World Humanitarian Day – What does it mean to be a humanitarian in Europe?

by 19th Aug 2016
Refugee families at Piraeus port, Athens, Greece, April 2016 Refugee families at Piraeus port, Athens, Greece, April 2016 © CARE/Johanna Mitscherlich 2016

What does it mean to be ‘a humanitarian’ working in Greece – a country in Europe that, notwithstanding its economic crisis, does not fit the bill of the classic ‘emergency’ context? How does the response in Greece challenge our assumptions about what it means to be a humanitarian?

Until a year ago, if you asked most people in the UK or other wealthy Western countries “what is humanitarian action?” they would probably say it’s something which happens in Africa, the Middle East or Asia. What’s more, despite the efforts of some aid agencies to promote a fuller picture of how complex humanitarian crises are, too often the media and marketing campaigns of most aid agencies resort to more simplistic narratives about emergencies and how we respond to them – as this is generally more effective in mobilising funding or political support.

Working here in Greece with the CARE team and our local partner organisations – which are Greek NGOs with a history of supporting the poorest sections of the Greek population affected by the country’s economic crisis– a number of very interesting questions arise that all come back to the basic question on World Humanitarian Day: namely, what is humanitarian?

What’s more, the questions we ask ourselves as employees of an international NGO like CARE are also questions that – in the context of the global refugee crisis – many others ask themselves as citizens in Europe and other wealthy countries that are, or are not, welcoming refugees fleeing extreme violence, persecution and other desperate circumstances. To what extent are we, or should we be, taking humanitarian action, and how do we do this?

Here are four questions that we ask ourselves in Greece:

What is the shared ground in how Greek government officials, staff of UN humanitarian agencies, international NGOs, national NGOs, Greek activist networks and international volunteers in Greece understand humanitarian action?

Most impressive of all on my visit has been the actions by the refugees themselves to cope with their situation and help each other. I meet Zeina, a Syrian refugee, who from her second day on Lesbos was helping others with interpreting so that women could access hospitals and advice on their legal status. She and all the other refugees I have spoken with feel their own agency gets largely neglected in the management of official refugee camps and projects. In her words: “If you look at me with pity or racism, it’s just as bad. We are too often treated as animals, we are humans. Let us live in dignity.”

Visiting a camp in Lavrio, two hours outside Athens, the military sub-commander in charge tells me his role is “very simple: keep them (refugees) safe and keep them fed.” Yet both these things have generated whole schools of philosophical introspection and libraries of PHDs in Oxford, Harvard and so on. Of course, none of this will have made it to the commander’s brief before getting deployed to the camp.

CARE’s local partner organisation in Greece is Solidarity Now, a national NGO first launched to support the poorest Greek populations affected by the economic crisis in 2008. Its founders and staff bring an impressive background in social justice and anti-racist activism to their work to support refugees. For most of its staff, humanitarian jargon – things like ‘clusters’ and ‘OCHA’ – have not been a part of their experience and worldview to date (mercifully one might add!). They are planning legal activism to challenge the human rights violations that the refugees face, for example forced returns of some to Turkey under the EU-Turkey deal.

Another example would be the Greek anarchist groups which have opened up their squats, especially in the Exarchia district of Athens, to accommodate migrants. Visiting one of these squats yesterday I was struck by the incredibly lively atmosphere with the refugees cooking for themselves food they want. In contrast, in the official Government-led camps, refugees complain about being forbidden to cook and receiving inadequate food hand-outs. Aside from the lack of nutrition and poor quality of the food, they are especially upset at not even being able to control this basic part of their life – a sense of agency and dignity as important as anything else.

Yet equally, each of the squats have their own specific approaches to decision-making and the politics or ethics they promote, which can also raise questions over who has power and what the outcomes are. Some squats reportedly forbid ‘mainstream’ humanitarian agencies from entering as they are seen as complicit with the state. In at least one squat, refugees are reportedly dissuaded from seeking legal status from the Greek state and UNHCR, which denies them international protection.

This is obviously a concern from a traditional humanitarian and legal perspective. A Greek anarchist is still a Greek citizen and can choose to access certain benefits and rights when they need to, which a stateless refugee living in legal limbo cannot. Yet, with the EU-Turkey deal and the parameters imposed by the European relocation scheme – limited to certain nationalities that arrived before a certain date – for some migrants staying outside the imposed ‘legal’ framework might be preferable.

So what is right or wrong in this context? Which is the more ‘humanitarian’ approach? Perhaps they are all humanitarian, but they are driven by different values and ways of defining what we do – which some see as inconsistent or even in conflict.

How do we negotiate cultural difference and maintain a respectful and sensitive approach towards the refugee population in a European context?  

When humanitarians in NGOs like CARE are deployed to a foreign country we get briefed on the local social, political and security context. As part of our basic training, the need to understand, respect and engage sensitively with local cultural norms is stressed both as a question of behaving ethically, but also as a practical way to enable our work. Trying to carefully treat the people we are helping with dignity is as important as addressing a material lack of food, water or clothing, for example.

Yet when the refugees come ‘here’ – whether here in Greece or other donor country contexts – these same questions take on different nuances. These questions also tie in to wider concerns over the integration of refugees here, and the challenges they face in terms of racism and xenophobia.

Perhaps because of Greece’s own experience with forced population movement at various points in history, the country has shown an incredible level of generosity and empathy with the refugees fleeing here. Yet Greece also has its fascist political movements that perpetrate violent attacks against migrants. One Greek female volunteer shared frankly with me how there could also be a sensitivity in Greece about Islamic cultural practices amongst many of the refugees, which she explained as tied to a kind of collective Greek imaginary about the historic period of Ottoman rule.

For humanitarians questions arise over how to negotiate cultural difference and respect the social norms of refugees in the Greek context, which would also apply for those supporting refugees in other donor countries. As the same Greek volunteer asked me – what is the appropriate dress for an NGO worker, volunteer or activist engaging with refugees and migrants here? Some refugees arrive in Greece with their norms over dress, for example, yet also with their whole experience and predicament shaped by the trauma of the journey and the precarious situation they find themselves in. In the words of that Greek aid worker: “Greece is Europe. This is my home. Yet I have asked myself many times how should I dress when I visit the camps? How do we live together? How do we come together on this?”
More generally, because of the vast diversity of different nationalities amongst refugees and migrants that come to Greece, the overall humanitarian response has largely struggled to understand or navigate the complexity and differences between different groups and often reduced them to one homogenous mass – a passive population of ‘beneficiaries.’

How do we deal with the humanitarian fig-leaf syndrome in a European context?

Humanitarians generally have little power to influence the root causes of crises we are working in, although we can bear witness to it and support advocacy by the affected people. As a consequence, we continuously interrogate whether aid risks becoming a ‘fig-leaf’ to excuse a lack of political action by those that do have the power to tackle the causes of suffering.

Yet in Greece, and more generally across Europe, the extent to which the humanitarian system has become implicated in, and shaped by, international policies of governments that are the cause of suffering is shocking. Nobody should be drowning in the Mediterranean as the EU should provide safe and legal routes for people to flee the crises in Syria, Afghanistan, Eritrea and elsewhere. Wealthy and powerful governments should come together to open up options like family reunification for those refugees with families in Europe. They should share the responsibility for hosting refugees with Greece, as well as third states hosting much bigger numbers like Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan.

Yet instead – with a few honourable exceptions – the opposite is largely the case and is shaping European policies on the crisis. The main funding available from governments to provide accommodation for the refugees is arguably shaped by this policy of refugee deterrence, containment and return, too.

Dignified housing is available only to a small sub-set of the refugee population. Arguably, this has affected the extent to which vulnerability criteria determine who gets allocated housing, as opposed to the political decisions on which nationalities are eligible for relocation in Europe or not. Up the road from where I am staying in Athens is Omonia Square, where young Asian boys and men are living homeless and engaged in sex-work because they have literally no other source of income. European policy effectively views them on the basis of their nationality alone, and so deems them not worthy of legal protection, shelter or other assistance. It is a scandal and it forces us to question how we define a ‘refugee’ versus a ‘migrant’.

On a daily basis, we hear from some refugees that manage to make their way informally to other European countries with the support of people-smugglers. For example, one friend just heard from one young boy who had been in living in dire circumstances in a camp, then a squat, and has now made his way to reunite with his family in Germany by paying people-smugglers.

This is seen by European governments as ‘illegal’ – although this individual should have been technically eligible for protection under international legal frameworks. Some people-smuggling networks are involved in horrific abuses associated with human trafficking, exploitation and abuse, and are defined by governments as criminal networks to be ‘smashed.’ Yet others are arguably supporting more humanitarian outcomes than the system ordained by governments.

Humanitarian agencies working with official funding and legal registration could never facilitate those ‘illegal’ journeys. So what does it mean to be a humanitarian in this political context? When the international legal system to protect people itself is broken or warped by governments, what is humanitarian?

How do our identities as citizens of European countries, activists and humanitarians come together?

NGO staff and voluntary activists in Greece come from around the world. In my time here, I’ve met lots of Spaniards and North Americans, for example. However, many working here as ‘humanitarians’ – however defined – are Greek or have other European nationalities. Many of us are active simultaneously as NGO staff in the projects funded by the ‘traditional humanitarian sector’, whilst also volunteering in more informal networks (eg teaching English language lessons in the evenings) and we also participate in political activism – ranging from social media petitions to direct action – in our home countries.

Juggling these different strategies brings a host of practical and political challenges. These are largely a European spin on the age-old dilemmas of wanting to both speak out about the atrocities we see – the human rights advocacy approach – with the need to maintain a level of neutrality and discretion so we can negotiate with power-holders to access the affected people. If we speak out, we risk getting shut down and practical assistance to refugees being cut.

So we are grappling with how we hold our governments accountable as citizens while keeping the space open for aid. At what point do we decide to risk losing that political, and sometimes financial, support for aid, in order to shout louder about the horrific and inhumane treatment of people we see in Greece or elsewhere in Europe?

Each of these questions are not entirely new ones. They have much in common with the ethical dilemmas I and others working for humanitarian agencies have confronted in Afghanistan, Sudan, the Balkans and elsewhere. But on World Humanitarian Day –  when we want the world to think about what humanitarian action means –  the experience in Greece illustrates how this is not a simple question at any time or in any context, even or especially in ‘our own’.

Howard Mollett

I joined CARE in 2005, since then I’ve been lucky enough to work with our local teams and civil society partners in countries as diverse as Afghanistan, Sudan, DRC, Kosovo and most recently on the Syria regional response team. My current responsibilities include co-chairing our global network of policy specialists on gender in emergencies, with a colleague in Pakistan, and leading CARE’s advocacy in the UK on the Syrian conflict.

Over the years, I have also worked on innovative research and advocacy with country teams on conflict analysis, civil-military relations and humanitarian access. What has kept me with CARE is the organisation’s support to grassroots activists and its commitment to addressing gender in a serious way.

Prior to joining CARE, previous roles included research on human security and development at the Centre for Defence Studies; the facilitation of a network monitoring human rights implications of the ‘Global War on Terror’; support to European coordination of the Make Poverty History campaign; global coalition-building with the Our World Is Not For Sale coalition; research on trade policy; and support to a network of environmental and human rights CSOs in the Balkans.

One good thing I’ve read

Drown by Junot Diaz - short stories that offer a brilliant fictional lens on gender, class and migrant experiences in the USA.


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