Has the international volunteers, grass-root organizations and NGOs still a positive impact on the refugee crisis in Greece, ore have they played out their part as a independent neutral force who was driven by humanitarian values where money, politics and self preservation wasn’t the main objective.
In 2015 when the refugee crisis hit Greece, and the biggest mass movement of people in Europe since the Second World War started, thousands of volunteers traveled to the Greek islands to help as hundreds of thousands of people landed on the shores of the Greek Aegean islands, fleeing war and persecution. The job these volunteers did was unprecedented, driven by humanitarian values, a pronounced desire to help, it’s the most unselfish act I have ever witnessed. It was a chaotic but beautiful symphony, dysfunctional at times, but nevertheless beautiful, because it was driven by a genuine desire to help.
From the peak of the refugee crisis, literally hundreds of grass-root organizations and NGOs was formed, many of the organizations operating on the Greek islands today was borne at this time. In any crisis there will be people who are trying to take advantage of the situation, who are hiding behind a humanitarian pretext to benefit financially, but most organizations had genuine goal to help as many as possible, both refugees and locals. Volunteers from all over the world, from all walks of life, came to Greece to help as best they could.
To coordinate humanitarian aid in a very chaotic situation, with hundreds of organizations with their own agendas and thousands of volunteers wasn’t without challenges. There was often disputes between organizations on how to do things, who should do what when and where. Rivalry between organizations on who was in charge and who should decide was a constant issue, many times overclouding the very reason they where there in the first place. There where even disputes over who had the right to help refugees when they arrived, and we often heard organizations use the phrase “our refugee” as if people who arrived was someone’s property.
To get information was many times also a problem, organizations used information to fundraise on social media, and was not willing to share information they had to others, it was referred to by some organizations as their “media potential”, and was one of the main reasons Aegean Boat Report was founded. I believe all information should be available and free for everyone to use, and not a privilege of a few. Information was crucial on the ground to be able to take good decisions, get a better understanding on what was going on at any given time.
Don’t take me wrong, volunteers and grass-root organizations did an amazing job, and some still do! Their efforts was essential, filled gaps between what was provided by the government and the actual need on the ground. In the beginning Greece would literally have collapsed, if it hadn’t been for the volunteers, Greece was not prepared for what happened and had no possibility to handle the situation on their own. Looking back it’s perhaps easy to criticize, but many mistakes was also made by these organizations, some more damaging than others.
What many organizations and volunteers forgot, was that they were not in their own country, and many decisions made had direct impact on the locals and local communities. Some organizations operated as if they owned the place, and in many cases didn’t consult the local president or involve locals in the decision making process, structures was built on privat land without permission from the owner, and at some point many locals got frustrated, they felt left out, that they had no say in their own communities. The lack of local involvement within the NGOs operating in the communities was perhaps their biggest mistake, the same mistake seems to be made even today.
The tourist industry in Greece was already on their knees long before the refugee crisis peaked, the financial crisis in Greece that started in 2009 had seen to that. When volunteers started to flood towards the Greek Aegean islands in late 2015, the industry in the effected areas got a upswing, hotels, rental car services, restaurants, nightclubs, supermarkets and privat accommodations was in high demand, unfortunately it didn’t last long. When the international press turned off the spotlight, less volunteers came, and when tourists didn’t travel to the Greek Aegean islands in the following summer, bankruptcy and unemployment was inevitable. Many locals lost their jobs, putting food on the table became difficult, people lost their houses and businesses. Restaurants, bars and nightclubs was still packed, not with locals but with international volunteers, this didn’t go unnoticed by locals, and the impression that NGOs spent funds on drinking and partying was created.
This impression was not correct, but nevertheless it damaged the reputation of international grass-root organizations and NGOs, and a general mistrust grew. It became a general perception amongst many locals that these organizations used money intended for aid on themselves, even do these volunteers only used their own hard earned money. Yes there was and still are exemptions, as previously stated, some use a humanitarian pretext to make money to enrich themselves, but this is the exception not the rule.
The lack of local involvement in the international grass-root organizations and NGOs operating on the islands are still a problem, without this involvement it’s difficult to build bridges and to remove a many times unjustified impression. Instead of paying salaries, rental cars, food and accommodation to international long therm volunteers and coordinators, they could have hired local staff, but perhaps the problem is that mistrust goes both ways, or that international volunteers brings in more funding, social media attention and prestige to the individual organizations. Question is, is the preservation of the organization itself, fat bank account’s, high salaries to their Secretary-Generals and prestige more important than their humanitarian objective, and have they lost their founding vision.
Many of the organizations that was created in the brink of the refugee crisis doesn’t exist anymore, but back in 2015/2016 you could literally find a organization for everything. Several of these organizations are still working on the Greek islands, some still doing an amazing job, while others are raising huge amounts of money by pretending to be involved, when in fact they are doing little to nothing on the ground, floating on their good name and reputation in their home country, filling their bank account from trusting donors. Organizations that has lost track of why they where created in the first place, becoming what they once despised, is dragging the names of good organizations down in the mud, not realizing that they no longer are a part of the solution but a part of the problem.
To be working on the ground today in Greece isn’t easy, neither for volunteers or grass-root organizations, anyone saying otherwise is lying. Volunteers are from time to time targeted by right wing elements, people who don’t want them to help refugees, smashing and burning their cars, beatings and treats. Police is also active, doing their bit to make sure they don’t feel welcome, searching cars, going through their phones looking for incriminating data, ordering people who have done nothing wrong from any public area, just because they feel like it, and that they can just to prove who is in charge.
Organizations also needs to stay in line, one step in the wrong direction and they can be denied access to the camps, any criticism towards the Greek government can automatically result in being denied access, or your project outside the camp suddenly face unannounced inspections that would definitely close the project for good. So organizations and NGOs on the ground mostly remain silent, no matter how difficult the situation is, no criticism is published in fear of being kicked out, in this they are failing the people they should be protecting, people who are suffering every day under inhuman conditions in camps on the Greek islands. Any organization who are denied access to the camp will most likely lose funding, it’s so much easier to ask for money when they are inside, no matter how little they actually do while there. It’s possible for the organization to support and work from outside the camp, but the prestige and funding opportunities are much higher if you are allowed inside, so for some this is a matter of money, and not the humanitarian aspect.
Most grass-root organizations and NGOs still use international volunteers as their main workforce, even do the camps are filled with skilled educated people who are more than capable of doing whatever is needed to improve their own situation. To empower the people who are living in these camps, should have been done a long time ago, in a much bigger scale than what is done today. Sitting around for months and years just waiting, doing nothing, would be devastating for anyone, to be able to occupy your time with something meaningful, feel useful, wanted and necessary would have a positive effect on people’s mental health. So why are hundreds of international volunteers working inside and outside the camps when there are thousands of educated people living there, who are very capable of taking car of themselves, who could have worked to improve their own situation.
Are the NGOs still needed, I would say definitely yes, but I believe that how help and assistance is provided from these organizations can be challenged. If more organizations could put self empowerment higher on there agendas, and use the resources that are already there, instead of international volunteers, they could make a bigger impact on the situation and on the people’s mental health. When it comes to the extensive use of international volunteers as we see today, perhaps it’s time to look at things differently. It’s definitely a “exotic” experience for volunteers to come and participate, it puts things in perspective, but is it in the best interest of the people they are supposed to help. To have short term volunteers, untrained, unskilled trying to help traumatized people living under inhuman conditions isn’t perhaps the ultimate solution. Don’t get me wrong, voluntariness is a beautiful and unselfish act, but there will always be a time and place for everything.
Grass-root organizations who has openly criticized the Greek government’s violations of international laws and human rights, published evidence and assisted international press, has lately been targeted by the Greek government in a broader scale than previously, in an attempt to silence them. Criminal charges against NGOs and volunteers isn’t new in Greece, and recently the Greek government opened a felony case file against 33 members of four NGOs and two “third country nationals” on suspicion of crimes including espionage, violation of state secrets, creation of and participation in a criminal organization and violations of the migration law. Neither the names of the NGOs nor the nationalities of those involved were made public. In addition there other organizations are also of interest, and similar charges can be expected to be raised against them as well. Who these organizations and people are is somewhat unclear, but what we can see is that’s it’s most likely organization’s who has criticized the Greek government over a longer period of time. To try to criminalize these “watchdogs” can be seen as a attempt to discredit them, so that their message is discarded as fake news or propaganda.