I am now back from Greece after a very intense trip with so many impressions and insights to share with you. I don’t know how I’m going to begin to describe it all. It was only a short trip with a lot of very positive news, but unfortunately there is also some desperately sad news to report.
I’m starting with the bad news, so that I can finish off with something more positive.I visited three of the many refugee camps which are controlled by the military around Thessaloniki. More than 16,000 – 20,00 people were displaced when the Idomeni camp by the border of Macedonia was closed down in May.
It was a shock to see how terribly miserable these new camps were. In one of them, the Softex camp, volunteers are forbidden to enter without a special permit, which, incidentally, is almost impossible to get. The Softex camp had had so much negative reporting in the media that they are they trying to keep outsiders out and have a strict ban on photography. Instead of trying to solve the problems inside the camp that is causing negative reporting, the strategy is to simply stop reporting from being possible. We managed to get into the camp through the back door and talk to one of the families who live there. I think it’s important to show some pictures that we managed to take, but the pictures, in the bright sunlight of Greece hardly show how hellish the conditions are there.
The families said the experience in these new camps is worse than Idomeni. After volunteering at Idomeni, I could hardly think how conditions could possibly be worse. The Softex Camp has more than 800 people and is clearly the worst we heard about. We sat and talked for a long time to one of the Syrian families inside one of the tents. Only a year ago they fled their homes, and started the dangerous journey via Turkey seeking safety in Europe. Unfortunately, they arrived at the Greece four days too late, after all the borders were closed and now they are stuck here indefinitely, like so many others.
Having spent four months in Idomeni, they were transported to this hellhole where they have lived the past five months – in a crowded tent with four children. Their youngest daughter Clara was born dramatically in the camp for three months ago and have had to start her life in these extremely squalid conditions.
The family owns only the clothes they have on their body and they gave nothing at all to change into. They wash their underwear and sit in the tent while the laundry dries outside in the cold. They are only just over 16 cold water showers in the camp, which means 50 people per shower. The tents do not have any mosquito nets which is a big problem, especially now that it’s getting more humid and the autumn weather means mosquitoes are thriving in puddles. They are also plagued with rats and snakes because of all the garbage. The day before the mother had found a snake in the tent while her small children were asleep. Many of the tents lack any type of floor, which of course means that it will be hopelessly muddy when it rains.
The food is scarce and consists of tin cans with the Greek military logo on the front. The family showed us one of these tins containing grey, flaccid vegetables and something that looked like processed meat. Only very rarely they could get fresh vegetables and fruit. No NGOs or other organisations are based there, some were allowed to visit some days during the week we were there.
Because of the conditions there is a heavy atmosphere of widespread desperation, and tension building up more and more and turning into riots in many of the camps. The Father, Hesso, told me that for a while it felt so unstable and threatening that he chose to sleep with his young family out on the street for two nights rather than to be there in the camp. Women are feeling increasingly vulnerable as well when it gets dark, as tension runs high. They and the children need to stay inside the tents at night and be protected. Ir is reported that pregnant women are giving birth early due to the extreme stress of living in these conditions. This is a military controlled camp in one of the EU member states. It is completely unacceptable and inhumane.
The Father Hesso asked me, ”I don’t know how long we will stand living like this. We are not animals, we are people too. Our children feel really bad.”
I just didn’t know what to say. I felt deeply ashamed that this is allowed to take place in one of our EU countries.