human development, social justice and sustainable social systems

Caritas Hellas works with migrants in Lesbos

Life in the Kara Tepe camp

The children arriving at the Kara Tepe camp, on the island of Lesbos, believe that they have crossed “a big river” on their trip from Turkey to the Greek island. Since nearly all of them were born in war zones and have never attended school, they do not know they have actually crossed the Aegean Sea.

The trip to Lesbos across two kilometres of sea was only the most recent stage of the long journey to Europe. At the Kara Tepe camp, migrant families do not find the Europe they were hoping for. Nevertheless, Caritas works to provide positive experiences such as language classes. Starting from a basic literacy level, the ‘ABC class’, this is the first experience of organised education for most of these children.

Children and adults attend joint language classes divided into three levels. Claire, Caritas’ English teacher at the camp, explained that if they pass the third level they obtain an A2 certificate. English language skills should help them in their onward trip to mainland Europe. Greek language classes are also offered.

“I also suggest they take Greek classes”, Claire told me during a recent visit to the camp. “If they have to stay in the country, language is the only way to start integration”. Some families seemed ready to stay in Greece if that turned out to be the only possibility for them to stay together.

The Kara Tepe camp, meaning “black hill” in Turkish, is in the outskirts of Mitilene. It was set up in early 2016 on a municipally-owned plot of land, to host people arriving to Lesbos after the signature of the EU-Turkey deal in March that year. At the time, around 500 people had to sleep on the streets right outside the city-centre hotel where I stayed during my visit, facing the island’s main port.

Lesbos has a Greek population of 90.000 and currently hosts over 10.000 migrants and refugees. More than 8.000 of them live in Moria camp, seriously stretching its capacity of 3.000. Most severe safety and health issues are widespread at Moria camp, and have been repeatedly reported by media and NGOs. Around 1.300 people are staying in the Kara Tepe camp, mostly families with children.

There from the beginning

Caritas Hellas has been in Kara Tepe since the very first day.

“At that time there were maybe 20 tents and not more, we first decided to rent a hotel to welcome all those people who would be otherwise forced to live on the street”, said John, from Caritas Internationalis, our confederation headquartered in Rome. He has provided key support to the local Caritas Hellas, a small and young organisation that in 2016 suddenly had to deal with an unprecedented situation.

It has been important to assess the needs from the very beginning and to do it in a coordinated way

John, from Caritas Internationalis.

The Caritas team is composed by two social workers, two translators and one psychologist, under the brilliant coordination and support of Maritina. She is continuously busy making sure everything is in place to assist people at the camp in the best possible way.

Stavros, the manager of Kara Tepe camp, described Caritas’ work: “Not only have they always been here with a positive, professional and service-oriented attitude but Caritas was the first organisation taking the initiative to propose activities outside of the camps”.

To take people outside, organise trips to get to know the island and its culture, to plan football games with locals, this is precious and it allows our guests to breathe and experience a ‘normal’ life, which is what they are supposed to live here, despite all the suffering and the tremendous travels they had to undertake.

Stavros, manager of the Kara Tepe camp.

Relative freedom

Kara Tepe and Moria camps are open. People are free to leave at any time and, ultimately, they are also free to leave the island. They could potentially go to the mainland and try their luck in Athens or elsewhere.

However, having been registered on arrival in Lesbos means the key interview to continue their journey legally must take place at the island’s European Asylum Support Office (EASO). The delay between arrival and interview can be up to six months, since apparently less than three doctors are available to conduct pre-screening, vulnerability and medical assessments, preconditions for getting interviewed.

The EASO interview is one of the few chances for migrants to receive the documents they need to stay in Europe, and to submit asylum requests. It is fundamental to arrive at the appointment in the best possible physical and psychological conditions. The interview – supported by the precious and trustworthy translators – can take up to 8 difficult hours.

After the interview, the Greek government must process all “opinions” received by EASO but it struggles to do so. As the government admits its capacities are overstretched, it can take up to 15 months to receive the official response by the national authorities.

During that time men, women and children will try their best to live a ‘normal’ life.

A sense of normality

Families in Kara Tepe seem to be the luckiest: They receive a fully equipped container per household, although electricity is not always available. Meals are prepared in the camp’s central kitchen and distributed door-to-door, in order to avoid long lines and a consequent further loss of dignity. In the common square, Caritas offers two separate safe spaces for women and for men.

When I arrived, men were lying on the floor of their all-male space to watch Barcelona–Real Madrid, an exciting match that took place a few months ago in the Champions League.

The all-women space was really crowded but a cup of tea was always ready for guests. The passion for knitting had become contagious and mothers were creating accessories in wool to prepare for winter. Some girls had set up a small beauty salon in a corner.

A panel on the wall clearly showed the European dream is still alive. The journey up to Lesbos has taken months, even years, in some cases. At this point, it seems clear that politics and bureaucracy cannot stop people’s strong will to live a future free from war, extreme poverty, violence and persecution.

Caritas Hellas, as several others NGOs, work in the best possible way to make this happen. The mayor of Lesbos, Mr. Spyros Galinos, travelled to Brussels last year and met President Juncker to explain the situation in the island and find possible ways forward. Unfortunately this has not been enough.

Meanwhile, seventy-two European city mayors have declared they are ready to commit to sharing the task of welcoming some of the migrants, who are practically – even if not theoretically – stuck on the island. Nevertheless, this has not helped because resettlement is in the hands of national governments and local authorities are not allowed to deal with the issue.

Media and political attention on the Greek islands has significantly dropped in the last year. However, people keep arriving almost every day at Chios, Samos and Lesbos, regardless of the EU-Turkey deal.

It seems as if the European Union is simply looking away and ignoring the regrettable reality that people live in Lesbos, while neglecting the respect for human rights and the principle of shared responsibility among member states.