The usual excuses don’t work in an EU country. With funding, infrastructure, and a stable government, why are we failing refugees in Greece?
he aid community has over many years developed a habit of finding reasons for why the school was not built in the Afghan village, why the women’s agricultural businesses never made any profits, why the toilets took three months to set up in the refugee camp.
When it comes to our shortcomings, we have become very comfortable with, and rely upon the shopping list of excuses that we find ourselves using in Haiti, Afghanistan, Iraq, the Democratic Republic of Congo and the other contexts we’re flown into.
The humanitarian excuses list includes, but is not limited to: a fragile context, ongoing war and conflict, poor infrastructure, a corrupt government, dictatorship (current or past), insufficient funding, and values that are not akin to our own. Or if all else fails, that other favourite go-to, the overwhelming scale and number of people, such as the 1,033,513 registered Syrian refugees in Lebanon, 655,990 Syrian refugees in Jordan or 3.9 million internally displaced people in Iraq.
But in Greece we are without the humanitarian excuse list to fall back on. The aid community has already received €83m (£70m) to improve conditions for refugees in Greece with €214m (£181m) to come from the European Commission alone in the next few months. This makes it hard to suggest we are underfunded, especially when you look at the scale of the crisis.
At the time of writing, the number of refugees in Greece is approximately 60,000. The problem is not overwhelming. This time we are in an EU country. I feel safe wherever I am – this means I can conduct a visit to monitor the impact of a programme or ensure I am consulting refugees about what they want. But I don’t, because it is something we have talked about but not done for many years, and there is little pressure to change.
The disconnect between the sector’s standards and the reality on the ground is more stark here than in any other mission I’ve been involved in. We have historically been unaccountable, failing to sufficiently consult and engage affected communities. In Greece we are continuing to operate in the same ways as before, but without the traditional excuses to rely on. When we have enabling infrastructure, a socio-political context that is easy to operate in, access to Wi-Fi, technology andadequate funds, and yet are failing to meet the refugees’ basic needs (even for something as simple as safe accommodation), reduce serious threats (such as the prevalence of sexual violence), or to be accountable or innovative, it suggests we are disinterested or incompetent. Perhaps both.
In Greece the aid community is being exposed. Our exposure is further compounded when we are unfavourably compared to organised and efficient groups of volunteers who work with less and achieve more. In comparison INGOs and the UNHCR seem money-orientated, bloated, bureaucratic and inefficient.
Across Greece there are volunteers working both independently and as organised groups, meeting needs and filling gaps. They take over abandoned buildings to ensure refugees have somewhere to sleep, provide additional nutrition to pregnant and breastfeeding women, organise and manage informal education programmes, including setting up schools inside camps.
All of this while INGO staff sip their cappuccinos in countless coordination meetings – for cash distribution, protection, water, sanitation and hygiene, food distribution and child-protection. Often to avoid engaging meaningfully in the discussions, we furiously take notes.
If any response has called into question whether the humanitarian sector is still fit for purpose, it’s the response to the refugee crisis in Greece.