By Elizabeth Moody
Bob Kitchen, director of Emergency Preparedness and Response for the International Rescue Committee, recently visited GSPIA to share his firsthand experience of the Syrian refugee crisis and humanitarian response with students and faculty. Drawing from his extensive on-the-ground experience, Kitchen relayed the harrowing details of refugees’ journey to Europe and IRC’s response. Kitchen put a human face on the conflict, reminding the audience how quickly the situation had deteriorated and that until recently, Syrians led very similar lives to many Americans.
To emphasize the change in Syria over the past several years, Kitchen recounted a conversation with his colleague, an engineer who was building latrines and showers, in displaced persons camps. “I asked him what he thought of our programs and whether he enjoyed working for us. He said, ‘Bob, in my last job when I was inside Syria I was building multi-story carparks. I’m now digging holes in the ground.’ This shift in context from normal life…that’s what we’ve seen across the board.”
Millions of Syrian refugees have fled to neighboring countries such as Lebanon, Jordan, and Turkey, where the situation is increasingly grim. Because of decreasing international aid and a lack of legal employment options for refugees “we’re now seeing a situation where refugees are making very difficult decisions about whether they can stay in these host countries, whether they can keep their families alive, and whether the security in the host countries is substantially better than what they’ve fled from.” Kitchen notes that some refugees unable to travel to Europe have gone so far as to return to Syria, lacking other viable options. Those who can afford it continue on to costal Turkish cities such as Bodrum and Izmir, traditional vacation destinations which have become overwhelmed by the influx of refugees.
According to Kitchen, smuggling refugees has become a business and transactions generally take place in local coffee shops. Those seeking to travel to the Greek islands need simply wait in a coffee shop to be approached by smugglers, who are practiced at picking refugees out from the crowd. The smuggler then reassures the refugee that for a reasonable price, they’ll be guaranteed safe passage on a large boat. As of early October, smugglers were charging $1,500 per person; with the colder weather, that price has risen to $2,500. After reaching an agreement, the smuggler gives the refugee a phone number with instructions to wait for a call to meet near the town center, where they are loaded into a crowded van bound for the shore. Instead of the safe boat promised by the smuggler, they find a rubber dingy with an outboard motor, into which 40-50 people are packed. Because of the space limitations, refugees are limited to one bag per person. This creates a key humanitarian bottleneck where people lose their assets before they move across the sea and the beach becomes littered with jettisoned belongings. In warmer months, refugees are instructed to slash the dingy upon arrival. According to Kitchen, with the arrival of winter, smugglers have switched to wooden boats, which cannot be destroyed, so one refugee is ordered to drive the boat while members of his family are held ransom until he returns the boat. Those unable to afford the sea voyage have a less expensive but equally dangerous alternative; travel north where they must pay a smuggler to guide them across Turkey’s fenced border and through Bulgaria.
The difficulties continue once refugees enter Europe. Infrastructure and registration facilities in Greece are overwhelmed and, government response is slow, despite partnerships with small group of Greek organizations that do excellent work. Greece’s policy on refugees is to keep them moving overland, a tactic Kitchen refers to as “passing the buck.” Upon entering Macedonia, refugees are greeted by row upon row of buses ready to take them directly to the northern border for twenty euros. It’s a similar situation upon entering Serbia and Croatia, until they reach central Europe.
Kitchen notes that when it comes to a crisis of this caliber, indifference can be worse than interference. Many of the difficulties facing IRC stem from some governments’ refusal to prioritize the refugee crisis. Outdated, 1950s-era international laws further complicate the situation. However, there are encouraging stories as well. “Our programs in Serbia are partner-lead. There’s a rich history of civil society because of the wars in the Balkans. And we’re really excited to find that as we’ve gone back into Serbia, we’re finding organizations that we worked with in the 90s, we’re finding organizations that we helped create, and everybody remembers us and wants to work with us.” More help is not necessarily better, however. The influx of volunteers into Greece from other countries has been “chaotic, in many cases counterproductive, because they don’t understand many things that the NGOs have worked out over the past twenty years about how not to do harm and how to deliver good aid.”
Despite the challenges, Kitchen is proud of the work ICR has done. On the Greek islands, IRC helps towns overwhelmed with refugees increase their capacity to run essential services, such as collecting garbage and delivering water. IRC also fills in the gaps where needs have been overlooked, for example, addressing refugees’ communication needs. IRC supports young volunteers who walk around registration zones with a Wi-Fi hotspot in a backpack and a sandwich board sign reading “Internet here!” This allows refugees to talk to family and access information. Addressing the information deficit is a top priority for Kitchen and the IRC team, he is especially proud of their refugeeinfo.eu site, which provides information on transport, lodging, medical services, money exchange, and other important factors in the journey. This initiative was not without controversy, some claim that this encourages refugees to come to Europe. In Kitchen’s view, he’s helping people navigate a failing system. “My perspective is that I’m stopping smugglers. I’m giving people the information they need to make informed decisions about how to safely cross borders so they don’t end up paying huge amounts of money and in a prison.” Aid organizations like IRC face tension between the letter of the international law and the reality of the environment they find themselves in. With 210,000 refugees arriving in October alone, the problem isn’t going away, and International Rescue Committee is dedicated to facing it head on.