Meely Cooper

Supporting volunteer teachers in Greece: Laura’s experience

I’ve just come to the end of 3 weeks in Greece (2 in Athens and 1 in Thessaloniki), volunteering as a teacher trainer for some of the volunteers there who are teaching English to adult refugees. It’s been both a challenging and very rewarding experience. Here’s some more information, and a few personal reflections…


Who were the teachers?

The thirty or so volunteer teachers I worked with across Athens and Thessaloniki came from a range of age, gender, nationality and first-language backgrounds. They were teaching in different contexts – some based in camps, others working in community centres which had an education department, others teaching in less formal environments, such as in homes, cafés or squats. Three of the teachers were themselves refugees, who had joined the team of volunteers within their communities. They were all incredibly committed and motivated to helping their students develop their English language skills.

The teachers I worked with are based at various locations around Athens, including Project Elea in Eleonas Camp and Khora Community Centre in the city centre, and Thessaloniki, including Lifting Hands International in Serres, and IHA and We Are Here in Nea Kavala camp. These volunteer teachers are bright, enthusiastic and extremely dedicated. Though most of them do not have any background in English language teaching, they all have the right attitude and motivation to develop their skills and make a real difference to their students.


Who were the students?

The students came from backgrounds as diverse as the teachers! Unlike most of the students I’ve taught, these students were refugees, temporarily living in Greece while on their journey to rebuilding their lives, after past events had forced them to leave their countries of origin.

Despite these circumstantial differences from previous students I’d worked with in more stable and privileged environments, all the classes I visited were very much like any other in terms of the students’ mix of motivation levels, proficiency levels, personalities and learning preferences.


What did we do?

To help the volunteers fill the gaps in their pedagogical skillset and meet the communicative needs of their students, it was important to offer both some general training, and visit individual classrooms to see what was happening there.

For the former, we met as a group over three full days, with two days aimed at less experienced teachers plus one day for those with more experience. For the latter, teachers invited me to attend their lessons to observe the teaching and learning. Afterwards, we would meet one-on-one and reflect on the lesson together, focusing on what the teacher was doing that had worked well and what they could do differently/additionally to make the students’ learning experience even more efficient and effective.

A classroom at Khora Community Centre, Athens, staffed by volunteer teachers.

What were my impressions of this experience?

I loved it. I found the discussions we had in the teacher training sessions were rich, enjoyable and enlightening – I’m quite sure I learned as much from the teachers as they did from me. And of course, it’s always rewarding to teach and train, as you see the difference that even small insights can make to the daily practices of your students and trainees.


Of course, it wasn’t all easy and cheerful. It would be remiss not to mention some of the more upsetting and poignant moments from my time in Greece. Like the incredible sense of sheer boredom for many refugees, that mingles with the frustration and desperation of being stuck in a foreign place – your entire life on hold, with so much uncertainty about your future and even your present.


One student in a class that I observed was really curious about why I was there. I tried to smile but not engage him in conversation (as it was distracting for the teacher, who he was supposed to be paying attention to!). At the end, he waited until all the students had left and asked me, “Where are you from?” I answered, then asked where he was from. He said, “Iraq. And I’m human.” That took me aback. For one thing, why would I think anything else? And this guy barely speaks 50 words of English. Yet this is a phrase he’s learnt, and feels important to share when he meets a new volunteer.


There were two adorable little boys, brothers aged about 4 and 5, running around the volunteer office, flashing cheeky smiles, climbing on my colleague, dancing to music and trying to get more and more biscuits from me after I offered them one. One of the boys eventually toddled off, and my colleague explained that he was limping because he’s got a problem with his leg. He spent 3 months in hospital last year after arriving in Greece, because he’d nearly drowned on the boat coming over. The motor from the boat then fell on his leg and damaged it. They managed to save his life, but now he has a limp. And he still runs around and plays like any other little boy, blissfully unaware of how unusual his childhood is.

But, heart-wrenching stories aside, my overriding impression of the refugee and volunteer community here is one of incredible resilience, creativity, goodwill and humanity. I had a good laugh with one of my new friends, a volunteer teacher who is himself a refugee, when we said goodbye on my last day. I said I might be back one day and hoped to see him again. “I won’t be here!” he said optimistically, to which I replied, “true, I hope I don’t see you again!” We laughed; he then said he might come back and visit one day – to volunteer as a teacher again. What a great heart.


Another great highlight of my experience in Greece was seeing two lessons on two different days by one of the teachers who had attended my training sessions. He is a refugee, and is now volunteering as an English teacher. The first one wasn’t great – and deliberately so, because he wanted me to see what his teaching was like before he’d had any input at all. We talked about it afterwards: I gave him some feedback, he assessed his strengths and weaknesses, then I came back a couple of days later to see him teach again. He delivered such a good lesson – it was barely recognisable compared to the first one! I felt so proud! Being a teacher/trainer really has some golden moments.



Want to get involved?

First of all: whatever you do, please be sensitive. Remember that refugee camps are not tourist attractions. For my part, I don’t pretend that a couple of weeks of volunteering with teachers here has given me a thorough and deep understanding of what people are going through. I can only say that I’ve had a glimpse into the daily reality of some of those experiencing first-hand what is perhaps the biggest global humanitarian crisis of my generation. I’m glad to have met the people I worked with on this trip, I wish them all the best for their present and future lives, and I can only hope that my small contribution has made some positive difference.


If you want to learn more about volunteering with some of the organisations based in Athens, you might find it helpful to visit the Project EleaKhora Community Centre or No Border School websites.


There’s also a volunteer recruitment organisation that works in partnership with Help Refugees, called IndiGo Volunteers, who work with 30+ organisations throughout Greece to supply volunteers. You can find more information here.


Finally, if you want to help but you’re not able to give much time and/or your physical presence, you might like to contribute something from Project Elea’s general Amazon Wishlist, or from their specific book/education wishlist.


This blog was written by Laura Patsko, and first published – in a longer form – on her blog. Do read her original piece if you would like additional information on the workshops that were provided, feedback from the teachers, and further reading about teaching in Greece.


To find out more about volunteering with Help Refugees in Greece, teaching or not, please click here. Thank you.



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Thousands of Syrian refugees at risk of being pushed to return, report finds

Over the past year, governments have started to openly contemplate – and on occasion, implement – the return of refugees to Syria. This discourse is fuelled by a range of political pressures, including anti-immigration rhetoric in the West, the territorial decline of groups such as the so-called Islamic State, and the establishment of so-called de-escalation zones within Syria. However, the security situation remains acute, and the country’s infrastructure is in tatters. The safe and dignified return of refugees cannot, as yet, be guaranteed.

A new report, released by the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) and a coalition of other humanitarian organizations, warns that the situation in Syria is far from safe. Furthermore, the report demonstrates that the prevailing interest in returns is undermining the safety of refugees in neighboring countries, as well as impacting the protection that they are offered within Europe. Until safe and dignified returns can be guaranteed, states must refrain from framing returns as a solution. Doing so threatens lives.


Moreover, the report notes that “an excessive focus on the return of refugees is also diverting attention from commitments made by the international community” to support refugees and host nations. A failure to honour these pledges will impact on poor host communities, and “increase the likelihood of unsafe or coerced returns in the coming year.”



The conflict

The conflict in Syria is now entering its eighth year. More than half of the pre-war population have been displaced: more than six million within Syria, five million are refugees in neighbouring countries, and a million have fled to Europe. While regime forces have made significant gains in recent months, peace is but a distant prospect.


“Many parts of Syria continue to be torn apart by conflict. Fierce fighting in the northwestern province of Idlib recently forced a quarter of a million people to flee. This is on top of a million people already displaced inside the province,” wrote Jan Egeland, Secretary General of the NRC. “Further south, in the besieged enclave of Eastern Ghouta, the misery of 400,000 starved Syrians has spiked to an unimaginable level.”


Both warzones are among the so-called de-escalation zones, that were meant to see an increase in aid and reconstruction to allow for the eventual return of displaced communities. In Egeland’s words, “they have witnessed only death and destruction.”



“In Syria’s neighbouring countries, the push to return refugees has manifested itself in closed borders, deportations and forced or involuntary returns” – Dangerous ground: Syria’s refugees face an uncertain future, report



The response of neighbouring countries

While many Syrians did return home last year, a far greater number fled – or attempted to. The NRC’s report found that “for every Syrian (interally displaced or refugee) who returned home in 2017, there were three newly displaced. The numbers for refugees alone are equally stark: while 66,000 refugees returned to Syria in 2017, Turkish and Jordanian authorities prevented nearly 300,000 people who were trying to flee Syria from entering their countries.”


Of the 30, 000-50, 000 Syrian refugees denied access to Jordan, the UN estimates that four out of five are women or children. They face the harsh conditions of winter with little support: there was only on delivery of aid in a six-month period.


In addition to border closures, the governments of Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon have returned asylum seekers to Syria. In some cases documented by aid groups in Jordan, Syrians were not afforded the opportunity to challenge their deportation in court, access legal advice or review their deportation orders.



The response of European countries

Government officials and political parties in Europe – including in Germany – are discussing or advocating for the deportation of refugees. This follows two years of hardening European policies, from the construction of walls to deals such as the EU-Turkey Deal and Joint Way Forward, and has a direct impact on the security of refugees in their new countries.


“Germany, like the U.N., does not consider it safe for refugees to go back to Syria,” wrote Miriam Berger for Refugees Deeply. “But since March 2016, the country has provided most Syrians with this temporary form of protection and renewed it annually…Just 0.6 percent of Syrians received subsidiary protection in 2015. That rose in 2016 to 41 percent and last year to 55 percent, according to Germany’s Federal Office for Migration and Refugees.”


If the rhetoric of return is affecting the protection offered to refugees, a knock-on effect will be felt on their ability to integrate and begin the next chapter of their lives. Future return should not affect the security or rights offered to refugees in their host countries.



“About one-third of all homes and schools, and about half of all medical facilities, have been damaged or destroyed in the conflict.” – Dangerous ground: Syria’s refugees face an uncertain future, report



The situation faced by returnees
Those who return to Syria – voluntarily, or as victims of refoulement – face acute risks. Large numbers of unexploded landmines left by Islamic State combatants are causing 50 to 70 civilian casualties a week in Raqqa alone, as tens of thousands of civilians return to the city. Even areas where there is respite from conflict still, therefore, pose a significant danger to civilians.


Syria’s infrastructure is in tatters. Homes, schools, hospitals and water systems have been destroyed; explosive hazards litter the country; and the destruction of housing, land and property records creates an additional obstacle for those wishing to return home. More than one in ten IDPs interviewed by the NRC said that, to their knowledge, their previous residency was currently occupied – with their permission or not. The UN Humanitarian Needs Overview found that looting has taken place in over two-thirds of assessed sub-districts. Furthermore, almost half of IDPs interviewed by the NRC in southern Syria reported that they knew their original homes were either damaged beyond repair or destroyed.


It is clear that until a stable, just and sustainable political and security solution is found, and mass reconstruction can begin, Syria is not a safe country for returns. For now, unqualified discussions of return can only be detrimental to the status of refugees and displaced Syrians.


The image is of a camp in the Beqaa Valley, Lebanon.

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Eligibility for family reunion must be expanded, campaigners say

A coalition of organisations – UNHCR-UK, the British Red Cross, the Refugee Council, Oxfam and Amnesty – have launched the #FamiliesTogether campaign, which seeks to improve the framework for refugee family reunion. On Monday, we published an article that explains their first ask: for unaccompanied child refugees in the UK to have the right to sponsor their families’ safe passage to reunite with them. Today, we’ll explain the second ask: an expansion of who qualifies as family, so that young people who have turned 18, and elderly parents, can be reunited and live in safety with their families in the UK.


International law acknowledges that families are entitled to protection. Yet under this principle, it is left to individual states to define what is meant by ‘family’ – and the UK has adopted a very restrictive definition, for the purposes of refugee reunion.


Under the refugee family reunion rules, the only family members explicitly allowed to join adult refugees are their spouse/partner and their dependent children who are under the age of 18. Grandparents, parents, siblings and children who have turned 18 are not, for this purpose, considered family – however strong their ties of love are, and however dependent they are on their family members who have reached the UK.


The Refugee Council detailed the case of “one young Syrian man, Joram, who became the sole carer for his eight-year-old sister and parents, both of whom have serious medical conditions. His brother, who used to share the responsibility of looking after the family, is trapped in Lebanon and ineligible to join them here [in the UK].”


While the Home Office’s policy on refugee family reunion does have scope for family members categorised as ‘ineligible’ to be granted safe passage, caseworkers are instructed to do so exclusively in exceptional or compassionate circumstances. Furthermore, the stringent requirements placed on these circumstances means the definition of “exceptional” is rendered extremely narrow – and practically dependent on the discretion of the decision maker.


The campaign calls for an expansion of who qualifies as family within the refugee family reunion rules, so that young people who have turned 18, and elderly parents, can be reunited and live in safety with their family in the UK. We want them to have a chance to rebuild their lives so they can have safe, happy futures together.



The guidance

In July 2016, the Home Office published updated guidance on refugee family reunion that detailed some of the cases where exceptional circumstances may apply. In particular, the updated guidelines address the case of dependent children over the age of 18, acknowledging that in exceptional circumstances reunion may be allowed with the family member upon whom the person is dependent. This suggests that there is some governmental recognition of the importance of family reunion, and the deficiencies of the system as it currently stands. However, these are guidelines, not rules – meaning a level of uncertainty remains for families, who must rely on the discretion of Home Office decision makers.


The current guidance is complex, with the threshold for exceptional circumstances set very high. The guidelines state, explicitly, that cases where other types of family member will be allowed to join are “rare”. Without legal aid, which was removed from refugee family reunion cases in making an application for family reunion outside the rules borders on the impossible due to the complex rules and guidance as well as the expertise required to collect, organise and present evidence. This means that even if the Government’s guidance provides dependent adults and elderly parents with a possible legal route to join their family in the UK, it is highly unlikely that families will in practice be able to benefit from the guidance.


The human cost of separation

Separation from loved ones has had a profound effect on refugees in the UK, with many experiencing isolation, emotional distress and lack of confidence as natural corollaries of prolonged time apart from their families. The Safe but not Settled report found that, in 33 of the 44 cases investigated, family members experienced “feelings of guilt or [were] struggling with mental health problems” to separation from loved ones. This emotional turmoil in turn inhibits their ability to integrate into society and rebuild their lives, many refugees too plagued with worry to focus on finding work, making friends or learning English.


In addition, the Government’s expansion of the definition of family via guidance rather than through causes practical problems for families once they have been reunited in the UK. Individuals joining relatives in the UK through the immigration rules receive rights and benefits enjoyed by the family member they are joining, such as leave to remain in line with the family member, access to welfare support, and conventional travel documents. In the cases where leave to remain is granted outside the rules, it is and may be subject to restrictions that refugee status is not, including not having recourse to public funds. This leaves family members brought to the UK under discretionary powers in an uncertain and perilous position, left in the dark as to whether they will receive the same rights and benefits as their family members.


An expansion of the family reunion rules themselves, as opposed to additional guidance, would both clarify the legislation in this area and offer a more humane reunification policy. It is for this reason that we are asking for an expansion of who qualifies as family, so that young people who have turned 18, and elderly parents, can be reunited and live in safety with their families in the UK.


On 16th March 2018, the Family Reunion Bill will be debated in the House of Commons. If you believe that refugees settled in the UK deserve the right to live safely with their closest loved ones, please contact your MP and ask them to save the date. You can do this in just a few moments, using the Refugee Council website – after typing in your postcode, you will see who your local MP is, and you will also have a draft of the letter ready to send.

It will take less than 5 minutes to send, but could make a huge change to the lives of separated families. Thank you.

This article was written by Daniel Taylor, who volunteered as a legal caseworker in Athens for four months.

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Grassroots work in Lesvos “both indispensable and life-saving”

Lesvos is perhaps one of the most notorious places on the European refugee route; within Greece, it certainly is. Countless newspapers have reported on the crossings made there, or the conditions within camps such as Moria. Yet with all of this, it is hard to get a full impression of the island: of the incredible grassroots response, and its interaction with larger organisations; of the community-led programs that bring dignity, education and hope for the future; and of the reality, rather than anecdotes, of life for refugees and displaced people on the islands.


I was only there for a few days – I am by no means an expert – and I really don’t want to add to the conjecture that has characterized much of the island’s portrayal in the media, so please bear in mind that this is only a first impression. Feel free to get in touch with questions, or look up the blogs of the wonderful organizations mentioned, for more information.


Moria looks, from the outside, like a prison. It is a camp with capacity for 1800, and a population more than double that: the most recent estimate is of 5500 people. Next to the entrance, seen from the road, graffiti says ‘Welcome to Prison Moria’. The camp is on a main road, but high fences and layers of barbed wire mark it clearly. People are free to leave, but there are no pavements to walk along; no buses for safe transport to the city. “Visitors” – by which I mean journalists, aid workers, and the like – are required to have a pass in order to enter, though the gaps in the fence or unguarded gates allow many to slip in.


There are approximately 100 unaccompanied minors living in the camp (down from 350, three weeks ago), who sleep in a designated Safe Zone. Volunteers and aid organizations have protested the lack of services – social spaces, psychosocial support and education – available for them. Volunteers are doing incredible work seeking to fill these gaps, but lack the capacity to support the population as a whole. Despite there being a specified camp for families nearby, there are large numbers of families and very young children living in Moria. There isn’t space for them all in Kara Tepe – but nor is there in Moria.


There is an olive grove, adjacent to the camp, where approximately 1000-1500 people are currently sleeping in tents. This is an unofficial space, hence there is no fence, security, or state-funded services. There currently are not any showers or sanitation facilities designated for the people sleeping in the olive grove, but they are able to use those provided in the camp.


Arrivals to Lesvos continue: in December, 2300 new people arrived; since January 1st, 961 people have arrived. Efforts to decongest the islands are underway, following calls from leading politicians (including the mayor of Lesvos) and a range of organisations. December was the first month that transfers to the mainland exceeded arrivals; however, some concern has been expressed regarding the quality, and longevity, of the accommodation that people are then given.


Projects supported by Help Refugees are collaborating with a range of other groups, both within and outside Moria, and have done brilliant work to improve conditions within the camp and offer support outside. Since November, for example, The Timber Project have installed insulated, raised flooring in over 80 tents, to lift the base away from freezing ground water and sewage. “In many ways,” the team said, “this is the most basic project we have ever undertaken – but also the most crucial.” Given that three people died in Moria last winter, all related to the cold weather, the reality that their words represent could not be more stark.


Notably, volunteers and local organisations continue to fill gaps in services that no other organisations are providing. The majority of educational services are provided by volunteers, for example, and they have also taken a lead on the provision of non-food items (such as clothing), as well as healthy and nutritious food. Groups have built community centres that are attended by residents of Moria – particularly important, given that there are no social spaces available within the camp.


One example is the fantastic One Happy Family community center, which is managed in collaboration with residents of the camp. It’s about forty minutes’ walk from Moria, but is used daily by hundreds of people – when I visited, it was pouring with rain and yet there must have been over 200 people there. The collection of buildings includes a boutique, school, doctor’s clinic and gym; there is also a vegetable garden, a playground and a mobile library. The central building is home to a coffee shop, women and children’s space, cinema, tailor and barber – largely staffed by members of the community.
The space has its own form of currency, given to those who use the space and required for some of the services. While it has no value outside of the community centre, people have a finite amount and are therefore required to choose between what they do each day. “With that,” One Happy Family said, “we want to give the people a feeling of normality and self-determination in their environment which is often fully determined by others.”


Conditions on the island remain in dire need of improvement, and the exit of major iNGOs is creating additional issues. Many have ceased operations without arranging an appropriate handover, resulting in prolonged gaps in critical services. Moria Medical Support (MMS), for example, was founded following the departure of iNGOs who had previously been providing evening and night-time medical support for the residents of Moria. “We are not under the illusion that we can solve the medical situation in the camp with this mission, or change the appalling conditions there – this must happen at the level of Greek/European politics,” they said, “…but, what we can do is attempt to prevent people we care about from getting seriously hurt in this situation. So until a new medical actor moves in, OR the Greek governmental agencies take up their responsibility, MMS will provide both emergency medical care and emergency psychiatric care during the hours that all other medical care is absent.”


It is clear that grassroots work is both indispensable and life-saving – and that is true from the team at Refugee Rescue, the only search and rescue operation operating off Lesvos; to the team at MMS; and to the safe space provided by One Happy Family. The innovative and inspiring work of groups like them– and other amazing actors on the island, including the Watershed Foundation, the Mosaik Centre, Together for Better Days and more – brings dignity and hope to many displaced people living on Lesvos. It was a privilege to meet them all.


I will be returning to London in a few days, and so this is my final diary instalment. But if anything has piqued your interest, and you have further questions – or perhaps an interest in volunteering with one of the profiled groups? – then please don’t hesitate to get in touch.


– Amelia x


Photo credit, of the sunset over Lesvos, to Matthew Firpo.

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Child refugees should be allowed to reunite with their families, say campaigners

Last week, a campaign was launched by five organisations UNHCR-UK, the British Red Cross, the Refugee Council, Oxfam and Amnestythat hopes to expand and improve the framework for refugee family reunion. Help Refugees supports their campaign, and in this article, we will explain their first ask: for unaccompanied child refugees, who are already in the UK, to be granted the right to sponsor their families’ safe passage to the UK.


Unaccompanied child refugees in the UK have, under the present refugee family reunion* rules, no right to be reunited with even their closest family members. The denial of this right makes the UK an outlier in Europe – it is one of just two countries who do not allow applications for reunion from children – as well as setting children apart from adults, in their right to live safely with their family members.


There are numerous, intuitive reasons to suggest that the welfare and safety of unaccompanied children would be improved by the arrival of their family. Many of these vulnerable young people have experienced unimaginable trauma, both in their country of origin and during their journey to the UK. They are then faced with the difficulties of navigating a complex asylum system and accessing appropriate support, without the support of people that they know and love around them. Allowing children to sponsor their families’ safe passage is a straightforward change, but one that could have a transformational impact on their lives.


This campaign calls for children with refugee status or humanitarian protection to be able to sponsor their parents and siblings under the age of 18.


The UK’s position, as compared to the rest of Europe

Giving the right to a child refugee to have his or her family join them is neither new nor radical. Article 10 of the EU Directive on Family Reunion asserts that unaccompanied child refugees are entitled to be reunited with their family members; however, the UK did not opt-in to this clause. It should be noted that while Ireland also opted-out of the directive, it has since enshrined – in domestic law – the right of unaccompanied children to act as sponsors to be reunited with their family members.


Consequently, of the 28 European Union countries, only Denmark and the United Kingdom do not allow applications for reunion from unaccompanied children.


Both the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child and the UN Human Rights Council, have urged the UK to “review its asylum policy, in order to facilitate family reunion for unaccompanied and separated refugee children.” That the UK is out of step with the rest of Europe, as well as flouting the recommendations of UN agencies, suggests that our current immigration rules require review.



Children’s rights to reunion, as compared with adults

Adult refugees have a right – albeit limited – to reunite with their family members, through sponsorship of their safe passage to the UK. The rules explicitly provide for reunion with spouses/partners and dependent children, though discretionary powers exist to facilitate reunion with other family members. Unaccompanied child refugees, by contrast, have no access to family reunion procedures.


A range of international resolutions and guidance documents emphasise the acute vulnerability of unaccompanied and separated children, the ongoing trauma of separation, and the primary importance of the family as a unit for emotional (as well as economic) support. All of these factors provide context and reason for family reunification, particularly for children.


The UK Home Affairs Select Committee, which examines Home Office policy, said that:

“It seems to us perverse that children who have been granted refugee status in the UK are not then allowed to bring their close family to join them in the same way as an adult would be able to do. The right to live safely with family should apply to child refugees just as it does to adults”.




In response to previous calls for children to be granted this right, the government has responded with various iterations of the “pull factor” theory. This includes a letter from Lord Bates, in which he asserts that permitting refugee children to sponsor their immediate families’ requests for reunion, “could result in children being encouraged, or even forced, to leave existing family units in their country and risk hazardous journeys to the UK in order to act as sponsors”.


However, no evidence has been provided to substantiate this claim. Professor Ian Goldin, head of the Oxford Martin School of Global Challenges, said in an email to Baroness Sheehan that “there is no credible evidence for the Government’s claim on pull factors.”


Moreover, the EU Home Affairs Sub-Committee published a report in July 2016 that says “we received no evidence of families sending children as ‘anchors’ following the implementation of the Family Reunification Directive by other Member States.”


The government’s response, therefore, seems to be based on conjecture rather than evidence.



Granting children the right to sponsor their families is no radical step. In fact, it is one that would align the UK with international standards.


On 16th March 2018, the Family Reunion Bill will be debated in the House of Commons. If you believe that children, like adults, deserve the right to live safely with their family, please contact your MP and ask them to save the date and attend on your behalf. You can do this in just a few moments, using the Refugee Council website – after typing in your postcode, you will see who your local MP is, and you will also have a draft of the letter ready to send.


It will take less than 5 minutes to send, but could make a huge change in the lives of unaccompanied children who wish to reunite with their loved ones. Thank you.



* Refugee family reunion applies to family members outside of Europe. Another route to reunification is the Dublin Regulation, the European-wide immigration framework that decides which country within Europe should be responsible for individuals’ asylum claims – but family members must already be in Europe to benefit from this.

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Volunteering in Northern Greece: Anna’s first experience

Anna Hulbert spent two months volunteering in Northern Greece last autumn. Below, she shares her experience – what she did, learned and felt. Thank you so much for your help, Anna – we are so grateful.

This autumn, I spent two months volunteering in Northern Greece. I decided to volunteer with Help Refugees because I wanted to find out how ordinary people, like myself, can help make a difference to the lives of refugees.

I started by volunteering as part of the dedicated Soul Food Kitchen/Philoxenia team. Soul Food was created in response to the crisis in Idomeni and now provides much-needed, hot meals to over 250 homeless migrants and Greeks throughout the city.

Preparing 500 meals a day required a lot of slicing, grating and the occasional blister, but the long days instantly became insignificant once I went on distribution in the city and saw just how desperately the meals are needed.

The distributions are both the most rewarding and the toughest part of the job. At first I felt uncomfortable refusing people seconds or reminding grown men to wait in line, but these actions helped guarantee that the food was given out in a way that was fair, safe, and sustainable. My time in the kitchen taught me that being an empathic volunteer meant being responsible – it meant acting with my head, as well as my heart.

The distributions also expanded my awareness of what it meant to have refugee status*. Most of the people we served on distribution were young men who were fleeing war-torn countries, such as Pakistan and Iraq. They have ended up sleeping in the streets and living in inhumane conditions, because is very difficult for them to claim asylum in Europe and receive refugee status. This could be due to the difficulties in meeting criteria, or difficulties in simply accessing the asylum process – try Googling, “asylum, Greece, skype.”


IHA volunteers at Epanomi, Greece

After a month I left Soul Food and started to work with the InterEuropean Human Aid Association (IHA). IHA provides a variety of vital services, including vegetable and winter clothing distributions and also works within refugee camps.

At the time, IHA were working in a camp in the small town of Epanomi, which housed around 200 refugees from Syria in two apartment blocks. Our main role in Epanomi was to support the limited schooling within the camp by providing fun and educational activities for the children living there. For many children, this might have been the only education they have had since they left home.

The purpose of our work was give the children structure and to encourage the development of social skills in preparation for a return to full-time education. Perhaps, most importantly, our room provided a space that allowed kids to just be kids – even if that meant letting them paint your face completely purple.

I think that returning home was probably the hardest part of volunteering. It is incredibly sad leaving behind a network of such positive, inspiring people and even harder leaving behind situation that is in no way resolved – but that is why it is important to share these stories, and hopefully inspire others to volunteer.

*The UNHCR definition of a refugee is “…someone who has been forced to flee his or her country because of persecution, war, or violence. A refugee has a well-founded fear of persecution for reasons of race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in a particular social group. Most likely, they cannot return home or are afraid to do so.”



If you feel inspired by Anna’s experience and would like to find out more about volunteering with projects supported by Help Refugees, please visit the volunteering page on our website or get in touch. Help Refugees has always depended on the generous donations of time, funds and material aid from ordinary people – if you would like to get involved – at home or abroad – please do let us know. Thank you.

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Afghanistan as a “safe country”: the fallacy behind deportations

The ongoing and deadly attacks in Afghanistan – including three devastating attacks in Kabul, in the past week alone – demonstrate the bankruptcy of the European claim that it is a “safe country” for returns. The deteriorating security situation has been well documented, as has the government’s lack of capacity to support internally displaced people and returnees. Yet states – both in the region and in Europe – have closed their ears, and continued to deport asylum seekers to the fragile state.


The international principle of non-refoulement prohibits the return of anyone to a place where he or she fears threat to life or freedom, including persecution, torture or other ill-treatment. It is enshrined in international law, conventions and treaties related to refugees; the United Nations Convention and Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees states that the principle “is so fundamental that no reservations or derogations may be made to it.”


What does a safe country look like?

In German Basic Law, it is described as a state “in which, on the basis of their laws, enforcement practices and general political conditions, it can be safely concluded that neither political persecution nor inhuman or degrading punishment or treatment exists.”


In a safe country, conditions exist whereby there should be no threat of rights violations, and an understanding that the legal framework in place – or the political situation at large – will likely be one that protects citizens from any such threats arising.


Why is Afghanistan not a safe country?

Since 2015, an upsurge of violence – by groups including the Taliban and the so-called Islamic State – has further destabilized the already fragile country. 2016 was the most deadly year for civilian casualties in Afghanistan, and in that year alone, approximately 653, 000 people were internally displaced by conflict and violence.


The first six months of 2017 then saw a 23% increase in women casualties, and a 9% increase in child deaths. UN Secretary General Antonio Gueterres said, in August 2017, that ‘Afghanistan is not in a post-conflict situation (…) but a country undergoing a conflict that shows few signs of abating.’ A report released today found that about 15 million people – half the population – are living in areas that are either controlled by the Taliban, or where the Taliban are openly present and regularly mount attacks.


Furthermore, the Norwegian Refugee Council recently noted that the conflict in Afghanistan takes place against ‘a backdrop of abject poverty and chronically low humanitarian and development indicators. Infant and maternal mortality rates are high and food insecurity and malnutrition are getting worse. Education attainment levels are low and decent livelihood opportunities are few and far between.’ Furthermore, ‘weak institutions, lacking remedial mechanisms and an absence of services in many areas are additional factors’ inhibiting citizens’ realization of their rights.


It is clear, therefore, that Afghanistan does not come close to meeting the definition of a safe country for returns.

Deportations continue to put lives at risk

While the security situation has deteriorated and civilian costs mounted, European states have promoted a narrative claiming that Afghanistan – or at least some areas within it – is safe enough for asylum seekers to be returned. As a consequence, the proportion of Afghan asylum seekers granted refugee status is decreasing, and returns have been framed as a solution to the growing numbers of arrivals to Europe.


This has been seen both domestically and internationally. In 2016, for example, Prime Minister Theresa May – then Home Secretary – won a case that overturned a blanket ban on deportations to Afghanistan. It was found that Kabul, the site of the aforementioned recent and deadly terror attacks, was safe for returns – whether or not the individual in question originally hailed from the city. As deportations began once more, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s Travel Advice continued to advise British citizens against ‘all’ or ‘all but essential’ travel to every province in the country.


At the European level, Afghanistan’s failure to meet the criteria as a ‘safe country’ meant that an alternative route for returns had to be identified. The European Asylum Support Office (EASO) began to identify ‘safe areas’ within the country, yet their method leaves much to be desired. Sayed Jalal Shajjan, a Kabul-based development practitioner, noted that “Kabul…considered to be one of the “safe areas,” has the highest number of civilian causalities. Herat and Mazar-e-Sharif are also listed, yet both have been targeted since EASO published its report.”


The Joint Way Forward: “neither joint, nor a way forward

In October 2016, the European Union signed the Joint Way Forward with Afghanistan, a deal to facilitate larger returns to the country. According to a leaked memo, the EU suggested stripping Afghanistan of aid if it did not cooperate. Dimitris Christopoulos, President of the Worlwide Movement for Human Rights, described it as a ‘new low’ for Europe.


The dubious legality of this deal, and of returns in general, is an indictment of the European response to the so-called refugee crisis. The ramifications of returns will affect not only the lives of those deported, but the stability of the country as a whole.



What next?

Returnees to Afghanistan face significant challenges in realising their fundamental human rights: seven out of ten Afghans who return home are forced to flee again due to violence; many are not formally registered as refugees, and are therefore ineligible for UNHCR’s cash assistance; and development issues including food and water insecurity pose further threats to the fulfilment of basic needs. Over 2 million Afghans are now internally displaced, including many returnees, but Oxfam’s new report notes that there is ‘no clear government policy to cope with the corresponding humanitarian needs.’ It goes on to state that returns ‘will likely result in more displacement and fragility.’


There is a broad consensus among humanitarian groups, both in reports and practice, that affirms the dangers in Afghanistan. The nationwide insecurity has restricted many aid groups’ operations: the recent attack on Save the Children’s offices in Jalalabad, for example, prompted a temporary suspension of their activities in the country.


In light of the interlinked security and development challenges in Afghanistan, it is hard to comprehend why European states have ruled the country safe for returns. The devastating and arbitrary attacks in Kabul over the last week – which have killed over 130 people, and been alternately claimed by the Taliban and the so-called Islamic State – made headlines worldwide, and yet the policy remains unchanged. Until conditions are stable and sustainable, returns to Afghanistan must be halted and seen for what they are: a violation of international law.


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Permission granted to appeal the ‘unlawful’ closure of the Dubs Amendment

We are delighted to announce that we have been granted permission to appeal the judgment on our judicial review, challenging the Home Office’s interpretation and implementation of the Dubs Amendment. Our litigation, supported by the voices of people like you, has already achieved significant victories. This appeal now gives us the opportunity to bring a greater number of unaccompanied children to safety in the UK.


With your support, we successfully advocated for the passage of the Dubs Amendment in May 2016 – named after our dear friend Lord Alf Dubs, a former child refugee who arrived to the UK on a Kindertransport train. The scheme pledged to resettled a “specified number” of unaccompanied refugee children from France, Greece and Italy to the UK, to be decided in consultation with Local Authorities. We had seen the conditions that the children were living in, from Calais to Lesvos and beyond: we knew that opening safe and legal routes would save lives.


However, the passage of the Amendment was followed by governmental inaction: between May and October 2016, not a single child was transferred under the Dubs Amendment. Even now, more than half of the identified spaces remain unfilled – meaning that eligible children have needlessly spent two winters sleeping in camps, or on the streets.


Our legal challenge, which was heard in June last year, centred around three issues. First, we argued that the consultative process by which the “specified number” was reached was seriously defective. Our evidence demonstrated that some local authorities were unaware that a consultation was taking place, that the consultation regarded the Dubs Amendment, or that there was a cut-off date by which places should have been identified. As a result of the latter, 91% of places offered by Scottish authorities and 86% of Welsh offers were discounted. Consequently, Scotland and Wales – with a joint population of approximately 8.5 million people – were recorded by the Home Office as having offered to resettle just 12 children between them (around one child per 700,000 inhabitants).


Second, we argued that the Home Office had failed to move with the necessary speed. The wording of the Dubs Amendment stipulated that arrangements for the children’s transfer should be made ‘as soon as possible after the passing of this Act.’ Yet it was six months before the first transfer from France took place, ten months before the “specified number” was declared, and twenty months before the first child from Greece was brought to the UK. To this day, not a single child has been relocated from Italy.


Third, we challenged the lack of procedural safeguards given to unaccompanied children who were deemed ineligible for relocation. The unaccompanied children formerly living in the so-called “Jungle” in Calais were told orally, often in groups, and without explanation, that they had been refused relocation to the UK. This was confusing and traumatic for young people who had already gone through so much.


In November 2017, the High Court ruled against us on all counts – though certain concessions were made. The judgment found that the consultation was a “quick broad-brush exercise” using a “fairly crude tool”, for example. We immediately sought permission to appeal, which was granted last week.

“The Dubs Amendment has provided a lifeline for over 200 children so far – but this appeal gives us the chance to bring a greater number to safety. The conditions faced by unaccompanied refugee children are dreadful. The government promised to act, but after nearly 2 years, they have failed to fulfil their promise to the British people – and to these vulnerable children. This appeal gives us the chance to hold them to account, and offer sanctuary to those in Europe who need it most.”

Alf Dubs  


The dangers faced by unaccompanied children are no less severe now, than they were at the time the Amendment was passed. In Calais, approximately 200 children are currently sleeping without any shelter. Refugees have reported that their blankets and possessions are regularly seized by police or sprayed with tear gas, rendering them unusable. These unbearable conditions are pushing refugees to take greater risks in attempting to reach the UK: in three weeks, between late December and the start of this year, three people lost their lives at the border – including a 15-year-old boy.


In Greece, there are over 3350 unaccompanied minors – and only 1101 places available in shelters. The waiting list is, therefore, more than twice the total capacity. Children who are not offered formal protection are sleeping in squats and on the streets, leaving them at acute risk of exploitation.


In Italy, more than 15, 000 lone children arrived just last year. As in Greece, a lack of reception capacity means that children are left without shelter or basic protection. Furthermore, a significant proportion of children go missing after registration, many suspected of having fallen victim to criminal trafficking networks or the exploitative world of forced or black-market labour.


These vulnerable children face unimaginable risks. This appeal could give a greater number of them the chance to come to the UK, and begin a new life here: safe from the exploitative rings of smugglers and traffickers, and away from the streets and detention centres.


The consultation with local authorities took place almost a year ago. Defective then, it is also likely that the circumstances have since changed. This appeal could result in that process being repeated, giving local authorities the opportunity to submit a true representation of their capacity. We have the opportunity to offer sanctuary and protection to some of the most vulnerable children in Europe today: we must use it.


Help Refugees has launched a fundraiser on CrowdJustice, to raise the funds for our Protection of Costs order. The public support for the Dubs Amendment has always astounded us, and we felt that it was right for this case to be something we could all do – together. Can you help us cover the costs of our appeal? As ever, we are so grateful for your support. Thank you.

Photo credit to Rob Pinney.

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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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