The Moria camp, Lesvos in Greece is where refugees await their registration so they can then head through to Athens. Seen as a limbo between finishing one journey and waiting to start the next, Lesvos has been described as a ‘living hell’. We got the chance to speak to Annie Risner, 18, a volunteer refugee aid worker who spent 10 weeks working in the camp.
Would you say there’s a drastic difference between the media portrayal of the refugee crisis and what you actually saw?
I think the main problem with a lot of the big media outlets is the dehumanisation of the crisis. The focus in England is too often on the impact that refugees will have on us rather than thinking about the situation they are in. When see it for yourself, you realise that they have lost everything – their homes, their jobs, their community, their friends. Another problem with the media is the continuous hyping up of the crisis in terms of numbers. But if every country in Europe, every town/village, allowed a certain number of people in, then the problems facing Europe now would be insignificant.
Do you think the international response to the refugee crisis was quick enough? or whether it was handled in the correct way?
I think the most shocking thing about the European response, is that while everything was being ‘discussed’, there were still people are dying every day in the crossings. Yet it is so easily preventable, as every day ferries do the same crossing taking tourists, so why can’t they provide a safe passage for the refugees? It’s unfathomable. It will not increase numbers because we would have control over the crossing, instead it would just save lives. Having met so many families who have lost loved ones, including children, and having attended the funerals, I have caught a glimpse of the pain they are going through. And it’s all because of Europe’s incapacity to do what is right.
Though you volunteered without being part of a charity, you worked with various organisations like the UNHR whilst you were out there. What was the difference between what you were able to do and what the organisations did?
Our main role in the camps was to fill the holes left by the aid agencies. Since we didn’t have a mandate, working hours or tightly held rules about what we could do, we were able to act on what we believed was right rather than what we were forced to do. For example, one day we had to distribute save the children’s food to the camp because they deemed it ‘too dangerous’ to do themselves. Often the aid workers had very little presence on the actual ground meeting people, so we spent a lot of time bringing vulnerable cases to the correct people that could help them. This was really important because there is no point having a warehouse of wheelchairs which nobody distributes, or doctors hidden behind barbed wire fences.
Has your view changed on these kind of groups since you worked with them?
Definitely, the world of aid agencies is so crowded with power balance, mandates, rules and hidden agendas that their actual role is lost. Whilst it is clear that they are needed in the camp for large scale improvements, often bureaucracy meant that they were never completed, or too late. At one point they knocked down all the temporary structures built to accommodate refugees, only to take two weeks in replacing them, by which time the rain had hit and over 4000 people had been left out in the rain and cold.
You spent a lot of time communicating between the police and the refugees. What was the treatment by the police towards the refugees like?
Brutal. Everyday we managed to be shocked by the police brutality. Often they would call the refugees animals or swear at them in Greek. The riot police were called in daily and used violence as a means to ‘calm’ the crowds waiting for their papers, often beating women and men, as well as tear gassing crowds full of children. Part of the problem was that the police were technically in charge of the camp so had absolute authority. It was always a balancing act between needing the police to aid us in helping the refugees and constantly arguing with them for their how the treated the refugees.
Have you kept in contact with any of the refugees you met?
Yes, which is great. One friend who was 17 and travelling on his own, is now in austria studying German, whilst living with a family. Then another 17 year old I knew made it to Sweden. Mostly it’s very hard to keep in contact with people but a lot of the younger guys have facebook, as well as perfect English.
After your experience within the refugee camps, has your philosophy on life changed?
To a certain extent, yes. I think before I never realised how easy it is to help people even if only on a small scale. I know now that there’s no point just talking about how bad something is, it’ll never change unless you start doing something.
What are your plans to do next?
I plan to go to Turkey next week to work there. Then in September, I’ll start university, hopefully studying geography and Farsi. This means that in the future I can actually have some useful skills to help many of the people that have had to move here.
As the refugee crisis worsens, in amongst the statistics, scare-mongering stories, and governmental meetings, it’s seems what is most important has been forgotten: the refugees. Annie’s work with the camp reminds us what the reality for these refugees actually is, putting the focus back on the people and the much needed aid.
photo by ruby prins