LESBOS, GREECE—We had watched the dinghy from about a mile out, making its way slowly across the Aegean Sea to the island of Lesbos. The scene along this eight-mile stretch of coastline has become familiar: a small corps of volunteers waiting on the shore, using hand gestures to caution the person steering the boat to slow down; the overcrowded dinghy full of anxious faces turned toward land tantalizingly close.
As the dinghy scrapped up against the rocks, this group of refugees escaping from war and conflict clambered onto shore, beginning their next journey into Europe.
The first person to disembark was disabled and clearly in pain. He grimaced as he and the others were guided across the beach by volunteers lined up to offer support. The volunteers demonstrated how to put on the shiny “space blankets” to ward off the cold.
Refugees tugged on dry socks and plastic bags to return some semblance of warmth to their feet. One volunteer, calling out “we have a very wet baby here," rushed the child in her arms to a nearby van.
Moments later, minivans arrived to transport the refugees to Apanemo, the new transit site opened in late December by the International Rescue Committee.
A safe and warm respite
At the transit site, new arrivals move through a series of tents manned by our local partners,* receiving food, dry clothing, ponchos, blankets, feminine supplies, and emergency services such as medical treatment. The IRC also distributes Waka Waka solar lamps and phone chargers to families and the most vulnerable groups.
While refugees wait for transportation to Mytilene (also arranged by the IRC and partners), they can rest in a communal tent equipped with sitting areas, sleeping mats, heaters and two phone charging stations.
They can use their mobile phones to access RefugeeInfo.eu, a website developed by the IRC and Mercy Corps in collaboration with Google, offering essential information about available services, lodging and medical facilities on the island and beyond.
Digital screens in the communal tents display information in Arabic, Farsi and English about critical registration procedures (refugees are processed by the Greek government and the European border-control agency, Frontex).
In addition, Apanemo provides a safe space with recreational activities for children and a tent for women to breastfeed in private and seek additional support from an IRC aid worker.
On a recent afternoon at Apanemo, while they waited to board the minivans, refugees sat on benches outside the communal tent, soaking up the sun. It is winter here and cold, but the sun’s rays provide comfort and small children played with the teddy bears they had just received.
“There is much refugees don’t know about what the future holds," says Panos Navrozidis, the IRC’s country director in Greece. "Apanemo gives them a brief, much needed respite, and critical information, before they continue their journey into a Europe that remains unsure about how to assist some of the world’s most vulnerable.”
Refugee Crisis on Lesbos
The IRC first responded on the Greek island of Lesbos in July 2015 delivering clean water and sanitation in several refugee transit sites and providing newly arrived refugees with much needed information about the registration process and essential services. We continue to provide specialised services to the most vulnerable refugees, including people with limited mobility and children separated from their families. We are also identifying and providing support to unaccompanied children as soon as they land, referring IRC teams in the capital so they can meet them immediately and escort them to Moria, the site for all registration on the island.
*The IRC is closely collaborating with local partners such as Hellenic Red Cross, Starfish Foundation, EuroRelief, Boat Refugee Foundation, SOS Children’s Village Greece, Save the Children and Mercy Corps.
The refugee transit site at Apanemo was made possible through the generous support of UK AID through the Start Network, the Radcliffe Foundation and additional private contributions.