Lesvos: Playing hide and seek with NGO’s

Leestijd: 6 minuten

Things are changing rapidly at Lesvos. Right now, after only three weeks, some details in this article (including the information in the diagrams at the end) are outdated. And that’s very good.
The main line and the things to learn however are still important, also forasmuch the future.

Sun has set at Lesvos, while I talk to her on Facebook. She is a Dutch retiree and all afternoon she’s been stretched on her bed on beautiful Petra beach: under a palmtree, with sea views. In the evening they built a fire and roasted chicken. I wasn’t there of course, but her photos suggest this story. And there also was a lot of good news today: help was finally coming! Dutch Stichting Vluchteling announced: “We started giving emergency help in Kara Tepe” and the International Rescue Committee was claiming their arrival as well. But the tone of my conversation with her on Facebook is rather bitter.

In this post you’ll find also: communicationtips for NGO’s, and an overview over who’s doing what and where on Lesvos.

 Let them first show up!
“And now they’re coming all together.” I couldn’t resist a reply to such an enthusiastic exclamation on the Dutch Refugees on Lesvos-page. But her reaction has, quite unexpectedly, a different tone: “Let them first show up since there is no one yet!” For months now she’s, together with a small group of islanders, providing minimal but structural help to an ever growing number of arriving refugees. For months now she and the other islanders are crying out for help to the real NGO’s, since they can’t cope anymore. And for months now they hear those organisations will start “soon”. The UNHCR is said to be already on the island for some time now. That also is structural, but they don’t see them acting: so it’s more like structurally invisible.

While Dutch Stichting Vluchteling wrote that afternoon quite enthusiastically on their Facebook-page that they started in Kara Tepe, one of the islanders was walking through the camp. And no aidworker was there to be seen. Just another organisation saying something, but doing the opposite. I do understand why they all started to get a bit discouraged.

Six days later, no place for cynism
Although this could turn out to be a rather cynical story, this definately won’t be. Because it is six days later now. And things are becoming clear: about the working style of NGO’s, and about the actual precense of certain organisations (or not). In those six days alot happened. Doctors Without Borders is several times a day driving a bus from Molyvos to Mytilini. And they’re also present in detentioncentre Moria (media don’t report on that, since it is a closed prison, but it is said the situation is at least like Kara Tepe). And the International Rescue Committee has indeed started working in Kara Tepe, although they’re not that recognizable. So yeah, organisations have arrived, and they’re doing things. That’s a start.

Some critical feedback
So, instead of cynism, this article will contain some criticism. Because that cry from Petra beach has it’s history. Communication wise many organisations have been playing hide and seek. And not only the islanders were hindered by that, but the organisations themselves as well. Since this is not a distant African country, but Europe. And this also is an island well known by tourists, all of them having connections to many potential donors. That’s why this article will contain some heartfelt tips for those NGO’s. And since all local heros are dying for some clarity, I’ll try at the end to disclose all hiding places in a simple schedule (as far as possible from The Netherlands).

Stichting Vluchteling: mainly shouting
Let’s start with Dutch Stichting Vluchteling. They’re good at shouting, but secretly they never intended to send Dutch aidworkers to Lesvos. Stichting Vluchteling is part of that same International Rescue Committee featured earlier in this post. That is even quite big on their website, but neatly hidden behind a cookie notice that is so unobtrusive that it will hardly ever being clicked away. And in many of their articles this partnership is also mentioned, but not in the article they’re mainly using for fundraising. That’s why Stichting Vluchteling elevated hide and seek to some kind of art, and that’s needlessly confusing.

Advice: just tell that IRC will be doing the actual job (and lift the bottom margin of your website, in order to show the IRC banner above the cookie notice).

UNHCR: visible name, invisible task
Next is the UNHCR. It is said they’re for months now on the island. And I can confirm they’ve been doing something. They wrote a report that’s even online in PDF. And without any sarcasm: it is a must read. But for unraveling our hide and seek game especially these lines are important:

UNHCR is deeply committed to implementing this initiative through a partnership approach. In view of far-reaching proposals being considered by the European Union, UNHCR will work in coordination with its UN partners, such as OHCHR, UNICEF and UNODC, and especially with IOM. The Office will also work closely with local and international non-governmental organizations, including Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies. Efforts will also be made to boost the capacity of partners. (page 6)

Which means: don’t expect anything hands on from UNHCR. Their job is at the background, and it is just as important and time consuming as any other job: coördinating, financing, keeping in touch with governments and lobbying in Athens and Brussels. Thanks to UNHCR others can do the ground work, without being distracted. But still: even though UNHCR’s work is hidden, they could have told so, and a bit earlier and a bit clearer. Oh, and a timetable in that report would have been a nice addition too.

Advice: start with a newsletter in a local paper or on a local website (maybe even a dedicated Facebook page). Use it to tell what all those organisations are actually doing and what political progress you yourself are making.

Best practices: Doctors Without Borders and Dutch Stichting Hulpactie Bootvluchteling
Things can be different. Especially the local volunteers are for months now helping out in a very practical and structural manner. They don’t hesitate, but do what has to be done. Both Stichting Hulpactie Bootvluchteling and Doctors Without Borders are following this principle. The former suprisingly is a foundation of volunteers only. They took (and still take) a plane from Holland to Lesbos to purchase all the necessary goods locally (and to make their hands dirty under the motto “now that we’re here”). Of course they put it on their Facebook page, but no sooner than after they started.

Same goes for Doctors Without Borders. They must have been planning on action in the camps (Moria and Kara Tepe for some time). But that didn’t hinder them, since as soon as it was legally allowed, they immediately took the initiative to drive with a bus between beach and camps. And Doctors Without Borders as well only started communicating on their actions after they really and visibly started acting. And that’s exactly in line with the hands on approach of all those very structural volunteers on the island Lesvos.

Many organisations are used to working distantly from Europe: in Africa, Asia or South-America. While working over there, communication in Europe is not that critical. It is easy to tell what you’re planning on as if you’re already doing it. Hardly anyone will notice, and it is good for fundraising. In Europe things are however different. Vacationers, retirees and other (permanent) sun-seekers are ready to report back to their family and friends at home. And if that report is not in line with the media presence of those organisations it will fire back, bring confusion and harm fundraising.

Advice: don’t! Communicate what you’re doing now. And if there’s something you want to do, but only as soon as you’ve got the money: don’t show off, but tell the truth: as soon as we’ve got the money, we’ll start. Only then you’re story is clear and consistant and your PR will be positive.

And now time has come to disclose the hiding places, since I know people are dying for it. But in fact I do think it is an UNHCR-task, since she has the full overview. But what the heck, this way they’ll have something to start from.

Disclaimer: these schedules are not complete. They contain only performed actions that I myself have witnessed or that others like islanders, tourists or (managers of) organisations have confirmed. Please put your proposals for change and your additions in the commentsbox below. Confirming links are appreciated.

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Please note: The local heros along the East and West route are mainly supported by several small foundations, churches and charities, and individuals. They need it, so don’t stop doing it.

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Support tasks
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Photo: Devant Petra, CC BY ND Jean-François Renaud

As I’m not a native speaker, but do value correct English, I’d appreciate any corrections on language. Please type them in the commentsbox below and I’ll make the appropriate changes.

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