Where did the money go? How Greece fumbled the refugee crisis
The Long Read: Two years ago, 57,000 refugees were stranded when Europes southern borders closed. What followed has been called the most expensive humanitarian response in history
Widad Madrati remembers the first snowfall at Oreokastro in the way most children would, as a thing of wonder. It threw a brilliant white cover over the squalor of a refugee camp pitched in the grounds of a disused warehouse in the hills above Greeces second city, Thessaloniki. The 17-year-old Syrian did not mind that the water pipe to the outdoor sinks had frozen. She took photographs of the icicles.
The pictures on her phone show nothing of the broken chemical toilets or the discarded, inedible food; nor of the flimsy tents pitched on freezing ground by refugees, such as her family, who arrived too late to find a spot inside the concrete shell of the old warehouse. Instead, the images show children playing in the snow.
Stranded outside the Oreokastro buildings, in a tent dusted with white flakes, the other members of the Madrati family were more realistic about survival and begged the authorities and volunteers for a way out of the camp. A family of four when they left Aleppo, they became five along the way Widads sister Maria was born in Turkey and had endured worse indignities in Greece than pleading.
The family was among the last to leave their previous temporary home at Idomeni, close to the border with Macedonia, on the overland western Balkan route to northern Europe. They held on in the chaotic encampment for 10 weeks after Greeces northern border closed in March 2016, in the hope that it would reopen. It did not. The settlement was evacuated and its residents moved to former industrial sites such as Oreokastro and disused army barracks.I was crying when we left Idomeni, says Widad. I felt I was losing hope after so many people had crossed the border and we could not.
She tells her story in the English she learned from volunteers at Idomeni and then taught to other refugee children at Oreokastro. Her family, who qualify by almost any criteria as refugees, have witnessed much of what has gone wrong in Greece since the country became the gateway to Europe for record numbers of refugees and migrants.
From their arrival at Moria on Lesbos, to Idomeni and Oreokastro, the Madratis route since arriving in the EU has been a tour of previously obscure places in Greece that have gained international notoriety for the misery of their conditions. Their ordeal stands in stark contrast to the international funding and energy expended to help people like them.
A sequence of events beginning with the record number of people who flowed into Greece in June 2015 and culminating in the photograph of drowned Syrian toddler Alan Kurdi woke the world to the refugee crisis. The effect of that awakening was to tip the entire humanitarian complex toward Greece, sending resources tumbling out of the developing world into the European Union. It prompted an unprecedented number of international volunteers to descend on the country, the UN refugee agency to declare an emergency inside the European Union, and the EU to deploy its own humanitarian response unit inside Europe for the first time. In the process, it became the most expensive humanitarian response in history, according to several aid experts, when measured by the cost per beneficiary.
Exactly how much money has been spent in Greece by the European Union is much reported but little understood. The online media project Refugees Deeply has calculated that $803m has come into Greece since 2015, which includes all the funds actually allocated or spent, all significant bilateral funding and major private donations.
The biggest pots of money are controlled by the European Commission (EC), the EUs executive body, which oversees the Asylum Migration Integration Fund (AMIF) and the Internal Security Fund (ISF) which collectively dedicated $541m to fund Greeces costs related to border control, asylum and refugee protection. However, since it did not complete the extensive strategic planning required, the Greek government did not receive significant amounts of these funds, necessitating emergency assistance from the commission, channelled through other means. Confusion over the true extent of European spending has been exacerbated by inflated statements from the European commissioner for migration, home affairs and citizenship, Dimitris Avramopoulos, who has regularly cited figures in excess of 1bn, although this amount apparently refers to all available and theoretical funds, not what has actually been allocated or spent.
Nevertheless, the $803m total represents the most expensive humanitarian response in history. On the basis that the money was spent on responding to the needs of all 1.03 million people who have entered Greece since 2015, the cost per beneficiary would be $780 per refugee. However, the bulk of these funds was used to address the needs of at least 57,000 people stranded in Greece after the closure of the borders on 9 March 2016, and on this basis the cost per beneficiary is $14,088.
Officials from the EUs humanitarian operations directorate, Echo, believe the payout per beneficiary was higher than any of their previous operations. One senior aid official estimated that as much as $70 out of every $100 spent had been wasted.
The haunting image of Alan Kurdi, lying drowned on a Turkish beach on 2 September 2015, was shared more than 20 million times on social media. It prompted an immediate spike in Google searches related to Syria and an avalanche of private donations to charities working on behalf of refugees.
The Swedish Red Cross saw its daily donations leap 55-fold in the week after the image circulated, according to a study led by Paul Slovic at the University of Oregon. At the International Rescue Committee (IRC), a New York-based relief group, response to the photograph crashed its website and drove a surge of public donations. Slovic says that Kurdis death woke the world for a brief time. It also made it imperative for international non-governmental organisations (INGOs) to show they were responding to events in the eastern Mediterranean.
For the established groups already working in Greece, the sudden influx of funds was both welcome and destabilising. Metadrasi, a Greek organisation known for training interpreters and caring for unaccompanied minors, had experienced staff poached by bigger new arrivals on the scene that could afford far higher salaries.
The head of Metadrasi, Lora Pappa, believes the tide of money transformed refugees into commodities and encouraged short-term responses. They [international organisations] were looking at how to show a presence in Greece. This led to some wasting the chance to spend constructively.
Her rueful conclusion is that sometimes money can do more harm than good.
Among the cautionary tales to emerge from this period was the Apanemo transit centre on Lesbos. A million-dollar facility built by the IRC on the steep hillside close to the main landing beaches during the busiest months in 2015, it was designed to receive 2,000 refugee arrivals per day. Funded by private donations, British aid money and the charitable Radcliffe Foundation, it was hailed by the IRC as a much-needed reception centre [that] provides crucial services to refugees.
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