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15 October 2015

I spent three days at a refugee camp. Here’s what I learned

Shabana Mahmood, Labour MP for Birmingham Ladywood, reflects on her recent visit to refugee camps in Greece.

By Shabana Mahmood

What am I doing here? I asked myself that question a lot during the three days that I spent on the Greek island of Lesvos last week, working with a group of Birmingham based volunteers to provide aid and assistance to refugees as they land on the shores of Europe.

I asked myself that question as I helped pull people off dangerously overfull dinghies; as I tried to block out the screams of a small child terrified by the dangerous boat journey he had just survived; as I found myself knee deep in wet clothes discarded by refugees trying to find anything that could be salvaged; and as I tried to tell a crying mum that we had run out of milk.

It wasn’t how I was intending to spend my conference recess. But at the beginning of September I met with my constituent Tariq Jahan, a man who came to national attention when his son died during the riots of summer 2011. We were meeting to discuss our ongoing campaign for an inquiry into the handling of his son’s case.

Tariq told me he was thinking of taking a convoy of aid out to Greece to help the refugees who are reaching the shores of Europe. He had been out to Syria with a British charity previously and wanted to do something practical to help.

He has a calm zeal that has been forged by personal tragedy that is difficult to ignore or resist – so when he asked if I would consider joining him to help, I agreed without hesitation.

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This is my account of what I saw and experienced whilst I was out there. 

Children sweep up in a refugee camp in Greece. Photo: STR/AFP/Getty Images

Pipka Camp

This site used to be a summer camp for children but fell into disuse and disrepair. In 2012 a group of Greek volunteers started to use this as a base for refugees arriving on the island. Recently the Mayor of Lesvos called for the camp to be used once again for the Greek people but has since been persuaded that the work done here by volunteers is too valuable and has agreed to its continuing use as a base for refugees.

The first thing that surprised me when we arrived at Pipka camp was that we could drive straight in. This may sound a bit twee but I was expecting some sort of system or checkpoint, somewhere to register maybe – but no, we parked up and there we found Efi Latsoudis who is one of the lead coordinators of the camp. She gave me a brief tour, showed me the kitchen that they have got up and running again, the huts that are being used by Syrian families and talked me through some of their hopes about building more permanent structures to support those who make it to Pipka.

It’s a smaller camp, so things feel pretty ordered, and calm. It’s clean and there is no debris lying around. The refugees here breathe a bit more easily, there is time to reflect, time to grieve.

We meet an 11-year-old boy, Osama, who is alone – his terrified parents got him out of Isil controlled Raqqa, but he made the perilous journey on his own. To say I am shocked is an understatement. What must have gone through his parents minds when they did that – what kind of desperation makes a parent send their child to trek and sail across continents alone, for his safety.

There are too many horrific stories of deaths on the waters between Greece and Turkey. And Efi and the volunteers are upset that the Greek systems for processing deaths are applied to refugees in a way that fails to recognise their unique circumstances at a time when they are too traumatised to understand what is happening.

Whilst we are there, a van arrives full of tins of food and bottled water – a British group from Oldham have paid for food aid to help people at Pipka and are dropping it off. A good natured discussion about whose accent is better – Brummie, clearly – bemuses the other volunteers, but the Aussie volunteer cook soon restores order.

A young boy grabs a razor wire topped fence as the Greek prime minister visits a refugee and migrant registration camp in Mytilene, on the Greek island of Lesbos, on October 6, 2015. Photo: AFP/Getty Images

Moria Camp

If Pipka was calm, clean and ordered, Moria camp is anything but. A former military base, it has received up to 2000 refugees in a day – and Save the Children who provide food once a day at 4pm for everyone on the camp (both on the Syrian and non-Syrian side) cater for up to 8000 people. It is staggering to see the numbers of people here. Conditions are difficult but everyone keeps telling me things are much better than they were a week or so ago. Apparently there are always marked improvements whenever a dignitary visits – the UNHCR High Commissioner is reported to be visiting and by Day Two of our visit there is a new UNHCR tent facility in the camp providing shelter. (I think it’s fair to say there is a healthy amount of cynicism from volunteers on the ground about the UNHCR.)

Save the Children try to co-ordinate the food drops to make sure the different volunteer groups hand out parcels at different times to them; it doesn’t always work. Our morning drop was delayed by three hours because the entrance to the camp was blocked by a police van put there to protect the “foreign dignitaries” from the camp’s residents.  You have to be quite tough to ration out limited resources amongst desperately needy people – I could manage it just about on a temporary three day basis, but I take my hat off to the volunteers who do this day in day out. 

The worst thing about Moria camp is that it is split into two parts – one for Syrians and the other for non-Syrians. The Syrian side is relatively well looked after – but the non-Syrian side is appalling. A long line of mostly young men, primarily from Iraq and Afghanistan queue for registration. There is no sanitation, a few makeshift tents for families. If you lose your place in the queue you are totally screwed, so they barely move. Registration is often halted as camp authorities, such as they are, struggle to cope. The man who was at the head of the queue when I visited on day one had been there for 11 hours, when I was back there the following day 12 hours later, he was still there. No food no water in all that time. I cannot believe it is possible to have such differential treatment; even here there are two classes: Syrian and everyone else. But those who have fled Iraq and Afghanistan are no less terrified than the Syrians. Jeanne from Save the Children is practically in tears as she tells me how she is struggling to draw attention to the non-Syrian part of the camp.

I feel sick that almost no-one is very interested in that part of the camp.

I feel sick that a separate part of the camp even exists

A migrant woman finds shelter under a tarpaulin with the lettering UNHCR (the UN refugee agency) at the camp site of refugees and migrants who spend the night on the street after their arrival at the Greek island of Lesbos after crossing the Aegean sea from Turkey on October 4, 2015. Photo: AFP/Getty Images


By far and away the most emotional part of my three day journey was the time spent on Skala Sikiminia. This is in the north of Lesvos, and is one of the points where many of the boats and dinghies crossing from Turkey land. Sometimes the boats arrive during the day, but often at nightfall – the patterns are difficult to predict and depend on how the smugglers are feeling more than anything else. Volunteers here have seen boats capsize, and witnessed deaths at sea. Thankfully every boat we saw landed safely – but it is a perilous journey.

You have to be resilient to volunteer here. Here the screams of the children are loudest; the exhaustion acute; the mixture of fear and hope at its most overwhelming. Here you are only ever moments away from seeing someone die.

There is no welcome here for the refugees from the “civilised” bureaucracy of the EU. But there is a welcome from the best of human civilisation exhibited by the volunteers from all over the world who are working here. When the refugees are pulled ashore, volunteer medics provide immediate medical assistance to anyone who needs it. Clothes donated from all over the world are kept near two tents – one for men and one for women and children; where refugees can take off their soaking wet clothes and change into something dry.

A man called Osama from Homs has been taken ill as he came off the boat; he needs some dry trousers – and there aren’t any to be found. I rummaged through literally every item of clothing in that tent and practically cried tears of joy when after 50 minutes of searching I found some trousers that would do the job. After that I spent most of my time cleaning up and organising this area – after a boat has come in it gets muddy and wet, and there is a shortage of clothes.

Further along the shore, there is another tent where refugees receive hot tea and food. The volunteers on this section have been on their feet all day because there has been a steady stream of arrivals – more than 30 boats have come in on one day. Lighthouse, a group who are Greek-led co-ordinate all volunteer activity on the beach from here.

Any volunteer with a car is asked to drive groups of refugees to the make shift camp/bus station about a mile up the road from the shore. Here the refuges can have a very long wait for busses to take them to Moria or one of the other camps; its either that or walk for a day or two. On my second night, there were 400 refugees waiting here, the temperature had plummeted and it was dark. A local Greek man had made some soup and was handing it out but it wasn’t enough, so a volunteer called Rayyan was making another pot, in the dark. His only source of light? Me, holding a torch.

A child stands in a temporary migrants’ camp near the town of Mytilene on the island of Lesbos on June 18, 2015. Photo:AFP/Getty Images

Two things were said to me during my three day trip which go round and round in my head as I reflect on what I have seen and experienced.

Firstly; when I met the Mayor of Lesvos he told me that at the height of the crisis one of his constituents said to him “Mr Mayor, I wouldn’t want to be in your shoes right now”. The constituent was referring to the fact no doubt that this small island of population circa 85,000 has welcomed over 200,000 refugees since the beginning of the year. The Mayor pointed to a refugee and responded “And I wouldn’t want to be in their shoes”. Everything I have seen at Sikiminia, Moria and Pipka tells me I wouldn’t want to be in any of their shoes – not those of the Mayor nor the refugees.

We might not be standing directly in their shoes but we have a moral duty to act. When the refugees make it to the shores of Lesvos they are not just on Greece’s doorstep but our doorstep too.

I welcome the government’s policy proposals to help refugees directly from the camps, who have not made the dangerous journey to Europe. But we cannot simply ignore the crisis in Europe, either.

It is not an either/or situation – we must have a strategy and a willingness to help both refugees in the region and those who have made it to Europe.

When the Home Secretary says that it is only the fittest or the wealthiest that have made the journey to Europe, she is not entirely wrong, but she does entirely miss the point.

Their desperation is not lessened because they have a degree or because they had a good job before war and chaos descended.

Fear of death doesn’t diminish because of the money you used to have or the standard of the house you used to live in.

It is a false distinction and we mustn’t fall for it.

The weather is getting colder; those who move on from Greece are walking. Unless there is coordinated action across Europe it won’t be long before we see pictures of refugees who have died from the cold on our TV screens. That is why I believe the government should go beyond its current commitment and agree to resettle at least 10,000 refugees over the next year. And the number of 20,000 over five years currently agreed to by the government is clearly inadequate – we need to be willing to at least double that, if not more.

And it’s not just on the total numbers that we need to go further. We have to work with our European partners and create new, safe, and legal routes for refugees to get to Europe. We cannot abandon them to their fate, left as prey for smugglers whilst risking death on the seas. Maybe we can make ourselves feel better by saying no-one is making them get on the boats. And again, the Home Secretary is not entirely wrong when she says that we have to be mindful of push and pull factors. But she does again entirely miss the point. Because the push factor is either death or the slow torture of a temporary life in a camp which amounts to no kind of life at all. If that is what they face then they are going to run. We cannot kid ourselves that they have choices; we have to act.

And secondly; I asked Hussain from Iraq who landed on the shores of Europe at Sikiminia through an interpreter why he left Iraq. It was noisy and the interpreter only caught a bit of what he said: “chaos, all over, a time of chaos”.

It does feel as though an age of chaos has descended. Crises everywhere, millions on the move, nuclear-armed world powers on different sides… and in the midst of the chaos ordinary people are running. You would run. I would run. They are running. We must do our part to help them. 

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