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The Timber Project: goodbye to our carpentry heroes

Writing about this crisis, there’s often a tendency towards superlatives. But for some groups responding to it, these are entirely deserved. The Timber Project are one such group. Across Greece, the hard work, good humour and skill of this Scottish-born team are legendary.

Since beginning their work in July 2016, they’ve worked in over 15 different camps and sites across Greece. They’ve provided full-time employment to five refugees, and completed over 30 incredible projects that have made real improvements to people’s lives, building schools, medical centres, clothing distribution points, markets, cafes and libraries (and much more).

The story of the European crisis is also the story of ordinary people stepping up and doing extraordinary things. People working flat-out to fill huge gaps in services, often running on little more than ingenuity, pluck and a real desire to help those in need.

We believe The Timber Project demonstrate the best of this grassroots response. We’re incredibly proud to have supported them, every step of the way. Now, after six months of hard work on Lesvos and over two years volunteering in Greece, their team are heading back to Scotland for some very well-deserved rest and recovery.

The team finished their time in Greece laying some much-needed flooring in Moria refugee camp on the island of Lesvos, whilst simultaneously helping with the construction of seven cabins in Lesvos Solidarity – Pikpa camp, built to house some of the most vulnerable people still arriving on boats to the island.

In typically modest style, the team state that “the situation is complex but what we do is simple”. We’re not so sure. Across Greece, the infrastructure they’re built has allowed people to access healthcare and informal education. It’s enabled the provision of food and clothes. And it’s allowed people space to socialise, and for children to play. No mean feat. 

Writing about the people they’ve met along the way, the team state:

“we have been touched by the kindness and bravery of everyone we have met and we hope that they can find some peace and happiness in their new homes.”

We can’t thank The Timber Project enough for their work. For the last two years, we’ve been inspired by their tireless work and commitment to refugees across Greece. We hope they’ll be back soon, but in the meantime, wish them a restful break back in Scotland.


Find out more about The Timber Project and donate to allow us to support more incredible projects like this.

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Academics, civil society groups and local government working together for better refugee accommodation and inclusion

Carlotta Fontana Valenti is a recent graduate of UCL’s MSc In Building and Urban Design in Development. Here we repost her blog, ‘Refugee reception and housing practices in Greece’, in which she shares insights from a recent workshop bringing together UCL students with our partner OMNES and members of local government, to explore how to create better housing provision and inclusion for refugees in Greece.

This is a short story from a contested place: the town of Kilkis, located 40 kms away from the border between Greece and the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM) where, as in other rural areas in Greece, the economic crisis brought unemployment and depopulation. For its crucial location at the crossroads of migration routes, Kilkis has also been at the centre of the tragic events during the so-called refugee crisis of 2015. Over a mid-November night that year, Macedonia, Croatia and Serbia decided, almost simultaneously, to close their borders and modify the conditions of entrance to those in transit towards Northern Europe.

Thousands of people found themselves stranded in a small village of 154 inhabitants. This is how Idomeni became the largest unofficial camp in Greece and remained such for more than a year. In the absence of international aid, activist and citizen groups were active in the area since the summer of 2015, providing basic assistance to those living in the camp or in transit. Lately in 2016, with the arrival of international agencies, two military-run camps were formed in the surrounding areas of Kerso and Nea Kavala hosting 4,000 persons each.

Camp accommodation remains an inadequate and hopeless response to displacement, generating exclusion and contributing to increased physical and social segregation between residents and newcomers, preventing any form of encounter and reinforcing the narrative according to which displaced population constitute a threat to the local community. The unsustainability of the situation became evident to a group of local volunteers from Kilkis who soon started mobilising local resources to find a better solution to the crisis. Capitalising on hospitality practices rooted in the history of the country (Greece welcomed displaced population after the fall of the Ottoman Empire and from the Republic of Turkey between 1918 and 1930), families in Kilkis opened their doors to refugees.

It is in this context that the OMNES volunteer association started operating to implement a three-folded pilot project based on:

  1. providing dignified housing for vulnerable people
  2. facilitating trust-building between residents and newcomers through the creation of an inclusion centre
  3. supporting income and skills generating activities to promote social and economic development starting from local resources

OMNES’ holistic approach to inclusion recognises home as the core of physical, social and psychological wellbeing of its occupants (Dayarante & Kellet, 2008) with the belief that, by providing dignified housing solutions, people in transit become better able to find security and trust toward collaborating with the local community.

As part of a small initiative funded by seeds research funds of DPU and embedded onto a longer term action research engagement with local governments and NGOs operating in refugee housing provision and hosting practices in Southern Europe, I embarked on a visit to Kilkis during an international workshop/Urban Laboratory held in Thessaloniki between 12th-15th of April. The initiative, ‘Planning for Inclusive Cities’, aimed to bring together Mayors, Institutions and CSO from Greece and others cities in Europe to open a cross-country dialogue  and a learning exchange platform on inclusive practices.

As the Vice Mayor of Athens argued during the workshop “Inclusion is our future challenge and cities are the ‘battleground’”; but “cities” another participant argued “cannot be left alone in dealing with inclusion. The task requires the broad involvement of state actors and the effective coordination of multiple stakeholders”. Across the discussion panels, from both politicians and local actors, Kilkis’ pilot project was regarded as the paradigmatic case for the promotion of inclusion through local development.

Nevertheless, despite its successful outcomes, some questions arose. What is the long-term sustainability of a pilot project if it remains an isolated case within an atomised landscape of accommodation practices? How could the Kilkis project be scaled up at country level, and what is the potential applicability in cities such as Athens or Thessaloniki that present a completely different social fabric? What became clear during the three-day workshop is that Greece is working toward the decentralisation of reception, accommodation and housing for refugees, as part of a national effort to reconcile inclusion and development.

The challenges to think differently the city, its design and its management in this era of increased migration and movement are great therefore calling for more action research to experiment solutions and policies that could inform new visions for city. The workshop, and the alliances that emerged with locally active NGOs Help Refugees, OMNESPhiloxenia International, Greek universities such as Harokopio, Crete and University of Macedonia in Thessaloniki, and the involvement in European pilot projects for Urban Integration (UIA Urban Innovative Actions) will be conducive to the development of a research proposal aligned to existing DPU projects led by Camillo Boano, Giovanna Astolfo and Ricardo Marten, including Refugee Cities and Borders and Camps. It also capitalises on and creates further opportunity for the annual BUDDcamps and the DPU SummerLAB 2018 in Athens.

This blog was originally posted by the UCL Bartlett Development Planning Unit.  

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Aslam: the Syrian refugee feeding thousands of people in Greece

To people working in the grassroots refugee response in Greece, Aslam needs no introduction. To those unfamiliar with his work, Aslam has begrudgingly allowed us to share his some of his inspiring story here, along with a call to support refugees observing Ramadan.

Aslam arrived on the shores of Lesvos in 2015. Born in Syria, he worked with the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies amidst the rubble of the brutal attacks sweeping the country. But having left Syria for the safety of Europe, he was shocked at the total lack of support for refugees. Finding volunteer and community groups filling the kind of gaps you’d imagine only states and large NGOs could fill, he got to work. He became a volunteer himself. Asked why, he simply states “why not?”

Help Refugees first met Aslam in Idomeni in Northern Greece. Border closures had created a huge informal refugee camp in the north of the country, made up of people whose journeys had been truncated by newly-built fences. Refugees here were living in flimsy festival tents, suffering in deep mud, with little-to-no access to food. We’ve heard Aslam described as the ‘godfather of the grassroots’, and watching him coordinate the volunteer response in Idomeni, it was easy to see why. It was here we started working with Aslam, providing desperately-needed emergency aid and services to the people in this region.

Three years later, Aslam is still at the heart of our work in Greece. In typically matter-of-fact style, he declares that he doesn’t have any special motivation for helping. “If an old lady fell over in the street, you wouldn’t think about your motivation for helping her up. You’d just help her up”. But despite this reticence, fuelled entirely by a diet of Nescafé and Marlboro Reds, he’s achieved remarkable things. Typically understated about his own impact, we’d like to celebrate the hundreds of tonnes of food and millions of meals he’s ensured reach refugees, alongside the building projects he’s facilitated and the innumerable improvements to facilities in camps that he’s enabled.  

Aslam can currently be found working around the clock to ensure refugees living on the island of Lesvos receive the food they need this Ramadan. Asked about the significance of this event for people on the island, he responds:

“Food is one of the biggest gaps here. Many people get food from the army, which isn’t good. Some get cash instead of food, but the cash really isn’t enough. So this isn’t only about Ramadan, people need help with food all the time. But during Ramadan, people are fasting so they need it more.

“Sometimes people wonder, why would you still fast as a refugee? But if there was a war and people were from the UK became refugees, would you still have Christmas? Of course you would.

“Not all the people here are muslims. We don’t differentiate who can receive the food. It’s a meal for everyone. And putting people, hundreds of people, all together at the same table, it’s really something special.”

There’s an unattributed quote we like, about the importance of building longer tables, not higher fences. Here we want to celebrate the work of our colleague and our friend, both for his big heart, his disturbingly dark sense of humour, and his drive to ensure everyone can have a place at the table. The Help Refugees family is large, caring, and at times, fairly unconventional. And we can say with absolute certainty that it wouldn’t be the same without Aslam.

If you’re inspired by Aslam’s work, please donate to support his work providing food for refugees this Ramadan.

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Our Impact 2015 – 2017: from a hashtag to a global movement

In the summer of 2015, a group of friends started a campaign on social media. They wanted to make a difference to the situation for refugees in the north of France. In the two and a half years since, this campaign has grown into a humanitarian charity that’s provided vital aid to 722,500 refugees across 12 countries.

Since the summer of 2015, we’ve supported a network of over 25,000 volunteers, working flat out to provide food, clothes, shelter, medical care, psychosocial support and informal education to refugees across Europe and the Middle East.

We’ve raised £10 million, 94% of which has gone straight to projects helping refugees. In a little over two years, our work has helped around 722,500 people.

Sometimes it’s good to take stock. Our Impact Report, covering the period from our establishment until December 2017, does just this.

In this report, you’ll find more information about the countries in which we work, our approach, our volunteers and the incredible impact that your donations are making to people’s lives. 

We believe that our work shows how ordinary people can step up and make a real difference to the lives of those in need. We hope you do too. 

Don’t have time to read the full report? Here are some of the key statistics:


Help Refugees is movement of thousands of everyday people, taking action to improve the lives of refugees. In a little over two years, we’ve grown from nothing more than a hashtag into one of the largest facilitators of grassroots aid in Europe. Read the our impact report and donate to enable our vital work to continue. 

 

 

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The Refugee Crisis

“The refugee crisis” means different things to different people. That’s because there are refugee crises unfolding across the globe, and yet there doesn’t seem to be the political vocabulary to discuss them – or their causes, implications and solutions – individually.

 

At the global level, there are record numbers of people – across almost every continent – who have been forcibly displaced. An unprecedented 65.6 million people have been forced from their homes, of which 22.5 million are refugees. 1 in every 113 people globally is now either an asylum-seeker, internally displaced or a refugee. This has never been seen before.

Forced displacement has been on the rise since the mid-1990s, but the level at which it is increasing has grown over the past five years. Today, more than twenty people are displaced every minute. In 2005, it was six.

The causes for this ever-growing rise in displacement are many, and they are complex. However, UNHCR has identified three core reasons:

  1. First, situations (including civil, international and internationalised wars) that create large numbers of refugees are lasting longer;
  2. Second, there are a number of new and re-ignited conflicts currently raging (notably in Syria, Iraq, South Sudan, and more);
  3. Third, the rate at which solutions are being found for refugees and internally displaced people has been on a falling trend since the end of the Cold War.

The sheer scope and scale of this forced movement arguably legitimizes the term “crisis”. However, the use of such apocalyptic language can be used to cloak a lack of political will or effort, by presenting the problem as too large to handle.

Since 2015, this practice has been well-documented across Europe. “The refugee crisis” has become a common phrase, bandied around by politicians and media personalities. It tends to refer to the growing numbers of people who have sought sanctuary on the continent, and who have travelled irregularly – perhaps by boat, or concealed in lorries – to reach safety. But this narrative fundamentally misrepresents the situation in Europe: refugees are the victims, rather than the creators, of a European crisis – and that crisis is a political one.

 

In 2015, over a million people arrived to Europe by boat – and over 3, 700 people died while attempting the crossing. They were fleeing war and persecution; they were seeking a better life for their family. The political establishment convulsed: instead of looking to protect refugees and migrants, many States spoke of the impending “swarm” of people as something to be feared.

Facts made a swift exit from the conversation. The European Union’s population was, in 2015, roughly 500 million. The new arrivals therefore represented just 0.2% of the total population, but this was rarely cited. Instead, the statistic of one million was splashed across headlines. Far-right parties profited from virulent anti-immigration rhetoric. States soon began to close their borders, to fortify their security systems, and to move away from refugee protection.


The inadequate and damaging response of many nations was compounded by the EU’s immigration system, known as Dublin III. This states that asylum seekers arriving to Europe should claim sanctuary in the first safe country that they reach. It places a disproportionate burden on peripheral states, while shielding northern European countries – and particularly the UK, given that it is an island – from the increased number of new arrivals. It pushes people to take perilous journeys on foot or hidden in lorries and trains to reach their families, friends, or simply the place that they want to be. It has resulted in numerous deaths: over the past two years and in Calais alone, five children (all of whom had the right to be in the UK) have died while attempting to cross the border.  

The crisis in Europe is not of numbers. It is a political crisis, that has played out on the backs of refugees and asylum seekers. It has served to stigmatise communities, and deny countless individuals their rights. But it doesn’t need to be this way.

Join our movement, and call for a fair European system that is based on fact and compassion. Call for the rights of people on the move, wherever they are, to be respected. Together, we can show that this isn’t a crisis: this is a time to act with love and solidarity, and give sanctuary to those who need it.

 

Help Refugees supports refugees and displaced people across Europe and the Middle East. To support our work, please donate here.

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870 mile solidarity march in support of refugees & migrants

Our partners L’Auberge des Migrants​ are marching 870 miles to show their support of refugees and migrants, calling on governments to provide more safe and legal routes for those fleeing war and persecution, and demanding an end to the ‘crime of solidarity’.

If you believe we should be welcoming refugees.

And want to use your voice to protest against the closed borders of “Fortress Europe”, where protecting borders becomes more important than protecting people.

And want to demand an end to the criminalisation of solidarity in France.

Join the solidarity march!

What is the route and schedule?

The march leaves Ventimiglia on April 30, 2018 and ends in London on July 8. It has 60 stages, including Nice, Marseille, Lyon, Dijon, Paris and Lille.

Each step will follow, except special cases, these approximate times: departure 9:30, arrival 16:30. The average stage is 20 to 25 km. This supposes, by removing an hour of pause, on average 5 to 6 hours of walking at 4 km / h.

It will be finishing in London on July 8th – where we are planning a community event to welcome those finishing the march. Watch this space for further details about the event.

If you want to join the march, or donate to the cause, please click here.

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The Moria 35: Refugees convicted on Greek islands despite ‘overwhelming lack of evidence’

Despite what one legal group has described as an “overwhelming lack of evidence”, the trial of the ‘Moria 35’ ended last week with the conviction of thirty-two people.

Since the EU-Turkey deal of March 2016, refugees and migrants arriving to the Greek islands from Turkey can be held indefinitely. Instead of continuing their journey to mainland Greece people live in limbo, enduring inhumane conditions in overcrowded camps, facing the constant threat of deportation back to Turkey.

The island of Lesvos is the largest of these holding sites. Moria refugee camp on the island is the largest holding facility. Built to accommodate approximately 1,800 people, there are currently around 6,500 individuals living in this overcrowded camp.

In July of last year, hundreds of protesters gathered peacefully to demand the right to free movement to the mainland. This protest was met by the authorities with violence. Humanitarian actors were evicted from the camp and police officers were filmed gathering rocks from the ground and throwing them at protesters during the ensuing clashes.

Later in the day, armed police violently raided the so-called ‘African section’ of the camp. They forcibly entered shelters and assaulted residents, including teenagers and a pregnant woman. Thirty-five people were arrested during the raid; one beaten so badly that he was hospitalised for a week.

Following these arrests, Amnesty International published a report demanding Greek authorities launch an investigation in to police use of force, which they stated “may amount to torture”. The report indicates those arrested were subject to racist abuse and beatings in police custody. Many arrestees were brought to court barefoot having been denied time to dress properly before being dragged out of the camp; others were bleeding from injuries that had been left untreated for days in prison.

Last week, on the final day of their trial, three of the thirty-five people arrested were found innocent. The remaining thirty-two were given suspended sentences for an identical catalogue of criminal offences, ranging from rioting and damage to private property to disturbing the public peace. They plan to appeal this guilty verdict.

Legal Centre Lesbos, a group providing legal advice to those living on the island, responded to the ruling:

“This inherently unsafe verdict, reached despite an overwhelming lack of evidence, follows a week long trial which continuously violated fundamental principles of a fair trial under Article 6 of the European Convention of Human Rights and brings into serious question the impartiality of both the Judges and Prosecutor in the case…

“Police witnesses testified that all 32 defendants arrested inside Moria Camp were guilty simply because they were present in the African section of the camp after clashes between some migrants and riot police had ended. Confirmation by the court that guilt can be implied by race and location near to where alleged crimes took place sets an extremely dangerous precedent…

“It defies all logic, despite shocking video footage of police attacks against the defendants; and police witnesses unable to positively identify any of the 35 in court, that 32 were found guilty.”

We believe the dangerous precedent this ruling sets reflects an increasingly hostile legal atmosphere towards refugees calling for change. Only last week, far-right demonstrators attacked refugees peacefully protesting in Lesvos. 122 of the refugee and migrant protesters were consequently detained, while not one of their far-right attackers was arrested.

The right to free speech and peaceful protest must be protected. European governments are failing time and again to listen to the voices of the people making the difficult journey across Europe and the Middle East, in doing so putting more lives at risk.

Find out more about the trial on the Legal Centre Lesbos website.

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