Refugee response in Greece: A flawed system

Refugee response in Greece: A flawed system

Conditions in Greek refugee camps have been widely criticized but, given the funding being received by the United Nations and nongovernmental organizations as well as the Greek government, there is no justification for the delays in addressing these problems.

Despite its interest in having a clear view and control over the response to the crisis so as to avoid gaps and overlaps, and recognizing its responsibility as the lead player in the crisis’s management, the Greek government does not possess the human resources needed and shows slow reflexes when offers for secondments are made.

The legal framework and existing structures are not in the position to register, coordinate, monitor and evaluate the multitude of actors and their work in the refugee response. For example, the hot spot in Moria, Lesvos, serves as a registration center, accommodation, and a place of custody for unaccompanied minors and detention for criminals. All have one thing in common: They are waiting for their asylum cases to be processed. There is not a single coordinator for the camp, but rather responsibilities are fragmented between the Reception and Identification Service, the Asylum Service (including EASO), Police (including FRONTEX), the Army (infrastructure works) and an array of NGOs loosely coordinated by UNHCR.

The system of implementing partners adds layers of administrative costs. There are too many coordinators and funders and too few hands on deck. Local NGOs are becoming overwhelmed by the demand for implementing partnerships, many pushed to expand at an unsustainable rate.

The lack of coordination and appropriate services leaves gaps which are often filled by volunteers, who are usually not experts in any field, are not accountable and are able to raise funds on their own – and fast – online without having to report back. Furthermore, most volunteers come from abroad and ignore the context and reality of Greece (including political and geographic) and are often at odds with local populations.

UNHCR declared a Level 2 emergency internally for the response to the refugee influx in Greece in 2015. This meant the huge expansion of a previously very small office during 2015. According to UNHCR’s monthly Greece factsheet, in May 2016 there were 122 international staff, the majority on emergency deployment, and 329 national staff, including in support of authorities. As of October 30 there were 83 international staff, only one of whom was on mission, and 273 national staff. Such a turnover of staff on mission does not bode well for institutional memory and good coordination of the refugee response.

There is a widespread perception in government circles that UNHCR and international NGOs are not used to working in countries where there is state administration and that policies and modi operandi used in failed states or countries in complex emergencies and conflict are also implemented in Greece. The lack of trust between government and humanitarians is palpable, and the situation is not going to improve unless this is addressed.

At this point in time, we need to separate advocacy from protection and response. Daily reminders in the media to the government of their responsibilities and the conditions in camp A or B, or the situation of unaccompanied minors have lost their value. The UN and NGOs need to respond to those well-known needs of the refugees, in collaboration with the government, offering their expertise and the government needs to be open about their needs. The country is not in conflict, where humanitarian principles impede closeness to the state. This is not a failed state where there is no interlocutor to bounce ideas off. Funding is not a problem, security only becomes an issue at the micro level because of the living conditions and uncertainty over the future, the climate is favorable, travel is easy, daily life for humanitarian workers couldn’t be better, the number of refugees is manageable. The only real obstacle is the blame game.

For example, UNHCR can offer site management to build the capacity of government staff over a fixed period of time, the government should be part of the planning for the 2017 humanitarian response plan, and, in a collaborative effort, registration should be carried out at accommodation sites to have a clear picture of who remains and what their needs are.

At the end of the day, better collaboration and coordination can work miracles to quickly respond to a situation that shouldn’t be called a “crisis” and involves a mere 60,000 refugees and migrants.

* Fotini Rantsiou has 20 years of humanitarian experience around the world with the UN. Currently on leave from the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), she advises and reports on the refugee crisis in her native Greece. She is based on Lesvos. See the latest tweets from Rantsiou @FotiniRantsiou.

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