Christine and Cecilia chatted this time last week as they looked back on their first full day in Greece with the delegation of twelve women from Churches Together in Britain and Ireland (CTBI).
Each day this week we’re looking back at their trip and listening to their reflections.
On Tuesday the group travelled to the island of Samos, the arrival point of many refugees over the last year and a half.
That same day, a new part of the existing refugee ‘hotspot’ had opened, built to house 600-800 people but filled on its first day with over 1,000 people.
While the delegation couldn’t enter the registration centre, they talked to people through the fence and met those on their way in and out of the gates.
Christine Elliott is director of world church programmes at CTBI. She was joined in conversation by Cecilia Taylor-Camara who is Secretary to the Office of Migration and Policy of the Conference of Catholic Bishops for England and Wales. [Cecilia has also written about her experience on the islands of Samos and Thessaloniki.]
While Cecilia had been “impressed with the cleanliness of the facility” she was concerned by what she saw and heard behind the veneer.
“There was a lot of uncertainty. There were mixed motivations for being there and what they were looking forward to. They looked very anxious, they looked bored, many were uncertain how long they would be there for.”
She felt that “you can see the strain already showing”, even on people who had been on Samos for less than two months.
“A lot of people complained about the lack of access to medical facilities. A woman who looked visibly troubled said that she’s been told that she has to wait two months to be given an appointment … I found that very troubling.”
While those in the centre could leave and re-enter the centre, access through the gates was strictly controlled.
“People were in this facility – it’s called a registration and identification centre – but for me it is nothing short of a detention camp because they were behind the barbed wire.”
The barbed wire around the perimeter disturbed Christine. Though the security measures were no match for the children!
“It was fantastic watching the little boys scrambling up and over the fence and coming to talk and to explore what was going on.”
“In some ways there’s freedom of movement, but in other ways it felt like a really oppressive enclosed and shut down centre rather than somewhere that might lead on to freedom.”
As the conversation closed, Cecilia reflected on Greece and the island of Samos.
“Greece has gone through the structural adjustment programme and the economic challenges they are facing. Yet they’re so hospitable. Look at the warmth … and how welcoming the people of Samos are.
“35,000 of a population and at the peak of the season in November they had nearly 87,000 refugees [arrive] with them. That’s remarkable generosity of spirit that they have that is lacking in other parts of the world.”
Recognising that Greece is “bearing the brunt” of the refugee crisis in Europe, Christine asked:
“How do we [as part of the European family] support Greece while they are living through this situation?”
Photos: Esme Allen; Map: Wikipedia.