ECHO update! And thoughts on alternatives to building walls.

It’s been 6 months since the last blog update, so there’s lots to update you on. As is the way, money and time has been stretched, and until now it has been impossible to update you in the depth that you deserve but we hope that in the meantime our Facebook feed has been keeping you entertained.

Since July we’ve been working extremely hard not only to deliver books and learning resources but to create a mobile community space where people can feel at ease and encouraged to learn, and which responds to the desires of its people.

Our schedule has been packed full, visiting 2 camps and 5 community spaces each week, with the addition of extra activities during our sessions from October due to our participation in the Municipality of Athens’ project in celebration of Athens being voted World Book Capital 2018.

We’ve been graced with the most wonderful and talented volunteers in the past 6 months, who have bought life to our sessions in an invaluable way.  At Malakasa, in collaboration with Musikarama, Shayan has been providing guitar lessons and background riffs to our library sessions, and at Oinofyta we’ve been working with Βάσω (Vasso), who has been giving Greek lessons despite ongoing difficulty keeping hold of vital chairs and desks. These have been incredible additions to our library service, which has been lending between 20 to 60 books each week in Arabic, Farsi, Urdu, English, Greek, French, German, Turkish and Kurmanji, and handing out language learning resources as is needed.

Daphne and Βάσω teaching Greek at Oinofyta

Daphne and Βάσω teaching Greek at Oinofyta

In the city, we’ve been working to increase our community partnerships and expand our activities. From October to December we planned and coordinated children’s activities in a number of spaces throughout the city, including reading, music and art workshops, in collaboration with the Municipality of Athens and the NGO We Need Books. The Greek side of our team; Daphne, Βάρβαρα, and Βάσω have been running weekly Greek practise sessions at Victoria Square Project, a wonderful creative space and new friendship of ours. Daphne and Βάρβαρα have done amazing work with local outreach and relations, leading to articles in Athens voice[1] and Ert-Book[2] and interviews on Portokali radio[3] and Alpha television. This is so important to us, to ensure our collaboration with the Greek community.

Γιώργος (George) and Βάρβαρα running Greek language practise at Victoria Square Project

Γιώργος (George) and Βάρβαρα running Greek language practise at Victoria Square Project

In terms of support, we’ve received an overwhelming amount of kindness over the last 6 months from individuals and organisations. Our funding has been shaky but sufficient. Book Aid International, Hadaya, and givers acting alone have nourished our collection of reading materials. We depend upon these generous donors to keep our library stocked, and only exist because of them. Finally, we were nominated for Best Social Enterprise of the Year in the European Citizen Awards 2018, a real honour and great opportunity to learn of others doing incredible work all over the world[4].

As for now, we have just returned after a month’s break with a new team on the ground and a lot of new energy. We’re returning to two camps in Lavrio now that we have Kumanji and Turkish books and have started up sessions at 5th School – ensuring we are reaching the people who need us most with the correct resources. We’re planning on launching a new crowdfunding campaign in order to pay for more Farsi books and a trip to Bulgaria to renew the MOT, so expect a lot of social media action! We’re excited to be back on the road and to be working again to support our friends.

Please, if you are interested in our work, share our story or get in contact - we would love to hear from you. What’s more, if you appreciate the work we do, read on for a little thought piece on the alternatives to harsh border controls across Europe.

Loaning books in Farsi, English, and Turkish at 5th School

Loaning books in Farsi, English, and Turkish at 5th School

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One of the greatest barriers to clarity within international affairs is the inconsistency of information from a dishonest media. In terms of the conditions for displaced people across the globe, the most reliable sources of information come from non-profit organisations on the ground. The exposure of the violations of human dignity that Europe is accountable for is recorded vigilantly by these hardworking groups. Unfortunately, however, a lot of this information is paralyzing.

So we are writing here to focus not on the terrible conditions that do exist; but if you are seeking to expose yourself to some of the harsh realities, you could start here:  

Are You Syrious? Daily Digest – daily updates from across Europe:
https://medium.com/@AreYouSyrious

It can feel hopeless attempting to comprehend alternatives without either over-simplifying complexities or aspiring to some sort of utopia. In order to steer clear of these rabbit holes, we’ll focus here on highlighting a couple of the most damaging failures of the European response, alongside some more successful initiatives; using current working models to understand tangible alternatives to this mess.

The EU funding scheme and the lack of suitable housing, as well as the general rhetoric surrounding migrants and refugees are three major players in this chaotic narrative. 

On the ground, the gross mismanagement of EU funds in Greece is visible, but this hasn’t necessarily disseminated across Europe to its full effect. Between 2015 and 2017, Refugees Deeply estimated that $803 million was given to Greece in order to aid refugees; $654 million of this coming directly from the European Commission. $188 million went to the Greek Government, $260 million went to the intergovernmental agencies UNHCR, IOM, EASO and UNICEF, and the remaining millions went to 12 of the largest international non-governmental agencies[5]. These are huge sums of money. Yet displaced people are living on the streets, in dangerous squatted buildings, and in camps without hot water, transport to cities, sufficient medical, psycho-social or legal support, educational or recreational opportunities. An ongoing enquiry into the mismanagement of these funds continues after huge efforts from organisations such as Solidarity Now, who submitted a petition in 2017 to the European Parliament requesting an investigation into ‘the connection between European Union funding in Greece and the dismal reception conditions’[6].

Who exactly is accountable for this corruption of EU funding is uncertain. What is clear, though, is that the EU’s elementary response of pumping money into border states is not in compliance with its own human rights commitments. The if it’s not our soil, it’s not our problem, and money relieves us of our moral commitments approach is inhumane.  Policy reforms in alliance with the rights that we would expect for ourselves are well overdue.  Legal routes out of Greece are necessary. Living conditions are not being met and the Greek job market has little to offer its own people let alone 65,000 others. High income European countries have both the means and the need for refugee resettlement.

Canada is currently leading the way with its Private Sponsorship of Refugees Program. Sponsoring groups provide refugees with financial, psychological, and social support for 12 to 36 months, until the individual is self-sufficient. Sponsorship Agreement Holders (incorporated organisations such as humanitarian organisations) can authorize Constituent Groups to sponsor refugees into their community. Groups of five or more Canadian citizens or permanent residents can also act as sponsors. They cover rent, food, clothing, household goods and any other living costs, help to locate and organise interpreters, language classes, dentists, health-care, employment and introduce the newcomer to the community. Regular checks on the well-being and success of each individual are carried out by governmental officials and substantive measures are taken to monitor outcomes and refine the scheme. 18,000 refugees were resettled this way in 2018[7].

This is the Minister’s message on Canada’s 2019 departmental plan on immigration, refugees and citizenship:

this plan seeks to further enhance our country’s prosperity through immigration, while maintain our priorities to reunite families and offer protection to displaced and persecuted people. As the most recent Census demonstrated, immigration is a driving force in meeting Canada’s demographic and labour market needs. With Canada’s ageing population, having a robust and efficient immigration system is critical to our economic growth. Our country’s future success will depend largely on attracting more talented people from around the world.’.[8]

Canada is not only allowing individuals, organisations and businesses to legally support displaced people from across the world, but it is promoting the value of immigration. The plan does not treat refugees as needy but as valuable individuals and assets to the community. An impact evaluation in 2016 found 52.8% Privately Sponsored Refugees (PSRs) to be employed, and PSRs to be consistently receiving more help in buying essentials, visiting the doctor and overcoming language barriers than Governmental Assisted Refugees (GARs). [9] Indeed, the PSR scheme has been so successful that there is pressure within the country to increase the governmental cap on the number of refugee application intakes, and allow applicants to be sponsored without official refugee status (currently only those with refugee status granted by the UNHCR are eligible for the scheme).

According to the UNHCR, 1.2 million refugees worldwide are in need of resettlement, this includes 302,000 in Europe. Only 8% of those in need will obtain it.

Canada’s scheme has been hugely successful – could it be replicated in Europe? First, the PSR program gives agency to willing citizens who have both the desire and the means to sponsor, second, it is an opportunity to ease labour shortages and the effects of an ageing population. In the UK, hospitality, IT, construction, healthcare, and the leisure sector are struggling to find employees with the decline of 18-25 year olds entering the job market[10]. The government’s official shortage occupation list includes a vast range of skills including; civil, mechanical and electrical engineers, programmers and software development professionals, medical practitioners, social workers, paramedics, musicians and chefs[11]. Furthermore, with Brexit looming and a potential future immigration system prioritising ‘high skilled’ workers, many more industries could face dangerous labour shortages. PRS programmes could soften this blow. Businesses, universities and even individuals could sponsor asylum claims, creating a legal route out of Greece and helping the UK’s labour force and economy.

The EU’s current scheme sends millions of euros into a few pockets while stagnating tens of thousands of lives through an unjustified custodial sentence. Looking to Canada for inspiration, the EU could use a blend of EU funded private sponsorships to ensure both financial and psycho-social stability. This could help get refugees out of Greece and into the rest of Europe, and do so in a way that is faster, more efficient, and mostly importantly more human.

The second example we could look to concerns accommodation. Because it is not just the numbers making it through hard borders that is not working, but the conditions in which refugees are living as they arrive.

Not only are displaced peoples being failed through the closed borders of Europe, but by the undignified living conditions they then endure. Here in Athens the numbers of displaced people living outside is growing. Reception conditions fail to meet the required standards of international human rights and refugee law. The streets can be close to freezing at night during winter. People turn to unsafe sex work. Drugs are an escape as well as a source of income. Many squat conditions are unsafe both physically and mentally. Camps, meanwhile, are miles from transport to cities, dangerous, over-crowded and unhygienic. The islands are worse. Individuals and organisations are stretching to fill the gaping holes that EU and state provisioning has left, but this stretch is not infinite nor sufficient to meet the demand. This is a wearying pattern across Europe, and while voluntary groups are giving everything they have, the reality is that a change in approach is needed at a much higher level. Funding must be directed towards safe and dignified housing in which its residents are protected from being treated as a commodity.

One solution  would be to restore some of the hundreds of giant empty buildings floating around. Organisations like Ashley Housing in Bristol, UK, are already doing this, and have renovated three properties which will resettle 40 refugees over the next ten years. Funded by the council, ran by an NGO, this model can be scaled up enormously. A short Vice documentary focusses on living conditions, revealing how the failure of official accommodation centres to meet demands has led to the council paying hostel owners 20 euro per night per refugee they host. This opportunity has been capitalized upon, allowing owners to squeeze up to 10 people into a room, making millions in the process[12]. Meanwhile, there is an abandoned building in Berlin with space for 600 people which would cost half a million euros to restore. Schemes like this would be a far more economic and dignified use of funds than paying off hostel owners in the millions. In 2016, 30% of houses were found to be empty in Athens by the National Statistics office[13] - these buildings should be used to house refugees and other persons living in abject conditions in Greece, rather than lying empty whilst they freeze on the streets.

The reason why alternatives like these haven’t taken off is due to a combination of the overarching narrative we are fed about migrants and refugees and the deterrence paradigm created by European members states. Internationally agreed human rights and asylum laws are not being upheld at home. And this can be ignored, because it is precisely those individuals who have no national body to protect them who are suffering. Migrants and asylum seekers have been found to have positive impacts on the economy across Europe[14], and have no systematic association with the spread or risk of communicable diseases. European funding has been corrupted. Misconceptions guide opinions on asylum politics, creating inhumane conditions for hundreds of thousands of people. Let’s not let this continue.

[1] https://www.athensvoice.gr/greece/481132_test-ena-fortigo-kiniti-vivliothiki-gia-prosfyges?fbclid=IwAR1eeeLWhiS-k-qORTH9KLDoYPofYAn-jJ6C-Wb_xwUw0Ngj6ReRGr2Aipc

[2] https://book.ert.gr/events/kiniti-vivliothiki-echo-ena-asfales-meros-gia-morfosi-kai-dimioyrgia/?fbclid=IwAR3ocTQsVDE6rwduCO7HQK1dRk46hIPEHetn_DvDpWx8fFhVxsCbT-GW5Mo

[3]https://www.mixcloud.com/portokali/%CF%80%CF%85%CE%BE%CE%AF%CE%B4%CE%B1-%CE%B1%CE%BB%CE%BB%CE%B7%CE%BB%CE%B5%CE%B3%CF%8D%CE%B7%CF%82-2018-10/

[4] http://civic-forum.eu/ecawards/18

[5] https://www.newsdeeply.com/refugees/articles/2017/03/06/the-refugee-archipelago-the-inside-story-of-what-went-wrong-in-greece?fbclid=IwAR3a5DOvTmWe4MeHBzc96c-Q4zgNEeFdC6nNbhfPbljqNiZYP9OuaYiaO0w

[6] https://www.solidaritynow.org/en/petition/

[7] https://www.unhcr.ca/wp-content/uploads/2017/11/Canada-Refugee-Resettlement-numbers-2018-2020.6.pdf

[8] https://www.canada.ca/en/immigration-refugees-citizenship/corporate/publications-manuals/departmental-plan-2018-2019/departmental-plan.html

[9] http://policyoptions.irpp.org/magazines/july-2018/success-privately-sponsored-refugee-system/

[10] https://www.ft.com/content/36baacce-ddd0-11e8-9f04-38d397e6661c

[11] https://www.gov.uk/guidance/immigration-rules/immigration-rules-appendix-k-shortage-occupation-list

[12] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kD6L7KezAA4

[13] https://www.scribd.com/document/318827360/Athens-as-a-Shrinking-City-On-empty-buildings

[14] https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-018-05507-0

ECHO for Refugees