate that there are 3, 350 unaccompanied minors in Greece, and only 1, 101 places available in formal transit or long-term shelters. The waiting list for shelter is therefore more than twice the total capacity.

 

The majority of young people who use Velos’ space live in squats across Athens. Members of the Velos team do discuss accommodation possibilities with the children – but the reality is that there is often no practical, de facto alternative to street homelessness. A limiting factor can be that children need a white card in order to access accommodation, which proves that they have begun to seek asylum in Greece, but this can often take five or six weeks to obtain. During that time, they are homeless – and as minors, they are not entitled to the UNHCR cash support scheme. The unavoidable need to raise a little money, just to get by, puts them at immediate risk of exploitation.

 

Minors are formally under the protection of the Greek public prosecutor, who can act as their temporary guardian; however, as noted by this Oxford Border Criminologies blog points out, “the existing framework for the protection of minors in Greece…is inadequate to address the special needs of third country national children who arrive in Greece alone.”

 

It goes on to say that,

“as the daily acts that require the consent of a guardian are numerous, the absence of an effective guardian, be it temporary or permanent, has implications for all aspects of the protection and exercise of unaccompanied minors’ lawful rights. It’s also an obstacle to their integration into Greek society, impeding access to basic social goods such as housing, healthcare, and education. Forced to fend for themselves, children struggle daily for survival. As a result, children are repeatedly exposed to trafficking and exploitation networks.”

 

The risk of exploitation is obviously compounded by the lack of specialist shelter; however, the prosecutor’s responsibility for children may also have negative consequences. Police are technically within their rights to detain unaccompanied minors in “protective custody” (in police stations), or in detention centres or closed zones within camps. While this may better protect them from exploitation, young people do not want to be detained – for obvious reasons. Consequently, anecdotal evidence from youth workers suggests that unaccompanied minors are willing to stay with older members of the community who can pose as their guardian, to ensure that they are not detained. Yet the risks of this, in terms of exploitation, are clear: children have reported that they are expected, or required, to work (whether formally or within the household, e.g. cleaning) in order to stay there.

 

Organisations are exploring methods to redress the guardianship issue, which would allow quicker access to accommodation, healthcare and the like. For now, though, Velos’ space fills important gaps in the provisions for young people, offering informal education, vocational support (like CV workshops), and access to medical care. It also provides a space where young people can relax – where they can play video games, do craft activities, wash their clothes – and receive a hot and healthy meal each day. Perhaps most importantly, though, it is staffed by trained youth workers who can listen and offer support to the young people – and help make them feel heard, in a situation where they could so easily feel overlooked.

 

Refugee Youth Service

It is clear that the challenges faced by young people, and particularly young men in their late teens, are multifaceted – but visiting the centre and speaking to the wonderful Jonny and Clara, who manage it, was an inspirational start to my time in Athens.

 

I’ll write more soon, but for now, please follow these links to learn more about RYS and Velos’ incredible work.

 

– Amelia x

 


 

Help Refugees has long supported Refugee Youth Service’s work, both in Calais and Greece, and projects like this across the countries we work. To help us to help them, please donate here.

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Open letter to President Macron and Prime Minister May

Dear Prime Minister May,
Dear President Macron,
Copy to: Nicole Belloubet; Gérard Collomb; Gérald Darmanin; Amber Rudd; Paul Lincoln; Caroline
Noakes

Re: Open letter in view of the Franco-British summit on Thursday 18 January 2018

On the occasion of the Franco-British Summit scheduled to take place this Thursday 18 January 2018, we are writing to ask that any new agreement relating to the French-British border bear in mind the human rights of displaced people currently residing in Calais. The Governments of France and Britain must uphold their existing commitments under international human rights law. Based on aid organisations such as l’Auberge des Migrants, Help Refugees, Safe Passage, Utopia56, Refugee Info Bus, the School Bus Project and Refugee Youth Service’s in-depth knowledge of the situation on the ground, combined with Refugee Rights Data Project’s (RRDP) independent field research throughout 2016-2017, we are deeply concerned that the human rights of refugees and displaced people in northern France are being systematically violated on French territory. We moreover lament the heightened risk of sexual violence, exploitation and trafficking to which children and youth in Calais are exposed, as well as the many avoidable deaths occurring at the border. Since December 2017 alone, three individuals have died a preventable death at the border, including a 15- year old boy who had a legal right to be reunited with family in the UK. We therefore call on the French and British Governments to ensure that the following considerations are held central in any negotiations on Le Touquet agreement and future arrangements relating to the France-UK border:-

  • Police violence: In any discussion between the British and French Governments on security and border control, the issue of police violence and detention must be carefully addressed. Both Governments must work to put an end to police violence and abuse against displaced people, and those officers responsible for abuse must be held to account. Police must be adequately trained and made aware of the prohibition of disproportionate and indiscriminate
    use of force.
  • Safe legal routes: Both France and Britain must ensure that displaced people in the area are able to access family reunification processes under the Dublin Regulation. The Dublin Regulation processes should be actioned and completed in a timely fashion to reduce the risk to young people taking unnecessary risks. Specific attention should be given to ensure that minors are able to access family reunification and safe, legal routes such as the ‘Dubs’ scheme. To date, there are still over 200 placements available for unaccompanied minors to be transferred to safety in the UK. The average waiting time observed by organisations on the ground (such as Safe Passage, an organisation with expertise helping children access family reunion) currently amounts to 9 months, which is wholly disproportionate and unnecessary.
  • Reception centres: Adequate reception centres must be open whilst claims are being processed, and as emergency accommodation for the duration of winter. Displaced people in the area must not be left in the current inadequate conditions and the cold weather.
  • Child protection: Child protection frameworks and anti-trafficking efforts must be given high priority to counter the heightened risks of sexual violence, exploitation and trafficking to which children and youth in Calais are exposed. Unaccompanied children on French soil must be given full access to shelter, mental and physical health services, and other basic services such as access to food, water and sanitation. A proportion of the £80 million budget under the latest security agreement 4 must be urgently allocated to the aforementioned efforts.

We would like to conclude by bringing you the voices from the ground. A 15-year-old boy recently died at the border in Calais. He had family in the UK and a legal right to be here, and the authorities had been notified of his vulnerability and situation. He died crushed by a lorry on the motorway at the border hoping to be reunited with his brother in Britain. He was the fifth child in the last two years to have died at the Calais border with a legal right to be with family in Britain.

His friend, who witnessed his death, explains what happened that night: “That night neither of us much wanted to walk to the motorway – we were exhausted. But it was cold in the woods where we were sleeping so we decided to try again”.

Many thanks for your attention.

Yours faithfully,

Help Refugees
L’Auberge des Migrants
Refugee Info Bus
Refugee Rights Data Project
Refugee Youth Service
Safe Passage
The School Bus Project
Utopia56

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Greece Diary: A Visit to Thessaloniki, Day 3

Amelia, one of the Help Refugees team, is currently visiting the projects that we support in Greece. She is writing a series of updates from the trip, and this piece details the incredible work done by our partners at Omnes. Updates from Athens and the islands to follow!
 

My final day in Northern Greece was centred around a trip to Omnes, a partner project based in Kilkis. The city is around 50km to the north of Thessaloniki, which meant that I had to brave the drive – on the other side of the car, and the road – by myself…a little nerve-wracking, to say the least! But the trip was absolutely worth it: Omnes is an innovative grassroots organization that is spearheading the movement towards local and inclusive housing. Social housing agencies and community projects – wherever they are located – would do well to learn from their model.

 

Omnes, Kilkis regional mapThe Kilkis region has high levels of unemployment and youth desertification, and very poor infrastructure. There is only one hospital in the region, which has a population of approximately 80.000 people; public transport is lacking; and the agricultural industry is dominant. Almost 13% of the population are far-right voters, for parties which have found success in taking an aggressive stance against immigration (such as Golden Dawn) – yet the region has historically housed thousands of refugees, including 56, 000 ethnic Greek families who were expelled from the Ottoman Empire and the Republic of Turkey between 1918 and 1930.

 

Such demographic and political information is not just included for interest. An understanding of the local area is at the heart of Omnes’ approach, which is one based around inclusion – rather than simply integration. Where the former connotes community building, the latter speaks to the absorption of one group in to the other. While integration measures are needed – language lessons, to allow communication, for example – inclusion should be the driving principle.

 

Omnes was founded by a group of friends, who began volunteering in the area of Idomeni, on the Greek-Former Yugoslav Republic Of Macedonia border, in the winter of 2014. Thousands of asylum seekers were passing through the region, yet at this point, the official presence of iNGOs and the state was non-existent.

 

The village of Idomeni is tiny: it has just 154 registered inhabitants. At its peak, almost 14, 000 people displaced people resided in the adjacent unofficial camp. There was a distinct lack of provisions and infrastructure to support them, due in no small part to the conspicuous absence of international aid organisations and governmental support – something also witnessed after the closure and evacuation of the unofficial camp – and conditions were dire.

 

The volunteers provided emergency aid to those living in camp or in transit, from shelter and food, to clothing and hygiene items – the team who founded Omnes were, in fact, the first group that Help Refugees sent aid to in the summer of 2015. Furthermore, volunteers were often called upon to provide or facilitate medical care – due, in large part, to the region’s poor infrastructure. On more than one occasion, for example, an ambulance could not come to the camp (due to the fact that there were only two to service the region) and so volunteers had to transport the injured or infirm to hospital.

 

In November 2015, following the simultaneous implementation of new border rules by FYROM, Croatia and Serbia – stipulating that only people with papers to prove that they were from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan would be able to cross – and the increased presence of iNGOs, the volunteers (still not yet Omnes) decided to stop participating. Yet a few months later, in February 2016, they were called upon to assist at the newly-created, military-run camp of Cherso.
Authorities were planning to receive 4,000 persons in military tents set up directly on the soil, next to a village of a few hundred people. For almost two months, they were unsupported by major iNGOs; only the army and police force were continuously present. The conditions were grim, particularly after heavy rainfall, and access to water and sanitation facilities was limited. The group of volunteers made calls to their friends and family members, asking if anyone could host a vulnerable family – even if only for a few days. The response was fantastic: 75 families were hosted in this way. It was clear that housing was far more dignified than life in a camp; furthermore, it offered people an opportunity to be part of the local community. As it became clear that the ‘temporary’ camps would not be temporary, after all, the volunteers’ idea of housing people in an inclusive manner became increasingly necessary.

 

It should be noted that refugee camps are relied on throughout Greece, on both the islands and mainland. Since March 2016, the government has sought to host over 60, 000 people in mid-term camps – supported by European funding and NGOs – but the conditions remain inadequate, and camps offer little hope for the future. Despite calls for long-term solutions, the majority of displaced people are expected to live in camps until they are relocated, reunited with family, or granted asylum. Alongside other groups, Omnes provide accommodation within existing communities – and are at the forefront of inclusive housing.

 

Omnes’ approach is based on the belief that displaced people should be helped to resettle in a way that will benefit local economies and regional environments, and it is in Kilkis that their pilot project has launched. I met Stefanos and Celine, who are part of the Omnes team, at the organization’s office – which has a wonderful story behind it. The building was built by seven Pontian refugee families almost 100 years ago, who each lived in one room – and so in using it to help newcomers to the area, Omnes hope to invoke the past welcome that people living in the region offered to refugees.

 

Kilkis

 

There are three key branches to Omnes’ approach: housing, inclusion (including a centre that provides medical care, legal, administrative and psychosocial support, access to education, and cultural opportunities, as well as being a platform for community engagement) and livelihood. The group now manages 116 houses, and employs 61 professionals to support the overall program of housing and inclusion. Both local families at risk of exclusion (by which I mean homelessness, destitution etc.) and families with refugee status, seeking asylum in Greece or pending resolution of their family reunification case are eligible for housing and support: at present, Help Refugees funds a project that supports eight local families and one with refugee status.

 

The livelihood programs are designed to avoid seasonal labour, as that offers little security for employees, and instead looks towards social cooperatives and ethical production (such as Emigrow). Furthermore, Omnes is looking to create synergies with other outlets in the future: if, for example, they support a cooperative that grows crops and vegetables (Kilkis is an agricultural region), they would look to partner with a restaurant in the city. Yet profits would be split equally across the production and retail components, to avoid reinforcing the centre-periphery division.

 

The pilot project has been well-received by locals and newcomers alike – and what’s more, it has demonstrated that inclusive housing is cheaper than managing refugee camps. To support the adoption of their model elsewhere, Omnes has created a document that indicates the number of newcomers that could feasibly be supported by each municipality, the number of jobs that this could create, and more – which you can see on their website.

 

Omnes’ work is pioneering a radical, yet highly practical, form of inclusion: it supports newcomers and locals alike, benefitting individuals and the region as a whole. As you may have guessed, I’m quite a big fan! I’m so excited to see where this wonderful project will go – you can follow them here.

 

My final evening in Thessaloniki was spent with a good friend from Calais, who has since set up an organization called Be A Robin. Valentino and his colleagues provide an individual with tailored support – education, vocational assistance, conversion courses, language lessons etc. – to ease their transition in to an independent life in Greece. Recently, he has also offered day-trips for families living around Thessaloniki – when we met, he had just been to the zoo for the tenth time in about as many days…!

 

It has been wonderful to see how the efforts of different groups complement each other, providing both practical assistance and brief respite from the challenges of displacement. The grassroots response is multifaceted, effective and inspiring, and I feel so lucky to have met some of the amazing people who are working in Northern Greece.

I’m heading down to Athens tomorrow, so will update you from there soon. For now, I so encourage you to follow the links in this document – and if you have any questions, or want to get involved, please don’t hesitate to get in touch!

 

– Amelia x

 


The featured image, in the banner of this post, is a blended picture of the original families who lived in the building and Omnes’ current team.

Help Refugees has worked in Greece since 2015, and continues to fund a range of projects across the mainland and islands. To find out more, visit our Greece page. If you would like to donate or volunteer, please do contact us. We couldn’t do what we do without people like you! Thank you.

 

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Greece Diary: A Visit to Thessaloniki, Day 2

Amelia, one of the Help Refugees team, is currently visiting our partner projects in Greece. She is writing a series of updates from the trip – you can read about her first day in Thessaloniki here – and this piece provides an insight in to some of our partners’ wonderful work in Northern Greece. Updates from Athens and Lesvos to follow!

 

Over the past few days, our partners’ innovative projects have continued to amaze me. As I mentioned in my last post, Thessaloniki and the surrounding region is a real hub of activity, and it has been a privilege to learn about the amazing work of groups operating in the region.

 

On Tuesday, I visited Irida, a new multicultural women’s centre in Thessaloniki that is managed by our partners, Intervolve. The word ‘irida’ is Greek, and means ‘spectrum’, or every shade of colour that comes together to form light. It was chosen to reflect the diversity of women who are part of the centre’s community, and places inclusion right at its heart.

 

The space is spread over three floors, each of which has various rooms with different purposes. The first has the entry foyer (with a beautiful, Irida sign in the colours of the rainbow), a computer room, offices (for advice and support), a kitchen – where the women can prepare food, or attend the weekly cooking class – and a beautiful terrace that overlooks the city below. The second has a women’s only space, with an infants’ corner, a counselling room, a meditation room, a beauty space, and a sewing room. On the top floor, there is an activity room – it has a mirror, like a dance studio, and will be used for dance and yoga classes – as well as a classroom, a kids’ games room and a kids’ project room! Beyond language classes for English and Greek, the centre will offer a range of practical courses – including breastfeeding tips, conflict resolution and life-skills (such as orientation). You can see the incredible, jam-packed timetable here.

 

The space is beautiful: many of the decorations use repurposed items from the previous women’s centre, in the now-closed Softex camp. Think metal fan casings repurposed as lampshades, wooden shutters painted and hung on the walls (see picture below), plywood being used to create a light feature in the shape of an aeroplane for the kids’ space…and all of this has been created by Mahmoud, one of the volunteers at the centre. His carpentry skills (which you can see here) are evident in every room, including the rocking horse in the infants’ space!

 

I had the pleasure of meeting Lamya, one of the centre’s coordinators. As well as treating me to a tour of the women’s centre and explaining the services offered, we spoke at length about an upcoming project of hers. Voices of Softex is an event that will take place in a few months, as an exhibition and discussion space. It will focus on the experiences of those who resided in the notorious Softex camp, and the lessons that have been – or should be – learnt from the camp’s existence and closure. Underpinning the event is the idea that “the key to building the future is acknowledging the past”: it will ensure that the suffering of those who lived in Softex will not be swept under the rug, or (hopefully) repeated. You can follow the Irida page for updates about the project.

 

Irida

 

The following day, I visited the Thessaloniki Solidarity Centre, managed by Solidarity Now. It provides a combination of social support services, legal assistance, and educational or employment programs – and is used by people from more than 26 countries. It has social spaces (including the UNICEF corner, for young children, and a youth zone), as well as a computer room, several offices and classrooms. The programs available include language courses, which will hopefully be integrated in to an accredited interpreters’ course, as well as CV workshops and advice on job-searching. The focus this year is on education and employability, in recognition of the need for long-term and inclusive strategies.

 

The Solidarity Centre has an additional room that is dedicated to Skype calls, which form an essential part of the asylum procedure in Greece. In brief, those who want to seek asylum in Greece often have a Skype call with the asylum service, rather than attending an office – due to the scarcity of appointments – but must do so within a specific time slot. There is only one hour per week, for example, when the Skype service has an Urdu translator. Consequently, many of the Pakistani asylum seekers in Greece find it practically impossible to secure an interview – yet without it, they cannot proceed with their application. The same is true for Sorani speakers. Having a space allocated to these calls is thus indispensable for beneficiaries’ access to the official system – and without a formal application, their undocumented status puts them at risk of service denial and detention.

 

Both Irida and The Solidarity Centre are based in Thessaloniki, and provide indispensable support to the newcomers living in the city. Not only do they provide vital community spaces, but they also ensure that refugees and asylum seekers are empowered and supported, in a holistic sense, to start their next chapter in Greece.

 

Later today, I’ll visit our wonderful partners Omnes, who provide an inclusive housing program in the small city of Kilkis. For now, though, I hope this has given you an idea of the communal spaces created by our wonderful partners – and will write again soon.

 

– Amelia x

 


Help Refugees’ first shipment of aid went to Greece, and it remains a crucial site of our work. Follow the links to find out more about volunteering, or how to donate – we can’t do what we do, without people like you. Thank you.

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Greece Diary: A Visit to Thessaloniki, Part 1

Amelia, one of the Help Refugees team, is currently visiting our partner projects in Greece. She has just spent time in the North, and has written about the trip – and our work in the region – below. Expect more updates from Athens and Lesvos soon!


Thessaloniki is a hub of activity. Not only is it a bustling city in its own right – the second-largest in Greece, with over a million inhabitants – but there is also a range of grassroots organisations, international NGOs and other stakeholders that work with refugees in the city and surrounding area. It is where Help Refugees has a warehouse, which has supplied camps and projects in the area since 2016, and where many of our partners are based.

 

The region has a long history of welcoming displaced people, and its geographic proximity to other states – Bulgaria and Macedonia to the north, and Turkey to the east – has ensured that it is placed firmly on migration and displacement routes. In recent years, it became a feature of the well-trodden path through Greece and onwards to Europe – but all that changed when the borders began to close, first in August 2015 and definitively in February 2016.

 

Tens of refugee camps, official and unofficial, were dotted around the area. This included the infamous Idomeni camp, where approximately 14, 000 asylum seekers were stranded at the Macedonian border (the camp was evacuated in May 2016), as well as now-closed official camps such as Softex and Cherso. Now, 11 camps remain in Northern Greece, but there has been a notable increase in urban accommodation.

 

The question of accommodation is complex, with specific and overlapping issues at national and local level. I will not go in to detail here – not least because I am still trying to get my own head round it! However, it should be noted that many organizations in Thessaloniki have dedicated capacity to helping newcomers navigate the convoluted system – or to filling the gaps that the official system leaves behind. Despite this work, a substantial number of refugees are homeless in the area – the majority of whom are single men, who do not meet the vulnerability criteria for urban accommodation and who have not been relocated to a camp.

 

My first morning was spent with Ingrid, Help Refugees’ Field Manager for Northern Greece, who has the most astounding knowledge of organisations in the city and the idiosyncrasies of the system. She was supporting two newly arrived families, who were currently in emergency accommodation (a hotel room, for three nights), to access formal accommodation (an apartment, for six months). Her support ranged from ensuring that they had food in their hotels (and arranging deliveries or taking it to those who did not), to explaining the process of securing accommodation and escorting them to appointments. UNHCR oversees the housing program, and a number of organisations refer vulnerable individuals and families to them. However, if emergency housing is at capacity or delays arise in families’ acceptance in to formal accommodation, grassroots groups – many of which are funded by Help Refugees – are called upon to secure alternative housing.

 

I was then lucky enough to see the work done by Refugee Trauma Initiative (RTI), an incredible HR-supported group providing psychosocial and therapeutic support to refugees and volunteers. They have specific programmes to respond to the needs of various groups, including an Early Childhood Care & Development (ECCD) session for children 0-6. It is hard to describe the session I observed without being overly hyperbolic – but it really was wonderful.

 

The session was facilitated by trained therapists, and engaged the children through both play and guided educational exercises. Parents were supportive figures – sometimes in the room and playing with their children, sometimes using the time to attend other appointments or sessions in the same building. The ECCD programme works, in part, on attachment between a parent and child – to alleviate their stress, and support the family unit. The environment created was light and fun, allowing children – whether or not their parents were present – to have quality interactions in a safe and supported place. It was a real joy to see.

 

I spent the afternoon with one of the founding members of Ethos, a grassroots association supported by Help Refugees. Ethos supports unaccompanied children as they turn 18, as they are no longer the responsibility of the Greek state. The organisation supports young people’s transition to an independent life in Greece, through accommodation programs, inclusion projects and the provision (in partnership with RTI) of psychosocial support. Ethos facilitates social activities that help young people to connect with the Greek population, and supports their access to education and vocational training. Furthermore, the organisation helps young people to navigate the legal system in Greece, to ensure that they receive papers and benefits such as UNHCR’s cash assistance programme (which minors are not eligible for). Once the young people have a stable income, either through cash or employment, they move to independent living and receive remote support from Ethos based on their needs. The organisation helps young people to not only see, but also realise, a future in Greece – combining hope with practical opportunity.

 

The shift towards long-term solutions, which fill both immediate and future gaps in the existing state or iNGO response, is a remarkable feature of Thessaloniki’s grassroots groups. This work necessarily fosters inclusion and solidarity, and helps to normalize the lives of displaced people in their new countries.

 

I hope that this post offers some insight to the projects that Help Refugees – through your generosity – is able to support, as well as the complexities faced by displaced people in Greece. I’ll be in Thessaloniki for a few more days, and then heading down to Athens and onwards to the islands, so expect more updates soon.

 

– Amelia x

 


Since we funded 30 doctors to go to Lesvos in October 2015, Help Refugees has played a pivotal role the responding to the crisis in Greece. We welcome volunteers and donations, both of supplies and funds – because, as ever, our work depends on the generosity of people like you. Thank you.

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