When he started his mission in 2015, Patric Mansour was faced with one of the largest refugee influxes to Europe in modern times. Four years on, refugees and migrants are still crossing the Mediterranean for safety in Greece and Mansour believes it is high time for Europe to take responsibility.
Since the end of January, the Moria camp in Lesvos, which has the capacity to accommodate less than 3500 people, has hosted close to 21,000 refugees and asylum seekers. There are at least 1,000 children living in the camps, travelling on their own, without close family or relatives to take care of them.
NORCAP expert Patric Mansour has been deployed to Lesvos since the start of refugee crisis in August 2015. He has seen the camp change, people come and go, and the rising desperation and frustration from camp inhabitants, host communities and Greek authorities.
“The conditions that we have in the camps now are at the same level as at the very beginning of the crisis four years ago. At that time, I was astonished that such conditions could occur in Europe, in a functioning democracy like Greece, with no conflict or natural disasters preceding the crisis”, he says.
However, after four years working closely with the humanitarian response, first through his deployment to UNHCR and later directly with the Reception and Identification Services in Greece, Mansour is no longer shocked, but firmly believes that European commission must help Greece not just financially but also by sending experts who can contribute in solving the crisis.
Many of the Greek islands are now hosting a population of refugees and asylum seekers that is far beyond the existing camps’ capacities. On Lesvos, which has been Patric Mansour’s home for the past four years, the camps lack services like chemical toilets and showers; there is a lack of safety for the families in the camps, no adequate wash facilities and the food does not hold the quality that it should.
Mansour explains how only 20% of people live in proper shelters, while the remaining population resides in small tents not suitable for summer or winter conditions. Patric notes that people spend six months to a year and a half living in these conditions.
Efforts to expand the camps or find new area for people to stay have not been successful, as local communities protest the opening of new sites. Simultaneously, the refugees and asylum seekers hold demonstrations to protest conditions in the overcrowded camps and Greek authorities are struggling to find solutions.
Nonetheless, Patric notes that there was a progression in developing communication and collaboration between key actors in solving the problems surrounding camp settings in Lesvos. In his own words, it is not enough that European Commission provides Greece with funding, human tools are more important.
Working as a humanitarian
With a background in a political science, Patric Mansour started his career working for Swedish SIDA, Swedish International Development Agency, in 2003. His first humanitarian mission in the West Bank then led to NORCAP deployments in Indonesia during the 2005 tsunami, as well as missions in Middle East, Africa, Central Asia, until his latest mission in Greece.
His choice to work as a humanitarian is related to his personal experience with conflicts and its causes; born in Lebanon during the invasion by Israel in 1982 and the civil war, he and his family, like many others, were forced to flee.
“As a child I’ve seen it all, it stayed with me. Escaping from one conflict area to another with many others internally displaced; that stayed with me. You would see how civilians were affected and suffered from it.”
Because of his own experience it came naturally to him to step into the humanitarian and contribute to providing aid to displaced people. His family moved to Sweden, where he studied political science in which he aimed for the humanitarian aspect of it; he also became interested in post-conflict studies and ways of support that can be provided to people who go through refugee crisis.
For Patric, working as a humanitarian means having to constantly multi-task and think on your feet. Even if he has planned his day before coming in to work, chances are something will happen which means he has to re-organise his tasks.
“When you come to work, you’re already behind schedule with things you have to do”. says Patric.
Importance of collaborating with all actors
During his mission on Lesvos, Patric was initially in charge of coordinating the humanitarian operations on the island. This meant talking to all the aid agencies, the authorities and incorporating the many volunteer initiatives that were established in response to the crisis.
“We struggled to get everyone together and agree on a common way forward. This is important to avoid duplications and gaps in the response, but because of the constantly changing situation, Greek authorities being overwhelmed and some relief initiatives not wanting to cooperate, we really had our work cut out for us”, he remembers.
A couple of years into the response, the UN and other aid agencies reduced their presence on the islands. Patric’s mission also changed, from working for the UN to becoming deployed to the Greek Reception and Identification Services.
“That change enabled me to build up capacity for Greek authorities with understanding on humanitarian coordination mechanism,” he notes.
Until his mission ended in January 2020, Patric’s role has been closely linked with camp coordination – sorting out ad hoc challenges and improving food distribution, as well as dealing with legalities and procedures concerning asylum seekers. Discussions with local communities and authorities is also very important.
“It is important to collaborate with all actors in the field, because in the camps you will be assisting with fixing things, discussing with authorities, providing answers and explanations to people.” Patric says.
Building trust is key
However, in spite of bad camp conditions building a bond of trust with refugees remains important for their well-being. They don’t perceive humanitarian workers as something negative. Patric remarks how in his four and a half years’ deployment, no aid workers have been harmed by refugees during big riots. People come to aid workers for advice and support on a friendly basis, without any hostilities. Patric believes the bond of trust is created through honesty.
There have been cases when NGOs make promises they can’t fulfil and as a result lose people’s trust, so it is important to preserve honesty and good dialogue in support. As Patric puts it, providing dignity for people on a daily basis - that is what’s important and achievable.
“If someone asks for something, I am being honest about it, I say I will look into it, but I don’t promise anything if something is not possible. We can always look for other solutions and options,” Patric concludes.
Improving the communication
Concerning the question of whether there has been progress in dealing with refugee crisis since its beginning, Patric explains how the approaches to the refugee communities have been improved. He implemented a strategy where the authorities met with refugee communities on a weekly basis, to answer questions about certain issues.
Communities put their questions together and send them to Patric who forwards them to the respective authorities. The strategy helped calm the situation and Patric says that in 95% of cases, it was successful. However, the strategy has been surged with confusing new laws; violence and demonstrations had also increased due to the deteriorating living conditions in Moria.
Recently, the Greek government passed a new law concerning asylum seekers which has resulted in a lot of confusion to both refugees, local communities and local authorities. Patric has initiated meetings where the local authorities will meet up with community leaders to try and clarify its content.
What needs to be done?
Four years after the first boats arrived in Lesvos, the island still receives approximately 200 people every day. People running from conflict, violence, economic hardship and few opportunities for a safe future in their home countries.
Despite efforts from European countries to quell the influx and some attempts to relieve Greece of her momentous task to deal with the ever-increasing asylum claims, the country has mostly been left to deal with the challenges alone. The result is a backlog of nearly 90.000 asylum applications, and daily outbreaks of violence in the camps from people who are losing faith in the system, in Europe and in their own futures.
Patric Mansour notes how it is not simply enough for European commission to help Greece financially in dealing with crisis. He believes human tools are just as important; people who have expertise in certain fields, who can provide technical expertise in doing what needs to be done.
Although remaining objective, Patric thinks that it is a failure of the EU not to take into consideration that Greece has its own crisis and needs expert teams, human tools, to stabilise the refugee crisis on its soil.
“During my time here, we have seen four Ministers of Migration and there was too much debate, too many other priorities. Greece is a small country with her own financial crisis, so I think the EU should have considered providing more expertise to help Greece”, he says.
Also, Patric explains how the lack of infrastructure is reflected in the lack of proper dignified accommodation, education as well as health care for asylum seekers in Greece.
“That is why relocation to other EU member states should commence; otherwise, people will be shifted from one Moria to another.” Patric concludes.
What will happen with camp conditions remains to be seen, however as Patric remarks providing dignity on a daily basis is and remains the most important goal.