Just over a week ago I had the privilege of visiting a refugee camp outside of Athens. The visit was organised for Members of Parliament from over 15 EU member states as part of the European Mercator Dialogue project. The project is creating better conversations between European Members of Parliament. I was co-facilitating with my wonderful friend and colleague Peter Woodward to help MPs have conversations in a way they never have before. Mercator arranged for the MPs to visit refugee camps to experience for themselves some of the impacts of the current migration crisis.

Since January 2016, around 154,000 displaced people have arrived in Greece. Despite being built for 720 people and now housing 1500, the camp we visited was among the best run in Greece. Most of the people in the camp were women and children. 600 out of 1500 were children with 10 newborns. There are 15 nationalities in the camp, the highest number being Afghans, but also Syrians and others.  They are no longer in transit, they are stuck, waiting for asylum hearings in a slow and over-burdened system which is scrambling to keep up.

The Deputy Mayor of Athens who showed us round said that compared to the camps in Piraeus Port and the unofficial camps in Athens, “this camp is a five star hotel.”  I have to say, I was impressed: not only with the efficiency with which the camp was run (the Deputy Mayor told us that the Greeks have experience of running operations like this because of their earthquakes) but because of the generosity I saw and heard about. I was truly inspired by the giving:

  • a large company donated AC units for all the cabins
  • the Greek Olympic committee donated basketball courts and some coaching
  • students at the nearby Agricultural College donated wifi
  • teachers from private schools in Athens give up their own (already limited) free time to teach the children in the camp after they finish teaching in their own schools.
  • Doctors without Borders provide medical care
  • Libraries without Borders provide tablets, books and other entertainment and learning for the kids
  • Individuals volunteer their time to help out

In addition, the Greek Navy provides three meals a day, the municipality deals with the garbage/rubbish, and police provide security.

There is surplus demand for spaces in the camp. People are allowed out of the camp between 10am and 10pm. They all come back.

The camp is not divided between nationalities, everyone is expected to get along.  Instead there are separate areas e.g. for vulnerable people (families with young children, people with disabilities) and others for single men.  Families are kept together and, if possible, given a unit for themselves or to share with another family (depending on numbers).

I fell in love with the little kids. They were just adorable – as kids are. I took one very cute and friendly little girl’s hand to gently lead her out of the way of a photograph that was being taken. As I knelt down to talk to her, she just gave me the sweetest cuddle and it was hard for both of us to let go. She told me her name. When I eventually unwound myself, she cutely toddled back off towards her parents who had been standing nearby.

A man stood in the hot Athens sun, nursing a small baby.

These are the ‘lucky’ ones.

When asked his opinion, the Deputy Mayor of Athens said that the 28 EU Member States need to come together and develop a common policy to deal with the situation. These are real people. Handling different policies in each Member State makes things very difficult.  He says, we need to do brave things together.

This was the second visit to refugee camps that the European Mercartor Dialogue had arranged.The next day, a Saturday, we facilitated a dialogue between the MPs. One spoke of how the previous visit to a camp in Lesvos had changed his opinion on migration and the intention of the Greeks in the situation. They got to know each other and respect each other at a different level. Whether or not they agreed with each other, they dared to think differently and have a different kind of conversation.

It was a powerful two days.

A few more photos are available on my FB page.

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