Dealing with insecurity- a first week in Idomeni
Should I stay or should I go: Already before leaving to Greece one thing was clear: There is no such thing as sufficient information. Leaving for Idomeni, there was a peak number of 5000 refugees and just before arriving they all had gone.The general strike including ferries was over. Yet crossing the border with Greece, we encountered about a hundred tractors on the Greek side of the borders, with which the regional farmers union would block the border every evening since as a reaction to a harsh austerity measures with pension and tax reform. For refugees, the roads from Athens were blocked as well. Arriving to Idomeni therefore everybody just had a free day. The house was packed with helpers from different countries. During the first talks I got the impression that at this place information gathering and uncertainty management is task number one.
Aid ethics and logistics
There is contact with squats and refugee helpers in different parts of Greece along the refugee route several times per day. They tell what they observe: How many people have arrived from the islands to Athens, how many buses leave Athens and are on the way to a border with Macedonia, how many have been sent back by police.
At the moment there are mainly three places near to Idomeni where refugees stay and need food. The official camp, a gas station as transit to the camp if it’s temporarily full and an unofficial place where mainly non SIA ( Syrian Irakese Afghan) refugees stay as they are not let over the border. The camp provider is paid to deliver food inside the camp but the quality is poor according to our standards. Still, Aiddelivermission decided to not get part of the official aid structures: Staying independent allows for delivering aid where official help is not at place, where NGOs don’t dare to go to, where their bureaucracy makes them slow or where their work is not humane enough in our view. The protocols of the camp reflect hierarchical power structures and if we would set up a place for refugees it would look way different. The independent volunteers do not treat people differently according to their nationalities and do not want to be forced to.
Still, cooking depends on negotiation with officials: If there are few buses or refugees stopping at a gas station before the UNHCR camp in Idomeni, the co-owners of the gas station don’t want food or even tea to be served there, as the say that they do not make any profit. They claim that they needed to hire and pay extra personnel in order to keep the gas station area tidy. Only when there are thousands of refugees arriving at a time they are fine with independent volunteers handing out food.
Also official NGOs negotiate. Medecins sans Frontiers (MSF) have an agreement with the gas station owners in order to be able to serve refugees that arrive there by bus on bread per day; They need to buy buns from the gas station. UNHCR was building a camp on the gas station for the moments that the capacity of 1500 people in Idomeni is not enough, but at the moment it is halted.
To take one of the last couple of days as an example, in the morning there was information about 5 buses of refugees at the gas station. They had arrived in the night and would possibly move every moment to the camp, which has the capacity to serve 1500 meals a day. That’s enough, so there was no cooking. The other day there was, yet only 100 meals of 1200 prepared could be served. After negotiations with contacts in the camp’ s organiser and their kitchen that one got day off and we delivered meals there. Yet when the one contact called, another person working in the camp had just sent half of refugees to the Macedonian border. Being there, the information was that only 10 people are left in the camp but when we began to serve food, we gave out around 100 meals until we left two hours later. Through a girl that works in the camp we got contact with a for homeless people in Theessaloniki and served leftover food there and also in a social centre to not waste food.
Many of the motivated volunteers get nervous for feeling to not not doing enough. Some have worked over their limits the last weeks and take the opportunity to take a day or more off. For others it is the drop to make the decision to leave to other projects around Southern Europe or proceed to another step in their lives. But there is also a feeling of this waiting and uncertainty that we that follow the refugees and try to help is only a small fraction of the insecurity that refugees themselves are facing.
As during the last days few refugees arrived, volunteers were looking for other needs of refugees to be met. We could intensify different kind of help for people that are not from SIA countries. With other work not yet being deepened however, some went cleaning rubbish around the refugee camp which began to look like a landfill. And in order to keep the volunteer house livable for the up to 50 volunteers house chores and groceries were given more attention. Some people started build bunk beds and did other woodworks. Vans are breaking down and are being repaired. Some people try to help an imprisioned refugee friend that is detained in a police station nearby and have contact with a lawyer for that. Others check the legal situation in different EU countries in order that we can update refugees.
How can a first day of volunteering look like?
Arriving in this off stress period, I firstly felt not very productive. There are tasks certain people have taken responsibility for, but arriving one starts with whatever to do. I joined the cooking group for the day, others took a shift in the cloth tent of the refugee camp or sorted clothes in a stock. After information gathering we figured that there would be no cooking going on up to the afternoon. I wanted to join the team that went picking rubbish, they however went before I had noticed. Getting hungry I warmed up leftover food for the crew. After some coffee drinking and talking, the decision was to bring tea to the gas station. We did not take food, as normally the refugees there get some bread by MSF during the day. When we arrived, we however figured that people were hungry, that it was few enough so that the leftover would have been enough. Yet already giving out some tea was enough to make the gas station restaurant exploiters angry. We had to leave, to not let them get so angry that they would call the police etc immediately when we would arrive the next time with food. It has happened before that they called the police. After some groceries for corn the plan was to come back in the evening and set up a mobile movie with a van, serve popcorn an make the waiting for the refugees less boring. Yet back at the house again, the new information about the gas station was that most refugees have left from there already and that only one and a half buses are left there. The volunteers that are around for a while expected them to leave soon. Some other options were uttered and I wondered if we will have an evening of speculations about the next days?
From specualtions to actions
With a so called hot spot or reception center for 4000 refugees being built in Thessaloniki, 60km further South the question comes up if there will be again peak numbers of refugees in Idomeni. This makes us think about if we continue to wait for more refugees here or think about partly shifting the focus of the operations.
Gathering information about other places, we learn that for example that in Serbia there are cooking projects that lack volunteers and material. With NATO boats pushing back boats from Greek islands to Turkey, the situation there gets more urgent. Different small groups are checking out possibilities and are getting in contact with groups there. A potential problem is that different legal systems renders a lot of assistance illegal and potentially dangerous. In Macedonia refugees badly need help, but it is illegal: Punishments are draconian and the state apparatus treats refugee helpers as traffickers or smugglers. For hosting a refugee on the way for a night or even for giving out a map you could be jailed! Also in Greece giving information about routes to refugees is illegal, why giving food, clothes or other materials or giving updates about legal situations is ok. In the meantime, we have a board about where on the Balkan and Greece volunteers could be needed as well. Two people just left for there and they will keep us updated, another has an online meeting with independent refugee helpers in Turkey and I will finally stop writing to make a phone call to another group that is active around Idomeni and is networking for other places to focus on. Information stays incomplete to the end and we are working with it.