From the island of Chios, you can clearly see Turkey just 5 miles off the east coast and it is hard not to look at this narrow sea channel without thinking about the hundreds of thousands who have crowded into dinghies and attempted the journey. At the height of the summer season, these thoughts jar with the thousands of tourists who are now sunbathing and having fun on the beaches.
This shocking contrast is also played out in the port. Just around the corner from cafes and souvenir shops, about 800 refugees are tucked into the moat of the castle, living in cramped and depressing unofficial camp of Souda. Unless you went looking for it, you’d never see it. And unless you went looking, you’d never see the official camp of Vial about 5 miles up the mountain with another 1,000 refugees.
We spent two days there to see if there was anything we could do to help. There are already hard-working organisations and individuals making a difference, many of them generously giving their time to help us understand the situation. From what we heard, the challenges are daunting.
While clothing does not appear to be in high demand, there is a clear need for improved nutrition. Boredom, frustration and a sense of hopelessness are traumatising already traumatised people so mental health is poor. With the withdrawal of key EU funding, many of the large NGOs are pulling out at the end of July. After over two years and the consequent impact on the tourist trade, sympathy on the island is in short supply. Although continually refreshed by a steady stream of enthusiastic and well-intentioned volunteers, many of the smaller NGOs are exhausted. Humanitarian efforts do not appear to be consistently co-ordinated.
There is some access to Souda but access to Vial is highly restricted. It is hard to see how we can carry out fair and dignified distributions without a presence in Vial or at least regular, unimpeded access. We are lucky to have the support of our donors and know that we can rely on some great volunteers so now need to work with the authorities to demonstrate how we can make their lives easier as well as support the refugees with essential aid.
We have come away with some despair at Europe’s treatment of refugees but a determination to do everything in our power to help. Even small actions can have a big impact.