European Governments Are Arresting Refugee Crisis Volunteers

It has fallen to ordinary people to provide refugees with food, shelter, and first aid, but now official attitudes are hardening and volunteers are risking arrest, prosecution, and jail.

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May 3 2016, 4:00pm

Photo: Team Humanity

From the end of Eric Kempson's driveway, the features of the Turkish hillside across the sea can be made out clearly with the naked eye. A former safari park keeper, Eric moved with his wife, Philippa, to the Greek island of Lesbos nearly 17 years ago. Now an artist, he sells sculptures and paintings to tourists from a workshop at their home by Eftalou Beach.

"We did have a bit of a quiet life for a while," he tells me. Not any longer. The Aegean Sea separates Lesbos from Turkey by less than six miles here, a distance that must seem tantalizingly short to the groups of families and young men who gather on the opposite coast and prepare to make the crossing to Europe.

If all goes well, an hour's boat ride is their only barrier to a new life, one that they hope will be free of the pain and despair that has driven them from homes in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, and beyond.

The brevity of the crossing lends it an air of safety that can be grossly misleading. For anyone out on the water in an overloaded dinghy with an unreliable motor, a small change in conditions can quickly lead to tragedy. This year alone, the International Organization for Migration estimates 375 people have died attempting to make the crossing.

Boats carrying refugees have been landing on this stretch of coastline since Eric and Philippa first arrived. For many of those years, the landings were sporadic and went largely unnoticed by most of the island's population. That all changed around 18 months ago, when the escalating conflict in Syria saw millions of people displaced from their homes.

Gradually, boats began arriving at Lesbos on a daily basis. The profile of the passengers changed too. They used to be almost entirely young men, prepared to take the risk posed by the crossing in search of a better life. Now there were families, motivated by a lack of any other choice.

In February last year, the Kempsons decided they could stand by no longer. They began stocking food and bottled water, which they handed to anyone arriving on the beaches. "We thought we'd start helping because they were suffering so much," says Eric.

Greek fishermen had been picking up refugees from troubled boats for years, and a handful of other locals offered support to those who made it to the shore. But for several months, the Kempsons acted largely alone. Then, in the summer of 2015, the volunteers started arriving.

Salam Aldeen. Photo: Team Humanity

They came just in time. Between August and October, an unprecedented number of refugees attempted to cross the Aegean Sea. Many never made it. "We saw a lot of bodies on the beach," says Eric. "Some of us were working twenty hours a day. We were working day in, day out, no days off, just sleeping when we could and helping as much as we could."

At times, more than 10,000 refugees would land on the north coast of Lesbos in a single day. Volunteers worked throughout the night, pulling countless bodies from the water, wrapping emergency blankets around the survivors, and administering first aid. "If it wasn't for the volunteer groups, the death toll would be horrendous," says Eric.

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One photograph changed everything. The image showed Alan Kurdi, a three-year-old Syrian boy, facedown on a Turkish beach having drowned during an attempted crossing to the Greek island of Kos. It revealed the human tragedy of a crisis that had until then been characterized by almost incomprehensible statistics.

Speaking to volunteers across Europe, that photograph comes up again and again. It's often cited as the motivating factor behind a decision to leave home and attempt to do something, anything, to prevent another incident like that from happening.

Of course, many more have died since that photograph was taken. Its publication shifted attitudes among both the public and politicians, momentarily suggesting that a solution to the crisis would be found. But the image soon faded from the minds of politicians, and the official response to the crisis returned to normal. Fences and razor wire were rolled out across Europe.

In the midst of Europe's greatest humanitarian crisis since World War II, it has fallen to ordinary people to provide food, shelter, and even just a few kind words to the hundreds of thousands of refugees who have been driven here by war and terror in their home countries. Independent volunteers and grassroots groups now operate right across the continent, all the way from the Aegean Sea to the Calais Jungle.

"The role they have played has been huge," says Stefano Argenziano, manager of migration operations at Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF). "Given the very chaotic changes, even an organization like MSF, which is very agile, can become slow. Volunteer groups have been able to respond one day before MSF was able to be there."

Not everyone is so admiring of their efforts. In recent months, a gradual hardening of the official attitude toward independent volunteers has become increasingly evident. Volunteers report that their efforts are now routinely met with bureaucracy, suspicion, and, in some cases, prosecution.

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At around 2 AM on January 14, Salam Aldeen received a call about two boats in trouble. It was the kind of call he'd answered many times before. Since arriving on Lesbos from Denmark last September, Aldeen had helped set up Team Humanity—a group of volunteer lifeguards that patrolled the coast using a boat bought with donations. Over the course of those four months, Aldeen estimates he went to the aid of around 200 boats carrying up to 10,000 refugees.

Aldeen tells me he always followed the same protocol—alerting the Greek coast guard before heading out in search of the troubled boats. This time, he headed out with a Danish colleague and three Spanish lifeguards from Proem Aid, another volunteer group he had worked with many times before.

Out on the water, Aldeen was forced to take evasive action when a military vessel passed by too closely for comfort, sending waves crashing into the side of the small rescue boat. "Me and my crew were in shock, thinking, Couldn't they see us?" he said. "We had lights, and everything was clear."

Photo: Team Humanity

They decided to head back to the shore. Before they could get there, they found themselves encircled by two military dinghies and a coast guard boat. "We were a rescue team," says Aldeen. "We didn't understand." The crew was escorted back to land, where all five volunteers were arrested and told they would be charged with human trafficking.

The crew was held for 48 hours before being released on bail. Four of the men paid about $7,300. As captain of the rescue boat, Aldeen was told to pay around $14,600 and remain in Greece awaiting trial. If convicted, he faces up to ten years in prison.

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If there is a job that needs doing on Lesbos, there is a volunteer group that's been set up to do it. Groups range from the Dirty Girls, a collective that retrieves wet clothes discarded by refugees on the beaches and cleans them ready for reuse, to No Border Kitchen, an anarchist kitchen crew from Germany, which for several months cooked thousands of meals a day for refugees near the island's main ferry port.

It's estimated there are now around 80 organizations involved in the relief effort on Lesbos. They include the UN High Council for Refugees (UNHCR) and international charities such as Médecins Sans Frontières, but the vast majority are small grassroots groups set up in specific response to the crisis.

Mario Andrioti is the spokesman for the mayor of Lesbos. He tells me: "Our response to the refugee crisis would not have been the same without the help of international volunteers and NGOs, especially last summer. You can imagine that the numbers were overwhelming for the municipality. We thank them at every opportunity."

Salam Aldeen. Photo: Team Humanity

Despite this, many volunteers have raised concerns about a shift in attitude toward their efforts. Just a week before Aldeen's arrest, seven other volunteers were arrested for theft after entering a municipal waste facility and removing discarded life jackets that they intended to reuse as mattresses at one of the island's refugee camps.

When I asked Andrioti about the arrests, he describes them as "unfortunate events." Nevertheless, he says: "It is not possible for volunteer groups to just grab a vessel and start saving lives. We have rules here. Even though it is an emergency, you have to respect the legal procedures."

Volunteers have also reported increased restrictions on their movements. Tamara Palmer is a team logistician with Clowns Without Borders, which first traveled to Lesbos in October last year. In February, she and a team arrived in Lesbos for a second trip. They immediately encountered difficulties.

On their first trip, the clowns had performed inside the island's main refugee camp at Moria. This time, they were turned away at the gate. "We spent three or four days attempting to seek permissions, and we were rejected," says Palmer. "The woman who spoke to the lead artist said, given the new environment, there's no way your group is going to get permission."

In March, the Greek government introduced rules requiring all volunteers to be registered with the authorities. Andrioti tells me the system is intended to allow better coordination of the relief effort and to protect refugees from harm. Palmer is unconvinced: "Is it really about protecting the refugees, or is it about a larger political decision people are having about this crisis?"

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More than a million refugees and migrants arrived in Europe by sea in 2015, according to the UN High Council for Refugees (UNHCR). The scale of the crisis is unprecedented in modern times. So too, however, has been the response.

Adrian Edwards, a spokesman for UNHCR, told me: "This crisis unfolded in places where they were literally right in front of Europe's doorstep. In that sense, it's been very, very different. That's part of the reason you've had a response of the local community, volunteers, of aid organizations.

Edwards told me volunteers have played an "absolutely crucial role" in managing the disaster. The size of the problem has not been the only challenge. The speed at which the political situation was changing meant even NGOs experienced in refugee situations were struggling to send resources where they were most needed. In such instances, volunteers plugged the gaps.

"Last year, there was this more or less unmanaged situation across Europe," said Edwards. "Countries, rather than organizing and dealing with the situation, were pretty much waving people through. What you had was very rapid change happening. In the space of a few hours, one government or other would close a border, and you would suddenly have hundreds or thousands of people on a border with no food, water, or places to sleep."

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Shortly after 11 AM on March 14, a group of around 100 refugees set out along the road leading west out of Idomeni. Until recently, this had been an unremarkable rural village, located in the north of Greece on the border with Macedonia. Now it is home to nearly 15,000 people, trapped here since the border was closed in February.

Two days earlier, volunteers at the camp became aware of leaflets circulating in Arabic that suggested a route across the border by crossing a dry river bed. It was wrong. Two weeks of rain meant the river was anything but dry. The night before, three refugees from Afghanistan had died attempting to make the crossing. The news did little to deter any further attempts. As the first group left the camp, more began to follow. Soon there were around 2,000 people streaming out of Idomeni.

Photograph: Fabian Winkler

Roughly three hours after leaving, the first group of refugees reached the river. German volunteer Lena Reiner was with them. Looking at the torrent flowing past, she became immediately concerned. "I said it's too dangerous," she tells me. "We were trying to hold back some people." Reiner argued with another volunteer after trying to stop a woman and small child from attempting the crossing. "She said I shouldn't destroy their chance."

Photograph: Fabian Winkler

Across the river, the march continued. It soon became clear the border crossing would not be allowed when the Macedonian military came into view. Any suspected volunteers or journalists were pulled out of the crowd and arrested.

Refugees were rounded up separately. Among them was Saman Ardalannezhad, an Iranian who lived in Iraq before making his way to Europe. He told me via WhatsApp that, once separated from volunteers and journalists, refugees were beaten by the military before being loaded onto trucks and driven back to the border.

Around 60 volunteers and journalists were taken to a police station. After 12 hours, everyone was released, after paying a $380 fine and agreeing not to reenter the country for six months. Reiner was convinced she had not committed a crime. "If anyone knew a lawyer, we would all have refused to pay," she said. "But they told us if we refused to pay, we would have to stay there until the case went to court, and we were all doubting it would be fast." Reiner paid the fine, then took a taxi back to Idomeni.

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In the days after the river crossing, speculation was rife about who circulated the leaflet. Its contents, which informed refugees they would be welcomed by Germany, led the Greek and Macedonian authorities to lay the blame with German activists. Whoever was responsible, no conclusive proof has been found.

One German volunteer told me he was forced to make a difficult decision about whether to assist with the crossing. Niklas Golitschek says: "It was quite a conflicting situation for us." Golitschek suspected the border would not be open and feared refugees would face violence from the police on the other side, but could see many were intent on crossing anyway. "We had the discussion: OK, we watch them crossing, and it will be really dangerous, or we support them and know it's bullshit anyway."

Aid Delivery Mission, an independent volunteer group working in Idomeni, posted a statement about the incident on Facebook. "The events of March 14th have been represented in a number of different ways." it said. "It's incredible and shocking to hear rumours that forget the efforts of volunteers, and instead create accusations that sensationalize an already terrible situation."

Stefano Argenziano, manager of migration operations at MSF, is in no doubt about the value of the volunteer effort in Idomeni. "It took us some time to come to terms with these organizations," he says. Initially, some volunteers questioned the motives of professional aid workers, while aid workers questioned the professionalism of some volunteers. Now, MSF has a dedicated individual based in Idomeni to liaise with volunteer groups.

I ask Argenziano how he thinks the authorities view volunteers across Europe. "There has been an obvious crackdown on the number of volunteer organizations a few months ago. It has become more difficult for volunteer groups to operate," he tells me. "The provision of aid was increasingly perceived as a threat to the EU. I think there has been a deliberate decision to stop those who were exposing the shortcomings and responsibilities of the EU with regards to the migrant flow and to the needs of those who were looking for protection."

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Here lies the tension at the heart of this crisis. The EU authorities are stubbornly committed to a strategy that seeks to eliminate the appeal of Europe, pulling down the shutters on the continent in the belief there is a way to suppress the tide of humanity flowing out of the Middle East.

By this reckoning, the actions of volunteers pose a direct risk to the security of Europe's borders. Small acts of kindness are perceived to add to the continent's pull factor, as if the provision of dry clothes and water is a consideration when deciding whether to place your children in a dangerously overloaded dinghy and cross a rough sea at night to escape a war back home.

While this tension appears to be reaching a breaking point in Greece and Macedonia, the same battle has been playing out on the opposite side of the continent in the refugee camps of northern France.

Grande Synthe. Photo: Stephane Dubromel

This winter, more than 2,000 refugees survived mud, rain, and freezing conditions while living in festival tents at an unofficial camp in Grande Synthe near Dunkirk. The only support came from a small team of under-resourced independent volunteers, whose efforts were hampered by a police blockade of the camp, which prevented any supplies such as tents and building materials from entering the site.

In early March, 1,300 refugees moved to a purpose built facility nearby. The camp is supported by the local mayor, a rare example of political compassion for the plight of refugees, and opened despite opposition from the French government, which denied any requests for funding. Instead, the camp was built MSF and is now run entirely by volunteers.

Maddie Harris first arrived in Grande Synthe last September, intending to stay for three days. Seven months later, she is still there. Along with a team of dedicated colleagues, she helps the camp's residents with anything they might need. Volunteers, coordinated by French organization Utopia 56, supply food and clothing, provide informal legal advice, arrange money transfers, and run a school. Their funding comes entirely from donations.

Walking through the camp, Harris is bombarded with requests for help. One man has broken his foot playing football. An old gentleman has reappeared at the camp after disappearing weeks ago and says he needs new shoes. A family needs to arrange a phone SIM card. Harris listens to all requests and writes them down in a small notebook. She explains that conditions are better than they were in the old camp, but she denounces the lack of official action. "If you removed every volunteer who came here off his or her own back," she says, "the place would be fucked."

Grande Synthe. Photo: Nicolas Beaudoin

There may be other challenges to overcome. Two days after the facility opened, the French government threatened to close it down over safety concerns, despite the fact that just days earlier the camp's residents had been living on waste ground nearby without sanitation. MSF branded the government's intervention as "cynicism without bounds." For now, the new camp at Grande Synthe has been allowed to stay.

Twenty-six miles to the west, another bleak scenario has just been played out, one which demonstrates the devastating impact of policies intended to serve as a deterrent to future refugees while ignoring the plight of those already here.

In late February, demolition started at the Calais Jungle, with refugees told to move to a closed camp of shipping containers elsewhere on the site. A collective of volunteer groups launched a legal challenge in a bid to stop a second phase of demolition. The authorities estimate the camp's population was put at 3,700. UK charity Help Refugees counted 5,497 residents, including 423 unaccompanied children.

Philli Boyle is Calais manager at Help Refugees. "We just didn't feel that it was possible for a judge to do anything other than delay this eviction," she tells me. "And, of course, the judge overruled our challenge. They just started. Nothing was done about the kids. We did another census a month later, and one hundred twenty-nine are missing. No one knows where these kids are now."

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Back in Idomeni, the situation looks increasingly dire. On April 10, refugees attempted to forcibly cross the border, prompting the Macedonian military to respond with tear gas and rubber bullets. Volunteers have reported an ongoing crackdown by the Greek police. On April 15, volunteer groups issued a joint statement denouncing the "horrendous living situation" in the camp and the "unjustified arrest and detention of at least 25 volunteers in recent days."

Volunteer lifeguard Salam Aldeen must remain in Greece while he awaits his trial for human trafficking. His boat has been confiscated. Instead of patrolling the coast, he is now also at Idomeni. The work keeps Aldeen occupied, but sometimes he can't help but dwell on his situation. "The only problem is I can't see my mother and my family," he tells me. "The trial could take many years. It can take half a year. It can take five years." It must be hard not knowing, I say. "Yes, it is," he replies sadly. "It is."

On Lesbos, the latest official attempt to stem the influx of refugees has seen the EU begin sending new arrivals back to Turkey, a policy that critics have claimed is a violation of international law. NGOs including UNHCR and MSF have scaled back their presence on the island, citing concerns about becoming complicit in the act of detention and deportation.

Eric and Philippa Kempson are focusing their energy on a new project, renovating a disused hotel on the north coast. Once completed, it will provide a reception center and accommodation for refugees, a place where people landing on the beaches will be welcome to stay while they make a claim for asylum. It will be called the Hope Center.

Follow Mark Wilding on Twitter.

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