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Pikpa Camp (Source: Lesvos Solidarity)

Lesbos: Safety and dignity for refugees

Never in history have so many people been on the run as in 2020: over 80 million! The United Nations estimates that children make up nearly half of these displaced, persecuted, and fleeing wars and the effects of climate change. Nearly 70 percent of them, according to the UN Refugee Agency, came from just five countries last year: Syria, Venezuela, Afghanistan, South Sudan and Myanmar. Most recently, Ethiopia was added to this list of shame in late 2020.

Covid-19 further worsened the situation of refugees - and led to a dramatic increase in numbers: Compared to 2019 by ten million people - almost 15 percent! From all countries where Kindernothilfe is active, our partners report that the pandemic is above all a catastrophe for the poorest: and people on the run, without protective, solidary structures such as families or communities of all kinds, have always been among the most vulnerable. One of our partners recently had to experience for himself in all brutality how mercilessly and cynically state institutions treat those seeking protection.

Text: Jürgen Schübelin

Cartoon about the eviction of the Pikpa Camp (Source: Yorgos Konstantinou)
A cartoon of the Greek artist Yorgos Konstantinou: The eviction of the Pipka Camp 

Here is the story of the people from Project Pikpa: Nobody was prepared for this brutal operation on October 30, 2020: Black-masked special forces of the Greek police moved into the protection center in Mytilini on the Aegean island of Lesbos, which is also supported by Kindernothilfe, at dawn that Friday. As our partner Lesbos Solidarity reported, part of the police special units sealed off the area on the outskirts of the island's capital. Staff members, psychologists, lawyers and medical personnel were thus no longer allowed to enter the camp. Meanwhile, other uniformed officers took the residents out of the camp's small houses and shelters. Ruthlessly, they forced the shocked and completely frightened people into the buses provided. One person collapsed under stress during the police action and had to be taken to hospital.

Pikpa – a dignified, humane temporary home

Since 2012, Pikpa Camp, staffed mainly by volunteers - including many from around the world - has provided a dignified, humane temporary home for more than 30,000 vulnerable refugees. Almost all of them had previously been in Moria, the notorious shantytown that burned down in September 2020, "referred" to Lesvos Solidarity by the authorities and the camp administration: mothers with young children, pregnant women, people with disabilities, the severely traumatized and victims of torture. They all found safety and dedicated care in Pikpa. Until that black Friday. The police action was triggered by an eviction order from Notis Mitarakis, the Greek Minister for Migration and Asylum. His reasoning: it was administratively easier to care for refugees in large camps than in several smaller ones.

Efi Latsoudi embracing a child (Source: Lesvos Solidarity)
Efi Latsoudi embracing a child (Source: Lesvos Solidarity)

"This is totally unacceptable and absurd," counters Lesvos Solidarity founder Efi Latsoudi: "A refuge like Pikpa is being forcibly evicted, while at the same time the Greek government and the other European states are installing an inhumane Moria#2 large-scale camp with its inhumane and catastrophic living conditions."

As various local civil society organizations suspect, the Greek government apparently wanted to create facts with its martial large-scale police operation. Accordingly, the aim was to pre-empt any intervention by the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) in Strasbourg. There, lawyers for several children had filed a complaint against a possible eviction.

Police forces initially moved people from the shelter to the old Kara-Tepe camp - not to be confused with the large-scale camp of the same name that Greek authorities bulldozed out of the ground after the fire in Moria. However, Old Kara-Tepe is also facing eviction in these weeks. For more than three months now, there has been panic among the children and adults that they will end up in the new tent camp city with its catastrophic living conditions.

efi Latsoudi with a child on her shoulders in the Pikpa Camp (Source: Louisa Gouliamaki/AFP via Getty Images)
 In 2016 Efi Latsoudi and Lesvos Solidarity have won the Fridjof Nansen Refugee Prize (Source: Louisa Gouliamaki/AFP via Getty Images)

For its committed and creative work with refugees, the team of Lesvos Solidarity around Efi Latsoudi has received broad support and also international awards for many years. The most important one in 2016 was the awarding of the Fridjof Nansen Refugee Prize by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), which was established in 1954. In the dramatic weeks leading up to October 30, petitions and appeals from around the world reached Minister Notis Mitarakis over his threat to evict Pikpa. The bishops from the Protestant churches of Kurhessen-Waldeck, Westphalia, Hessen and Nassau and the Evangelical Church in the Rhineland also spoke out. In urgent messages to Mitarakis, his cabinet colleagues, the Greek Minister of Labour and Social Affairs, Yiannis Vroutsis, as well as German Interior Minister Horst Seehofer (CSU), they demanded that the eviction be averted. In vain!

Ute Gniewoß (Source: privat)
Ute Gniewoß has spent many vacations working in the Pikpa Camp (Source: privat)

 

"An indictment of the European Union!"

"What an indictment for the European Union - and what a message!" says Ute Gniewoß about the Greek government's actions. She is a pastor of the Evangelical Church Berlin-Brandenburg-schlesische Oberlausitz and one of the international volunteers at the former Pikpa Protection Center. Since 2014, she has regularly travelled to the Aegean Sea during her annual vacations and is involved in the Lesvos Solidarity team working with refugees there. It was through Pastor Gniewoß that Kindernothilfe made contact with this Greek partner. "Eight years of philanthropic work, for many to the limit of their endurance - erased in a few hours," she wrote to us in horror on October 30: "Should no longer apply, should not count. But still applies. Counts anyway!"

And Carsten Montag, Chief Programme Officer of Kindernothilfe, added: "Whoever deploys militarily organized special units against children and women shows where he stands: certainly not on the side of democracy and human rights."

What the Greek authorities, financed by EU funds, "offer" to the refugees - the vast majority of them from Syria and Afghanistan - who made it to one of the Aegean islands from the Turkish coast in rubber dinghies in recent years, is accommodation in so-called Reception and Identification Centers. The most notorious is the temporary tent camp Kara Tepe (Black Hill) outside Mytilini on a former army firing range - right by the sea. Four months after its opening, conditions for the 7500 shelter seekers remain catastrophic and inhumane. Living in freezing cold in summer tents, in mud and dirt, far too few chemical toilets, unbearable hygienic conditions, insufficient food.

Refugee camp Kara Tepe (Source: picture alliance/AP | Panagiotis Balaskas)
Summer tents, mud and dirt: the camp in Kara Tepe (Source: picture alliance/AP | Panagiotis Balaskas)

The two Austrian journalists Johannes Pucher and Michael Völker describe Kara Tepe in a report published at Christmas for the Standard in Vienna with the words: An "eyesore, a monument to the failure of the European Union, a haven of inhumanity. A state of affairs that the European Union and its member states apparently consciously accept in order to demonstrate to the refugees: This is what awaits them when they make their way to Europe ..."

What such conditions trigger in children is described by the few medical staff of humanitarian organizations that are still allowed into the fenced camp by the Greek authorities at all: Permanent stress, lots of recurring panic attacks, nightmares and severe depression - not to mention constant colds, bronchitis illnesses, gastrointestinal infections and skin diseases as a result of the catastrophic hygienic conditions. Plus the extremely high risk of contracting Covid-19.

An open letter to the German government

Three of Kindernothilfe's Greek partner organizations Zeuxis, The Smile of a Child and Lesvos Solidarity are encouraging us to send a clear signal in the weeks leading up to Christmas: on December 10, Katrin Weidemann, Kindernothilfe's Chief Executive Officer, writes an open letter to German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Interior Minister Horst Seehofer and Foreign Minister Heiko Maas, resulting in three demands:

  • The immediate accommodation of all people in Kara Tepe - like the young mothers and their children from the forcibly evacuated Pikpa Camp - in permanent houses, finally sufficient baby food, hygiene articles and medical care!
  • The second demand is: The most vulnerable people from the former Pikpa project must be evacuated from the Greek islands immediately! Katrin Weidemann: "In Germany, federal states and hundreds of municipalities have declared their willingness to voluntarily take in refugees. These humanitarian efforts must not be blocked further, they must be supported and expanded. The reference to a European solution must not prevent Germany from living up to its responsibility!"
  • In the third demand, Kindernothilfe is fundamentally concerned with the humane design of the European asylum system. In her letter to the German government, Weidemann formulates: "The EU's New Pact on Migration and Asylum relies on closed camps, possibly with detention conditions. The attempt to detain protection seekers at the external borders and send them directly back to authoritarian states like Turkey, although there is no effective protection there, has failed. The German government must stand up for humane procedures based on the rule of law!"

The letter was accompanied by a postcard and online campaign under the hashtag #SecurityAndDignity.

Postcard campaign (Photo-source: twenty20, design: Aleks van Sputto)
Postcard campaign (Source: photo - twenty20, design - Aleks van Sputto)

 

Corona pushes everything into the background

Tailwind for this push came a few days before Christmas from 246 members of the Bundestag from five parliamentary groups, including Union and SPD politicians, who also appealed in a letter to Interior Minister Seehofer to accelerate the promised admission of particularly vulnerable refugees from the Greek camps and to take in significantly more protection seekers in Germany in cooperation with the alliance "Seebrücke": "We see the federal government in the duty" to give the more than 200 municipalities and individual states that have declared their willingness to do so "a commitment for the reception and to initiate and advance a constructive path for this."

In the attention shadow of the all-dominating news about the Corona pandemic, however, the plight of the refugees is not too much of a political issue. The evacuation of even sick children and their families from Kara Tepe and other camps did not progress during the winter. And the Lesvos Solidarity team was forced to develop a variety of new strategies to keep in touch with all the children and mothers from the disbanded Pikpa Camp, to continue providing them with psychological and medical support, as well as legal assistance.

Refugees on Lesvos sew bags, cases and purses from discarded life jackets (Source: Lesvos Solidarity)

Refugees on Lesvos sew bags, cases and purses from discarded life jackets (Source: Lesvos Solidarity)

With virtual group meetings during the lockdown period and via online classes, the team is trying to help those deported from Pikpa come to terms with what they have experienced. This approach also includes the production of handicrafts made from former life jackets with their own label: Safe Passage! After Duisburg, Lesvos Solidarity writes in its latest message: "We thank you for standing by us and all the people we support during this extremely difficult year! Solidarity will win in the end!"

Status: February 2021