Red Cross Responds to Refugee Crisis in Greece

Members of the Greek Red Cross help a refugee who has just landed on a shore at Lesbos. Credit: Santi Palacios/AP

Members of the Greek Red Cross help a refugee who has just landed on a shore at Lesbos. Credit: Santi Palacios/AP

Red Cross Red Crescent volunteers’ work and decisions are guided by seven fundamental principles. One of these principles—universality—ensures that when global crises strike, Red Cross and Red Crescent societies from around the world are able to mobilize and meet the needs of the most vulnerable. As large numbers of refugees and migrants enter Europe, the Red Cross Red Crescent has responded collaboratively to alleviate suffering and protect human dignity.

The global Red Cross network is responding in 28 countries across Europe. More than 55,000 Red Cross volunteers have activated to deliver medical care, shelter, water, food, and more. The American Red Cross is responding to the needs of people searching for safety both in the Middle East and in Europe. As part of its response in Europe, the American Red Cross has deployed eight disaster specialists who coordinate with other Red Cross partners, the UN Refugee Agency, and local responders. The following blog post was written by one of these disaster specialists, Stephen Hagerich, who traveled to Greece with the American Red Cross in late October.

While the activities described below are not Stephen’s main area of responsibility, emergency situations often call on humanitarians like Stephen to remain flexible. Below, he describes a day where he did just that.

I arrived a day after the unfortunate sinking of a ship. The same thing happened again just days later. So while working on the Greek island of Samos, our focus shifted for a few days—from providing lifesaving supplies to supporting families impacted by the sinking ships. While these aren’t the typical tasks taken on by American Red Cross volunteers in the field, it’s also important for volunteers like me to be flexible when the needs demand it. I wrote a rough log about one of those days, Sunday, November 1. I wasn't able to record everything and a few details have been purposely left out.

Log from Sunday, November 1:

08:00 I meet colleagues from the Hellenic Red Cross (Greece’s Red Cross society) and we make our way to the port where most of the migrants are staying. Some have emergency shelter, but most are out in the open. The last few days were busy, so there are a few thousand people waiting to be registered—so they can leave the island.

08:10 We get stopped by a group of migrants. They’re asking us questions about their paperwork from the police—paperwork that enables them to leave the island. This is a normal question. The police are overwhelmed and had to stop the registration yesterday morning as the crowds became unmanageable.

08:42 I am in search of a man whose loved one died a couple of days ago. He needs to go to the police on the other side of the island to provide a statement before the 11:00 ferry to Athens. The Red Cross is trying to negotiate that the statement be taken by a police station closer to the port.

09:10 After walking around the camp and getting stopped at least 10 times for medical help (the Spanish Red Cross is accepting patients), questions about food (volunteers provide it around the corner for children and the UN Refugee Agency provides high calorie biscuits at 6:00pm each evening) and clothing (there is a 5:00pm distribution by another organization on most evenings), I find the man I’m searching for.

We manage to arrange a local meeting with the police to take the man’s statement, but the police don’t have an interpreter who speaks Arabic. I remember a young man we've been helping who speaks very good English. The young man is eager to help and always asks us if he can do anything. It takes a while to find him, but he says he is happy to help us.

09:45 It’s difficult to get into a taxi because more people have more questions. I direct them to the Red Cross flag, since I know we have a people who can help. We've already been told that the ferry that was supposed to leave at 11:00 is delayed until 5:00pm, so thankfully we don’t have to rush the man back to the camp.

11:00 Although we wouldn't normally stay at a police station with a migrant while he files his statement, we do stay this time. The man clearly needs emotional support and the language barrier is difficult. We help ease the conversation. The man is also asking if we can help him figure out how he can bury his relative’s body. We have heard this question several times this week, so already know the right people to contact.

11:15 We return to the camp and are immediately surrounded by a large group of people with more questions. We try to answer as many as possible but are called by the Spanish Red Cross to help an 8 year-old girl get to the hospital. The ambulance service is overstretched on the island and since my Red Cross counterpart is a nurse, we take the girl to the hospital ourselves.  

She can barely walk and looks very weak. The father speaks no Greek but needs to come with her, so I accompany him while the daughter goes into the children’s ward. I sit with the father and explain that the doctors say she is stable but they need to do further tests and keep her for observation. Her mother will spend the night with her.

12:30 While at the hospital, I receive a call from a Red Cross volunteer who is also a rescue diver for another organization. He informs me that he has just finished a request from the harbor police to recover 11 bodies from a sunken ship—all women and children. Trapped underneath the ship with their life vests on, they were unable to escape. The ship had space on top for about 17 more passengers who presumably made it off alive, since it was only meters away from shore. We don’t know where those survivors are, but they will likely need help.

14:30 I need to find the man we took to the police station earlier. He had questions about the burial of his loved one. When I find him, he is worried that when he leaves on the next ferry no one will be here to help facilitate getting the police report (which he needs so the family can make burial arrangements). We find a quiet space to speak because I need to share his options with him.

The Greek government is providing funerals and although they don’t have a separate cemetery, they respect the Muslim traditions and will honor family requests. Costs associated with repatriating bodies are not covered by the Greek government and an autopsy is necessary. This is a very delicate conversation since it is not a traditional practice for his religion, but the man understands so he calls his family so they can make decision on what to do. We agree that I will return soon.

15:00 I visit another family whose loved ones died a few days ago in a ferry sinking. We have been taking them to the hospital to make funeral arrangements. I explain to the family that they have an appointment at 10:00am on Monday—the hospital informed us that the morgue and the local cemetery are both full, but they are trying to make a special place where they can better accommodate religious customs.

17:30 A UN officer flags me down to advise that the survivors of the boat that sank earlier today have been found and are on their way. A few minutes later I meet a group of volunteers from Denmark and Sweden who offer to put all 13 survivors in a hotel. The UN officer asks if the Red Cross can provide Restoring Family Links services—a program to help people find missing family members. We agree to do this and to also provide psychosocial support.

18:00 We spend about three hours with the families as the UN registers their details. They are all visibly upset. One family lost an 8-month old baby and has two other young children to care for. Another lost his wife and two children. One woman lost her father-in-law and three children.

21:00 All the families are now in their hotel rooms and say they have everything they need. We tell them that we’ll be back to see them in the morning and take them to the hospital. We realize we’ve not eaten since breakfast so we go to get some take-out from a local restaurant.

21:30 I am now back in my hotel room and try to Skype home. The connection is weak but I unload on my mother for about 20 minutes (thanks, mom) and go to bed. It will be another long day tomorrow.

Restoring Family Links is a key component to the Red Cross response in Greece and across Europe. On Samos, the Spanish Red Cross provides a wifi hotspot with no password, free for refugees. As I walk through the crowd I try to disseminate this information as refugees often arrive with smart phones but no local SIM card. The network gets overwhelmed at times but some can use it so send a message home.

For the man who lost the majority of the family in a sinking boat, reconnecting with his family elsewhere has been really important. I’ve given my phone to him several times so he can have WhatsApp calls with his two brothers. I mentioned this to a volunteer group who brought him a local phone, so he can continue his contact without me.

For more information on the global Red Cross network’s in Europe, please click here.