Of the 500,000 refugees and vulnerable migrants who transited through Lesvos in 2015, over 200,000 passed through the small town of Molyvos. I arrived in Molyvos in July 2015 to take part in a summer school at the University of the Aegean, which is based on Lesvos, and became involved with the grassroots volunteer initiative providing assistance to arriving refugees that three months later was formally established as the Starfish Foundation. Faced with a delayed and patchy response by the government and professional humanitarian agencies, coupled with resistance among sections of the local community to the idea of supporting the refugees, local and international volunteers decided to take the provision of relief into their own hands.
The early days of a local response
The collective of volunteers from which the Starfish Foundation was established began to form in the summer of 2010, when small numbers of refugees and vulnerable migrants, mainly from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan, began arriving on Lesvos. The group consisted of a variety of people from Molyvos, including shop and restaurant owners, pensioners and teachers. They came together at irregular intervals to provide assistance to refugees arriving either on the shores in small boats and rubber dinghies, or brought into Molyvos harbour by the Greek coastguard.
Molyvos is a small town with a year-round population of about 1,000. It lies on the north coast of Lesvos, just six miles from Turkey. The coastguard office responsible for the northern coast is situated in Molyvos, which meant that refugee boats intercepted by its patrol vessels were usually brought into Molyvos’ picturesque harbour, alongside some of the busiest restaurants in this popular tourist town. Like the rest of Greece, Molyvos had suffered a severe economic downturn and there were no funds available for the coastguard, police or municipality to put in place formal structures to receive the sporadic refugee arrivals. Hence, as was the case on other Greek islands, locals provided assistance each time a boat was brought in.
In early 2015, an increase in the number of refugees arriving in Molyvos prompted the volunteers to start operating a more fixed structure: using a schedule, having set shifts and renting storage space close to the harbour, where sandwiches were made and emergency supplies stored. This more fixed group operated from a restaurant in the harbour owned by the Starfish Foundation’s current director, Melinda McRostie, and her husband Theo Kosmetos.
By the spring, what had been a quiet phenomenon that local volunteers had been fairly successfully addressing escalated into a crisis that was extremely disruptive to a municipality dependent on tourism, and with no formal structures in place to deal with the situation. In particular, it became apparent that a reception site would be necessary to receive people in a fair and dignified way. Refugees were arriving mainly in the north of the island, and the lack of a central site and local law forbidding the transport of non-registered refugees to the official registration location in the south of the island meant that large numbers of people had to make their way on foot. There was only one location along the route where people could find shelter, run by the local charity Aggalia. The German NGO Borderline Europe proposed setting up a reception facility in the north of the island, but when this proposal met with fierce local resistance the Molyvos volunteer group took matters into their own hands, renting a small plot of land next to the harbour where they established a small transit site where people rescued by the coastguard could wait for a bus to take them to the registration site.
Responding to an evolving crisis
In August 2015 the number of people arriving in Lesvos increased substantially. In less than two weeks, the number of arrivals passing through Molyvos daily went from about 150 to around 1,000. However, the relief effort was not coordinated and there were still no formal provisions in place to receive people and transport them to the south. After protests from islanders, the law was changed in June to allow private individuals and a handful of buses, run first by MSF and then the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), to transport non-registered migrants from a car park in Molyvos. It was, however, evident that more needed to be done. As international NGOs were not providing an adequate response, volunteer groups assumed greater responsibility. On the beaches, volunteers were coordinated by local resident Eric Kempson and his family. From there, refugees walked to the car park in Molyvos, before travelling on to the registration centre in the south of the island. Increasingly, tourists and international volunteers started helping the local volunteer team by providing clothes and water, and ensuring that the few available buses were loaded peacefully. For some local volunteers, the coordination and logistics involved in providing food and other supplies and arranging for sufficient buses to transport people arriving in the car park was becoming a full-time occupation.
Despite the fact that the majority of refugees were arriving in the north, NGO activities were concentrated in the camps at Moria and Kara Tepe in the south of the island. In part this was down to local resistance: whereas in the south the mayor had welcomed the help offered by international organisations, in Molyvos the creation of a semi-permanent transit site for refugees was opposed by members of the local community, who feared that it would attract more people and develop into a permanent camp. There was particular concern that Molyvos might become one of the ‘hotspots’ the European Union (EU) was considering setting up. Limited access to information (including in Greek) from the media and organisations such as UNHCR was a key factor in fuelling suspicion and fear.
Towards the end of August, tensions in the town led to a vote by the local council to close off the car park where the refugees were gathering, leaving the volunteer team without a site to distribute relief items and load refugees onto buses. Refugees were stuck at the entrance to the town, with no shelter, little assistance and no transport. Although the International Rescue Committee (IRC) came to an agreement with the Tourism Association and the Molyvos Municipality that allowed it to open a camp along a rather inaccessible road far from any villages, local volunteers recognised that a short-term solution for the reception of refugees was urgently needed.
In mid-September, the owner of the OXY nightclub agreed that the team could use his car park. A few gazebos were put up and IRC started running more buses in the large space now available. Over the following three and a half months, between mid-September and Christmas, at least 150,000 refugees passed through OXY. When daily arrivals started exceeding 3,000 in late September, we were unable to load everyone for transport to the south of the island during daylight hours, and OXY became an overnight camp. The site was designed and run entirely by volunteers from the Starfish team, with site managers and rotating teams responsible for a ticketing system, crowd control, loading buses, the distribution of food and clothes, logistics between warehouses and the site and the scheduling and training of volunteers. In late October some 85 trained volunteers were working on our team. Some of the refugees passing through the site also helped out, or even returned after obtaining their registration papers in the south of the island.
At OXY we learned what it meant to work as humanitarians. The absence of formal government or UNHCR reception sites and the arrival of more international NGOs on the island during September meant that many organisations were willing to provide relief, yet could not set up something sustainable. The OXY site provided a space in which they were able to offer their services. Soon after OXY opened, the French NGO Women and Health Alliance International (WAHA) began providing medical services, and UNHCR provided us with our first big rub hall, able to accommodate 200 people. IRC provided buses and protection staff for the site. The increasing number of volunteers and partner organisations working at OXY meant that the site became more difficult to manage for a small and rapidly evolving team that still consisted entirely of people with no previous camp management experience. We had to learn quickly on the job, while managing the response to a crisis that was becoming more severe every day. On the plus side, we were able to respond quickly and dynamically as we were not weighed down by bureaucracy.
From practical experience the team realised that, to continue to respond to the accelerating crisis, we needed to professionalise further. Our efforts relied entirely on donations from tourists and volunteers, who brought clothes and groceries or left money at local supermarkets and pharmacies to pay our ever-increasing bills. To continue our work, it became necessary to set up a legal foundation and a bank account so that we could accept donations from abroad. We also started providing salaries to build capacity and retain those volunteers who had taken on responsibility for managing funds, media work and managing other volunteers. In mid-October, the Starfish Foundation was officially established as a non-profit organisation.+The official legal form of the Starfish Foundation is known in Greek as ΑΣΤΙΚΗ ΜΗ ΚΕΡΔΟΣΚΟΠΙΚΗ ΕΤΑΙΡΕΙΑ (ΑΜΚΕ), which translates as ‘non-profit organisation’, requiring a board and statutes.
As a young organisation we benefited from the guidance of established NGOs. Some offered training on frameworks and principles in the humanitarian sector, psychosocial support and field security. The Danish Red Cross provided training for the board and psychological support for volunteers, and helped us to create a phased plan for the physical development of the OXY site and manage the increasing number of NGOs working at the site. Other invaluable support from humanitarians and other professionals included guidance on grant writing and the development of evaluation procedures and simple reporting systems to feed back to donors and supporters.
At times there was friction between professionals and volunteers, mainly arising, I believe, from the tension between volunteers’ eagerness to respond to needs rapidly, while professionals worked on setting up systems that would enable an efficient response in the long term. Among volunteers, I sometimes sensed dissatisfaction with criticism of their work from the professionals, who sometimes failed to recognise that the systems in place were born in the midst of a crisis, and had developed precisely because the large NGOs had been absent. To ensure that we all had the same aims and perspectives, we obliged everyone working at the site, whether volunteers or seasoned humanitarian workers, to attend our induction session. Many people, but not all, recognised that it was useful to become familiar with our philosophy and working systems, the design of the site and the people working on our team.
By Christmas 2015 the influx of refugees had decreased drastically. As the OXY site was only intended as a temporary expedient, and the IRC had since opened Apanemo camp close to Molyvos, the team decided that it was time to hand over responsibility for the reception of refugees and start closing OXY down. In the months that followed, our volunteer team worked in various locations on the island, including Moria camp and several reception facilities for unaccompanied minors. The changing situation and the uncertainty surrounding the EU–Turkey deal, under which all new arrivals are detained and processed in closed camps managed by the Greek government, have required us to be extremely flexible and to think hard about our mission and our future. The core team has discussed in depth whether we should shift our long-term focus to evolving needs in education, psychosocial support and legal assistance, both here and on the mainland. Our organisation was, however, born out of a local need. The team was stepping in to address an urgent situation unfolding on our doorstep. Now, as the situation in northern Lesvos is no longer urgent, we have decided to return to our initial intent. Starfish will continue to operate on a much smaller scale, focusing mainly on rebuilding the local community, which has lost its main source of income following a significant drop-off in tourism. We are still supporting various camps with food and clothes.
The Starfish Foundation is an example of a ‘pop-up’ grassroots relief phenomenon. Organisations like ours can perform functions that NGOs have to spend longer deliberating on. Strengthened by our knowledge of the local context, we were able to respond much more rapidly and effectively to needs as they arose. The potential of grassroots organisations in emergency response can be stimulated, supported and guided by NGOs. When this is done adequately – with clear information and lines of communication with the local community and local organisations, and a willingness to protect local livelihoods and foster relations with those within the local community who know how to navigate sensitive local issues – the potential of grassroots organisations is huge. In fact, many former members of our own volunteer team have used the experience they gained in Lesvos to continue to work elsewhere in the refugee response, either professionally or with other volunteer teams.
Emma Eggink helped found the Starfish Foundation, for which she has been working as a volunteer and then as a Programme Manager since July 2015. Special thanks to Melinda McRostie and Elena Michael for their extensive input and insightful remarks during the drafting of this article.