Thursday, April 20, 2017

Insight From the Frontlines: Understanding the Refugee Crisis in the European Context

The Global Security and Conflict Management Club this spring has organized two  migration Study Treks - one to Athens/Lesvos, Greece (March 19th to March 24th) and the second to Lampedusa, Italy (April 30th to May 3rd). These student led initiatives allow SAISERS to further compliment their studies by combining theory with practice. SAIS Europe First Year MA International Relations Concentrator Diane Bernabei, shared her experiences travelling to Greece below.

It is not uncommon to hear from fellow SAISers how they spent their spring breaks, jetting off to Africa to conduct some field research, to the Middle East to work on their thesis or any of a number of impressive multilateral organizations to interview for a summer job.  This past March, sixteen SAISers were able to say they traveled to what the real world considers a relatively typical spring break destination, Greece.  But we did not go for any typical vacation-related reason. The Global Security and Conflict Management Club (GSCM) traveled to Greece to conduct an in depth study on how local Greek authorities and multilateral and non-governmental organizations collaborate to manage the burgeoning refugee crisis.

The trip started in Athens where we met with directors of a large health and human services facility, Solidarity Now. This NGO has largely been accredited for leading the successful transition in Greece’s NGO community from providing aid to Greeks suffering from the economic crises to launching initiatives meant to aid a more diverse group of both Greeks and refugee asylum seekers.  Meeting with the organization exposed the difficulties in transitioning aid to new target demographics caused by the political situation in Greece, an important topic the group discussed in further detail in an afternoon roundtable discussion with the European Commission’s Representative to Greece and the Vice Mayor of Athens.  Our time in Athens also included several meetings with NGO leaders, such as the Greek  Director of Doctors Without Borders, and academics, including the Director of the Institute of International Relations.

Students tour Solidarity
resource center in Athens
Meeting with academics and policy makers provided one perspective on the current migration crisis facing Europe. Asking direct questions to the people managing the crisis on the ground provided another important viewpoint.   For this reason, our group decided to spend more than half of the trip dedicated to  fieldwork, visiting refugee camps and meeting with refugees to discuss their experiences in migrating to Europe.  

Students discuss migration issues
with local Athenian NGO
Visiting the Eleonas refugee camp, the largest refugee camp for families in Athens, housing over 2,000 refugees from Syria, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and various parts of North Africa and the Middle East, provided us with the opportunity to meet with field coordinators from the International Rescue Committee, the International Organization for Migration and METAdrasi. These organizations provided important insight on how different organizations coordinate their efforts and funding to manage a large number of refugees in small compact camps.

SAISERS meet former Greek Foreign Minister
After two full days in Athens, the group headed to the Greek island of Lesvos to conduct research on the frontlines of the refugee crisis. In 2015 alone, more than one million asylum seekers crossed the dangerous six-mile stretch of the Mediterranean Sea that lies between Greece and Turkey to make it to this Island. While on Lesvos, we met with the UNHCR and The Red Cross to discuss their strategies in organizing a response to the crises. We also met with Lighthouse Relief, an agency that coordinates on-the-shore first responder emergency aid and transportation logistics for the newly arrived migrants.

SAISers met with Hellenic Coast Guard
to discuss refugee rescue challenges
We also met with representatives from the Hellenic Coast Guard to better understand the challenges associated with responding efficiently to rapidly changing influxes of refugees demanding emergency assistance as they cross the rough waters.  Because of the recent economic crises, the Greek government cannot afford to provide extra assistance to the coast guard. As such,  the Hellenic Coast Guard finds itself in a strenuous situation  between not being able to expand its resources while facing increasingly demanding surges of refugee influxes.

Students meet with Karatapei Refugee Camp
representatives and refugees
Our time in Lesvos culminated in a final meeting with US based NGO Samaritan’s Purse, where we were able to learn more about the professional lives of volunteer workers and gain more insight into NGO strategies that assist refugees and asylum seekers adjust to a new life in Greece.

In just four days we toured three  refugee camps, two health and human service centers, one coast guard vessel, met with 17 different agencies, two municipalities, the European Parliament, and various segments of the Greek Government. 

We discussed pertinent issues and asked hard questions to leaders from the NGO communities, members the diplomatic circuit managing the crises from a political standpoint, and to first responders on the shores, who save lives every day.  We were exposed to several viewpoints of the refugee crises and learned something new from each component.

Our research culminated in a final report documenting our experience in Greece, detailing our perspective on the successes and failures entrenched in mitigating such a crises and diagnosing various areas were we see room for improvement.   Our itinerary definitely did not include any of the normal stops visitors make in Greece, but each day mirrors a typical  day in the life of an ordinary SAISer.

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