Many refugees are at a loss in their makeshift camps in Greece. Volunteers have set out to help them get the information they need and debunk false rumors. Marianna Karakoulaki reports from Thessaloniki.
When refugees were stranded in Idomeni at the Greek-Macedonian border, new rumors about the border being open again emerged every other day. People would pack their belongings and run towards the Macedonian fence only to be pushed back – oftentimes with force.
Although most refugees are now in official refugee camps in Greece, those rumors have not stopped. There is a new story almost every day about the re-opening of the Balkan route, organizations supposedly giving refugees pocket money or how long people will have to wait in Greece. These rumors then lead to heated arguments among refugees.
With an estimated figure of more than 57,000 refugees in the country, and new arrivals of approximately 70-170 people per day, the task of informing people of their rights and options is challenging.
Volunteers have set out to help them get the right information they need. The “Mobile Info Team”provides answers to the refugees’ most pressing questions.
Those who initially created the team sometime in March were part of a soup kitchen in Idomeni at the time. “While delivering soup we had the feeling that there were so many questions, but very few answers,” Michael, one of the volunteers here, told DW.
Michael, 36, from Germany initially planned to stay in Greece for two weeks. He has been here for almost seven months now. He arrived in Idomeni in January and was chopping off vegetables at a soup kitchen that was providing healthy food to refugees before joining the Mobile Info Team.
They decided it was important to have a place “where people could come and learn anything they need,” he added.
Different kind of aid
Several times a day, they go out and meet with refugees at ten different camps around Thessaloniki. Due to restricted access for independent volunteers to several camps, the team holds the sessions outside of each camp. By now, refugees know when to expect “the people who have the answers” as many say.
The team also has a strong social media presence on Facebook, Twitter and a blog where they share information in English, Arabic, Farsi and Urdu – the languages most of the refugees here speak.
The seven members of the self-funded group spend a lot of time researching, evaluating and cross-checking the information they give out. They share details from news sources to official reports by the UN refugee agency UNHCR, the European Asylum Support Office (EASO), Greek authorities and information they get from direct contact with groups of lawyers and other NGOs.
“We try to always provide reliable information and refute misinformation with every way that we can,” Giorgos Kyritsis, the government’s spokesman for the migration crisis, told DW.
“Anyone [who] arrives in Greece is fully informed of their status in English and where possible in their mother tongue,” the government official added.
He said Greece couldn’t have predicted the need of interpreters, “but volunteers and NGOs provide a helping hand and we do everything that is possible,” Kyritsis said.
‘No one explained the details’
As the Mobile Info Team sets up their mobile “office” – a white plastic table, some chairs and wooden boards – groups of refugees start approaching. The team’s blue van moves from camp to camp; today, the volunteers are outside the refugee camp of Softex near Thessaloniki.
“We do have some information from the UNHCR, but everything makes much more sense after talking to the Info Team and reading their flyers,” a Syrian refugee who lives at Softex told DW. “For example we were told that relocation might take several months, but no one explained all the details.”
Khalid, 34, is the heart of the team. He’s a refugee himself from Iraq who arrived in Lesvos in early March waiting to be relocated in Europe. As soon as he got to Greece, Khalid started helping out volunteers, doctors, and oftentimes the police with translations.
“Unfortunately, the most common questions we get are the most difficult to answer,” he said. As Khalid explains, most refugees want to know how long they will have to wait in Greece – but there is no clear and specific timeframe and it may take from two months from the time of their relocation interview till six or more.
The volunteers say face-to-face meetings are more important than the online resources they share. Michael adds it’s getting more and more difficult to leave the people they are helping as they’ve formed close relationships with some of them. “It is difficult to let go when there is so much need.”
Khalid on the other hand believes that those who, in an unfortunate turn of luck, found themselves stranded in Greece should help one another because they are all in the same situation.
“While living in the makeshift camp of EKO near Idomeni I noticed there was a serious lack of translators, that’s why I started helping volunteers,” Khalid said. “I was living in uncertainty; I know how it is and how people feel.”
He also said they often have negative news for the refugees – especially when they need to inform people that they might need to stay in the refugee camps for a long time as their relocation may take several months. “But it is something that needs to be done,” Khalid added.