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Spotlight on Lesvos

Start Network’s European Refugee Response

  • by Helen James
  • 10 Apr 16

Blog Post

At the end of March Start Network’s Helen James visited Lesvos to take a look at the Start Network European Refugee Response.

Despite the EU-Turkey Agreement, people are still arriving in Lesvos, albeit in smaller numbers. In March there was an average of 474 daily arrivals compared to an average of 1,086 in February 2016.

Before the closing of Greece’s northern borders people were moving quickly out of Greece and along the Balkan route. By the time of my visit at the end of March, that had changed, people were now unable to continue their journey and so agencies were changing their response.

I spoke to Tim Sutton, Oxfam, Nathalie Helena Rigall, Danish Refugee Council, and Paras Mani Tamang and Sotiria Kyrikopoulou from ActionAid to find out more about the response and their organisations' activities in Lesvos.


People inside Moria are unable to leave

Since 20 March following the EU-Turkey agreement, the Greek authorities take new arrivals in Lesvos to Moria. Previously a registration site, Moria is now a closed centre, people are unable to leave and initially there were also restrictions on movement inside the centre. This change led to the suspension of most activities by NGOs in Moria (some continued to provide protection and monitored needs).

On the 29th March, the day of my visit, the News that Moves website reported that refugees had been protesting inside Moria, where living conditions have deteriorated, following the withdrawal of NGOs.

Kara Tepe

Kara Tepe, Lesvos

Kara Tepe, an open site, where people are free to enter and leave, was extremely well organised, and clean. On the day of my visit there were around 90 refugees at Kara Tepe, who arrived before March 20 and who hadn’t moved to the mainland. I was told 500 more arrived just after my visit, and earlier in the year there were 2,500 people hosted there.

The site is made up of RHU’s (Refugee Housing Unit), the Ikea design of modular structures. They’re modular so they can fit together to make smaller or larger structures, and are high enough to stand in.

Managed by the municipality, camp manager Stavros told me “Kara Tepe is not a camp and these are not refugees or migrants, they are our visitors, and this is a hospitality site, we are hosting our visitors”.

Stavros’ welcoming attitude is typical in Lesvos, possibly because many of the people there were once refugees themselves, as this video from ActionAid explains. Sotiria Kyrikopoulou, protection manager at ActionAid Hellas, said: “This is a refugee island historically, we had the same thing in 1922, that is relevant.” 

Better Days for Moira

Better Days for Moria

I also visited Better Days for Moria, a site run by volunteers. Earlier in the year they had been providing 800-1000 meals per day, non-food items, clothing and shelter. There was little ‘official’ INGO involvement here, although unofficially some are supporting it.

Better Days for Moria had a nice feel - on the day I visited it was sunny, but on a rainy cold day it would have very different – it had flowers in the trees, colourful signage and up-cycled seats made out of life jackets.

Meals and non-food items

Before the change at Moira, Oxfam, Save the Children, Mercy Corps and Danish Refugee Council, were running a collaborative meal distribution service. Oxfam and Save Children continue to provide meals at Kara Tepe. Oxfam alone has distributed 90,000 meals since the 1st of December.

This type of collaboration is important in a situation like on Lesvos, agencies can often only support up to a certain number of people, so NGOs can work together to support a higher caseload of 2,000-3,000 people, the numbers being seen in hotspots all of over Greece.

Tim Sutton, Oxfam’s Humanitarian Programme Coordinator said “It’s a closer community here, we’re concentrated in two or three areas on an island, so there’s very close collaboration, whereas in a different sort of context it might be more dispersed.”

Shoes waiting to be distributed, Kara Tepe, Lesvos

Oxfam has also been working with local businesses to provide meal vouchers to vulnerable families waiting at the ferry port. Tim Sutton said: “It was quite complicated to set up because we needed restaurants that had certain provisions. We wanted provisions like charging stations; we wanted people who are culturally sensitive, meat which was Halal. Some weren’t interested some were very interested; some already had menus in Arabic and Farsi. This has worked really well, people are very satisfied, and it’s a very different angle on providing aid, very dignified.”

Non-food items (NFIs) are delivered collaboratively by a consortium of agencies, including ActionAid, Oxfam, Save the Children and Samaritan Purse. Tim Sutton said “[There was] limited storage, it was quite difficult to manage, so UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees) developed a joint online system to track and report on NFI distributions by partners. The stocks and distribution plans of Oxfam, SP, Save the Children, Red Cross, and Caritas were all included, so we knew what was coming in, what other organisations were ordering. That helped to tell us what we shouldn't order and what we should. We were distributing side by side with different agencies, doing different items.”

Cultural mediators and interpreters

Across the crisis, agencies have struggled to find interpreters, as I learned when I spoke to Lali Foster from Translators Without Borders. So ActionAid’s cultural mediators have been a resource that has helped sparked collaboration.

A partnership with Internews saw ActionAid’s mediators speaking to people to find out what rumours they had heard. The Rumours project identifies misinformation and hearsay and responds to it with relevant, factual information.

Sotiria Kyrikopoulou, protection manager at ActionAid Hellas, told me; “Internews is a very important collaboration. Our mediators go round collating all of the rumours in the sites then Internews would double check what is the reality of the situation. They would produce a leaflet, which is circulated to make sure that people knew what was true and what was not true.

ActionAid’s mediators have been able to ensure that vulnerable people can be referred on to access other essential services, such as Mercy Corps’ cash programme and to the Caritas Hotel. Sotiria Kyrikopoulou said “[Caritas] said we were referring something like 70% of their residents.

Paras Mani Tamang, ActionAid’s project manager in Lesvos said “Many of them had been refugees themselves before, they sympathised with the situation, it was very emotional for them at the same time. They are very good at identifying vulnerable cases, they don't just wait in the women friendly space they go around the camp and talk to people, identify the vulnerable ones and encouraging them to come to the space.

Site management support

Danish Refugee Council (DRC) provided the site management support at Moria before it was turned into a closed centre. DRC cleaned the shelters, and provided maintenance and construction support, coordination and capacity building activities.

Part of DRC’s role is communicating with communities, which among many activities also involves working with other agencies in Moria to ensure their services were reaching those that needed them. Nathalie Helena Rigall, communicating with communities & capacity building officer at Danish Refugee Council told me: “For instance, [I would] make sure Save the Children would be able to access families in the dorms, rather than just having the child friendly space waiting for people to come to them, we would help Save the Children go out [during their assessments] and reach families where we know where they are.We've [also] been collaborating strongly with the health partners to make sure they really reach people in need."

To communicate with people as they were moving through Moria quickly, DRC and Internews worked together to create short audio messages with key information communicated through megaphones. Nathalie said: “People would come they would be overwhelmed, they would be tire, they might get a leaflet, maybe they will lose it, maybe they’re not able to read, maybe they’re too tired to read it.

It’s not really the time and place to roll out a huge audio message 20 minutes [long] because they wouldn’t listen. We had a piece that was seven minutes long and that was too much. So we've learnt that things have to be extremely short and concise. It’s definitely innovative when it comes to communicating with communities, especially in a transit site.

Bedding was being changed daily because people were moving on daily; however blankets were ending up in the waste. Tim Sutton, Oxfam’s Humanitarian Programme Coordinator told me “They’re synthetic, non-biodegradable, that would cause all sorts of environmental problems for this island. So we opted to wash them and we set up a pilot project to wash 10,000 blankets. You need to ensure the blanket is washed to a standard to kill any parasites, that’s done through heat. We found one contractor from the other side of the island who had the facilities to do the quantity we needed. A blanket costs 6 Euros, we can wash them for 3. We'd like to continue that in Kara Tepe.”

The Start Network European Refugee Response is funded by UK Aid.

To find the latest on the situation in Lesvos visit

Read more about Start Network’s European Refugee Response.

Keep reading:

European refugee crisis

  • by Helen James

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