Can Europe Make It?

Winterization in Kara Tepe camp, Lesvos

Depending so highly on a single donor makes UNHCR the operational arm of the EU’s shortsighted policies. This is the third winter for UNHCR in Greece...

Fotini Rantsiou
4 October 2017

Kara Tepe camp, Lesvos, Greece. Author's photograph. Winterization is a word used in the humanitarian world to describe a number of specific actions to be taken ahead of winter, in order to make temporary and semi-permanent shelter habitable and prevent weather-related suffering and disease among the beneficiaries during adverse weather.

On 8 September, UNHCR Greece released a press briefing note urging action to ease conditions on the Greek islands, without making specific recommendations on how to operationalize it. The press briefing only serves for UNHCR to wash its hands of the conditions on the islands. Following last year’s winterization fiasco, the increased arrivals of the last two months and the uncertain future, UNHCR wants to be in a position to say they had warned in early September.

The primary responsibility for the refugee response lies with the host government and the international humanitarian system is there to support and fill gaps with expertise and material. In Greece the government has been criticized in detail for its shortcomings and delays, especially the lack of planning, inability to absorb EU funds and obscure staffing decisions. UNHCR, the refugee agency, and other international humanitarian actors, have come under far less scrutiny, despite equally large sums of money available to them, international expertise at their disposal and deployment across the country.

This is the third winter for UNHCR in Greece and the weather conditions shouldn’t come as a surprise again. Even without snow, the islands receive a lot of rain and high winds that make life in a tent or unheated container miserable. Winterisation planning should have started in late August.

Last year UNHCR had funding for shelter inside Moria camp when the misery and deaths made headlines. Population management was a problem that was discussed between October 2016 and January 2017 without any solutions until there were deaths from canisters used for heating and heavy snowfall in January.

At that time the excuses for the conditions were: the snow was unprecedented, UNHCR couldn’t replace the tents with containers while the camp was full and there were no local hotels available to move excess numbers of people. These challenges were addressed only after the media furore focused on conditions under snow.

People were moved to a nearby olive field that was rented, UNHCR found accommodation in hotels for 220 people in three days after a request to a local NGO and the move continued for a few days at a steady pace, to decongest the camp and allow heavy machinery to enter.

UNHCR also made a deliberate move to transfer people without geographic restriction to the mainland. The reality is that the last winterization was a fiasco for UNHCR and that’s where it is heading this year with preparations delayed and meetings cancelled as if the winter isn’t coming.

The refugee agency bears some responsibility for the living conditions in the Reception and Identification Centers and alternative camps, because part of the funding from the EU’s directorate for Migration and Home Affairs (DG Home) still goes through UNHCR. For the municipal camps of Souda in Chios and Kara Tepe in Lesvos 6,48 million euros is available to improve conditions.

Kara Tepe camp

Let’s look at the case of Kara Tepe camp in some detail to understand how UNHCR is failing in its mandate to protect and shelter refugees. UNHCR replaced the refugee housing units (IKEA plastic homes, temporary shelters) with containers earlier this year, with funding from the EU’s branch for humanitarian assistance (DG ECHO). The containers came with pre-installed air conditioning units for heating and cooling, without consideration for the local conditions and despite warnings from the authorities. The electricity grid in Lesvos cannot provide for those energy requirements to bring the extended camp to full capacity. Alternative sources of energy are needed.

Movement on the Ground (a small Dutch NGO working in Kara Tepe) has provided solar panels and generators to cover some of the energy requirements, but cannot cover all, particularly the functioning of AC units. So far, the only alternative UNHCR has given is to install gas heaters (around 300 in the whole camp) for the winter, a ‘solution’ too dangerous to be acceptable.   

Enter the coordinator for the implementation of the EU-Turkey deal, Mr Verwey. During his visit to Lesvos last week, he demanded that 300 people (the number equivalent to about four days of new arrivals to the island at the current rate) be moved from Moria camp, which is holding over twice its capacity. He suggests they be housed in empty containers in a new extension lying empty and without any electricity in Kara Tepe.

UNHCR from its side contends that the supplies to increase energy capacity (solar panels and generators) are stuck at customs, without giving an estimated date for their installation. The camp management had requested the energy be increased more than six months ago as part of summerisation and winterisation. 

UNHCR can and should help decongest the island camps to the mainland. Its accommodation (initially funded by DG Home for relocation candidates, but extended to vulnerable cases) is at 71% capacity. It is understandable that it cannot be at 100% all the time (due to different family sizes housed under one roof) but 71% appears a very low rate, when there is such dire need.

It also has a responsibility for advocacy on behalf of persons of concern. In the Greek context however, where people remain on the islands with geographic restrictions for many months as a consequence of the EU-Turkey deal, creating overcrowded conditions and increasing stress level, UNHCR (like most of the established large international NGOs) is in no position to criticize the EU policy causing the situation, namely the EU-Turkey deal.

The EU is UNHCR’s donor of up to 99% for 2017, with DG ECHO and DG Home interchangeable and complementary for similar actions. It must be an international record to depend so highly on a single donor, making this a very politicized response and UNHCR the operational arm of the EU’s shortsighted policies. Reliance on any single donor is considered bad practice among humanitarians, because it ties their action to the politics of the donor, stripping it of its independence.

Kara Tepe is one of the shining examples of a camp/village for refugees in Greece. It is a pity that UNHCR cannot support adequately and that the EU, instead of pressuring its partner, demands that the municipality take additional residents to show less congestion in Moria. While the size of Kara Tepe may not be large, the shortcomings of UNHCR are indicative of a bigger problem that needs to be addressed with better management and coordination with the authorities.

As long as geographic restriction remains in place (a policy of questionable legality which de facto divides the country’s sovereignty), arrivals continue at the same rate and political tensions between Turkey and the EU do not abate, the Greek islands will continue to bear the brunt of the refugee response with inadequate capacity and a feeling of abandonment from Athens and Brussels.

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