Update on the self-organisation in Oreokastro camp

Since the closure of the Greek-Macedonian border in March and the forceful eviction of the self-organised border camp in Idomeni in May, an increasing number of refugees in Greece are stuck in camps administered by the Greek military and police. The closed borders and the lack of functioning legal options denies the possibility to move on and reach destinations of choice. One of the few options left is to continue traveling on illegalized (and consequently more dangerous and more expensive) routes, but many lack the resources to do so – and are therefore stuck in limbo in the Greek military run camps. While the situation of refugees in Idomeni at the beginning of this year gained significant attention, the general interest for the situation in the camps is decreasing. The state-administered distribution of people across camps in the outskirts of Greek cities has diverted public attention from the suffering and continuously intolerable situation.

However, a group of people living in Oreokastro camp in the outskirts of Thessaloniki has decided to self-organise against the unacceptable conditions. In protest against the mistrust and frustration created through empty promises from different organizations and authorities, the people staying at Oreokastro camp founded a council. The council first came together on the 27th of July, with the goal to step up for the needs and interests of their community. With the urge to improve the situation, they took on the responsibilities of the organisations and started having regular meetings, discussing the current situation with the people staying at Oreokastro camp, looking for solutions and new ways to improve their conditions. Furthermore, one of the goals has been to gain more influence and independence, as well as the trust of the organizations working inside the camp. By bringing together the needs and interests of the people and representing these to the other parties involved, the council wants to achieve better communication and create a better understanding for their situation.

However, most of Greek authorities behave as if they are not taking the council seriously, although it has been months since the council took up its work. In several of the weekly meetings taking place on Wednesdays, where the NGOs and UN officials discuss all the important matters concerning the camp, the authorities have refused to show up. As a justification, they stated: “the meetings were not of any importance to us”. The meetings are the only possibility for the refugees, represented by the council, to be heard by all parties at once. Instead of listening to the voices of those directly affected by the negative consequences of restrictive political decisions, the organizations have not been considering the needs of the people who are stuck in Oreokastro.

The ignorance of the authorities towards the worries of the people staying in Oreokastro manifested itself tragically with the death of a woman and her son and the severe injury of another person. A car in front of the camp hit them in the night of the 16th of October. M. who is part of the refugee council expressed his grieve and anger: “We asked the authorities to put speed limit and caution signs on the street in front of the camp. Why didn’t they do anything? People have to die before they do anything!”

M. further explains the situation they are stuck in: “We are in such a bad situation for so long now without anything to do. We are just told to wait. But this is unbearable. And nobody cares about our situation, not even the people in charge for us. Of course, people get very upset and desperate.” The situation at Oreokastro camp is not improving. Especially in terms of essential food items, such as oil, sugar or rice, which is urgently needed to cook, there have been no changes. Instead, people continue to wait, pointlessly and without much to do.

The council decided to take initiative and managed, with the help of independent donations, to provide important groceries for cooking. Oil, sugar, rice as well as coffee and several vegetables were ordered and distributed equally to all 310 tents. Instead of reacting to peoples demands for basic needs, the organizations working in the camp had kept talking and discussing matters such as education – but without setting up a school or any special activities. If the parents have troubles feeding their children properly and healthily, the matter of education is secondary. However, the refugees managed to set up and run a school themselves with teachers from their own community. They have different age groups with different subjects, including science, mathematics and history. Only the Greek lessons are taught by a Greek NGO and the English language classes are supported by independent volunteers. The school supplies and materials have also been donated by independent volunteers.

In general the whole system of cooperation between independent volunteers and independent donations, based on direct discussions with the council to consider what kind of support is most needed, is a much more effective and practical way of providing support on the ground. It further prevents an overlap of support in different sectors. For example, there are three different organizations distributing clothes in the camp – but there is no washing powder to wash clothes.

Another example for the work that the council has been doing is the now existing women’s space. After a long process of asking questions, exchanging ideas and negotiations, a space was prepared and set up together with volunteers. Now, it is run by two women from the camp. It is improving the practical situation for the women as well as the atmosphere among the inhabitants.

Talking to a volunteer from another camp, it becomes clear that the council’s work is very important. This volunteer explained the situation in the camp where he is as deteriorating: “The situation in Softex camp is getting worse and worse every day. People are getting more and more frustrated because they feel like none of their matters is being heard. The concept of having a council, like here in Oreokastro should be established in every camp!”

A refugee council such as the one in Oreokastro is not solving the underlying problem for people – their right to travel on to their chosen destination. Nonetheless, organising in order to include the excluded in decisions that concern them is an important process in the struggle against an unfair and inhumane European border regime.

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