Lesvos and Athens: a humanitarian disaster in the making

Refugees welcome?
Refugees welcome?

On 20 March 2016 the EU in its infinite wisdom made a new decision regarding the fate of refugees arriving in Greece fleeing war which has had catastrophic consequences and is a humanitarian disaster in the making. With the closure of the Balkan route, around 50,000 refugees who arrived before midnight on 20 March were effectively stranded in Greece, many of whom were travelling to join their families elsewhere in Europe. But arguably they are the lucky ones. The unfortunate souls that made the perilous boat journey after this date, around 40 % children, have been detained on the Greek islands in so-called hotspots.

On Lesvos, several hundred have already been deported back to Turkey, a nation that Greece doesn’t currently regard as a safe country. The UN believes that from Lesvos alone, 13 people have been deported ‘by mistake’. Refugees are now kept in detention, without adequate personnel to process their asylum claims. In Moria, the detention centre on Lesvos (capacity, 2,000) there are now over 3,150 people kettled in desperate conditions. They have no access to the outside world and the authorities are running out of food to give them. Several hundred refugees are currently arriving on Lesvos every single day, so no one knows what will happen next, aside from the fact that already horrendous conditions will continue to deteriorate and human rights will continue to be breached.

This European decision has had a huge knock on effect on the rest of Greece. Thousands of refugees are stuck in squalor in Idomeni on the Greek/Macedonian border and in the port in Athens. Tens of thousands of refugees have been shuttled to ‘camps’ all over Greece which are ill-equipped to cope. Information is key, so myself and one jumped on a ferry to Athens to evaluate the situation there and then plan to travel across the Greek mainland doing needs assessments on all the camps there. One team have already visited the camps in Western Greece and you can find their report here.


Piraeus port is huge and up until recently had served as a large refugee transit area, but over the last six weeks, around 5,000 refugees have been living here at various gates along the port. As of a few days ago, it was estimated that 1,700 refugees were living in tents in E1; 1,400 at E1.5; 1,000 at E2 and 600 at E3. We spent several days in and around the various gates at the port and conditions were terrible. Volunteer groups are working day and night to ensure people’s basic needs are met, but there isn’t enough of anything to do so. Most people haven’t been able to wash for weeks; women are having caesarian sections in hospital and then being sent back to the port a mere 12 hours later; there isn’t enough food, not everyone has a tent and no one has any information. There have been several riots at E2 in the last week; the situation has proved too unbearable for many and tempers have frayed, especially given the lack of information available.

'Home' for many refugees in Piraeus
‘Home’ for many refugees in Piraeus

Refugees are slowly being bussed out to other locations around Greece but these decisions to move people are given at only a few hours’ notice from the authorities which causes yet more chaos. The situation is very precarious as COSCO, the Chinese company which has just retained control of gates E2 and E3, want the refugees gone in the next couple of weeks before tourist season begins. E1 may be able to offer shelter to some for a little longer as tourist boats don’t dock there, but nobody seems to know one way or another.

The big need at the port currently are volunteers who can stay longer than a few days – just as systems get put in place and people get skilled in their jobs, they leave and it’s back to square one. Gate E2 has a Facebook page where you can get up to the minute information about current needs and they have meetings for volunteers, old and new, every day at 11 am. If you want to help out at any of the other gates, turn up and lend a hand. A fantastic lady called Negea is in charge at E1 and has been working the port since September, so has the most knowledge about what is needed most.

The warehouse for the port is in Elliniko and they are currently only taking long term volunteers. For more information, please visit this Facebook page.

A container for kid’s education and play has just been set up in E1 and needs funding and toys and equipment, so please get involved if kids’ areas are your cup of tea.

When we were in the port the most needed items were the following:

Hand sanitisers on stands

Plastic cups for hot drinks (lots of)

Tea and sugar (lots of)

Men’s shoes size 40 – 45

Women’s shoes size 36 – 40

Underwear for men, women and children


Arabic and Farsi translators

If anyone can help with these, please get stuck in! And for more detailed information about the situation, please check out the guide to volunteering in Athens here (PDF).



Anarchists are the unsung heroes of the refugee crisis, pitching in and lending their time, help, expertise, living space and philosophy in Athens, long before others stepped up to the plate. Notara 26 (the name and street address for the squat) has been open since September last year and has space for 200 refugees. They take donations from individuals, but not organisations, and have volunteer meetings at 5 pm every day where people can turn up to help. They are very well run and are a great example of how to house refugees without putting them in camps.

The playground at Oktaviou
The playground at Oktaviou

Merlie Oktaviou 19 (name and street address) isn’t online as yet and doesn’t have a bank account currently as it’s only been open for just over a week. It’s an old school and has space for around 300 people, with a lovely big yard for children to play in. They need financial donations, carpenters and anyone with plumbing/drainage expertise. There has recently been an issue with water supply there which the municipality refuse to deal with as it’s a squatted building. If this can’t be fixed, they will have to find a new home for the 300 odd people living there, which would be a massive shame as hot water showers have just been fitted. Please, if you’re in Athens, go and lend a hand and/or make a donation as the people at Oktaviou are doing amazing work.

As always, the situation can change very rapidly, so please contact the relevant groups before making large donations of goods and/or volunteering. But rest assured, Athens needs your help!

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