The threat of COVID in Samos

In Samos, the threat of COVID has revealed an unstable reliance on NGO’s.

Overcrowded and under-supported

On the Aagean island of Samos, the refugee camp built in 2016 to house 640 now has over 8,000 residents. Despite the feeling of standstill for much of the world since March, the circumstances causing the refugee crisis have not halted under the pandemic, meaning there is still a steady influx of new arrivals to the island. The overpopulation flows into the jungle surrounding the official camp, where there is no access to shelter or running water. There are also insufficient food supplies to feed the ever-growing population, with people having to queue for hours for meals, toilets and other essential facilities, crammed together in long lines.

To add to an already critical situation, the threat of a COVID outbreak looms over the camp. With conditions so overcrowded, social distancing measures are simply not possible. If the virus takes hold, the fatality rate will be extremely high. On top of this, the lockdown has resulted in NGOs being forced to scale down their operations on Samos due to staff and volunteers being evacuated back to their home countries. This has left the camp severely under-supported at a time when it is most in need,  highlighting the level of reliance that exists for NGO’s to uphold at least a minimal level of infrastructure for the residents.

"The world is not stopping because of Corona and the awful situation in this camp is not stopping."

– Chloé Mandelbaum, NGO worker in Samos.

Unprepared for the spread of COVID

In April, Human Rights Watch criticised the Greek authorities for their inadequate response to protecting camp residents from the spread of COVID. Greece, like most countries, enforced a strict lockdown from March to prevent the spread of the virus, with measures also put in place in the camps. These measures include limits on leaving the camp, except for buying necessities, suspending schooling and other activities and prohibiting visitors. However, in the face of the vast overcrowding, these restrictions seem futile. Chloe Mandelbaum, an NGO worker on Samos comments “there is no way to avoid the crowd, or to respect social distancing in the camp. And what about washing your hands if you don’t have soap, and there is no water because there is not enough for everyone?”. In many instances, the restrictions have in fact been exacerbating the situation. For example, people are waiting for hours in congested lines to get permission from the police to leave the camp.

In terms of the shielding the vulnerable, there has been no official measures put in place or advice given on how social distancing could work in practice. Many refugees suffer from conditions that place them in the high-risk category, for example, respiratory tract infections caused by the fumes of fires built to keep warm. The general unsanitary conditions within the camps also pose a great risk to the spread of the virus. Ylva Johansson, the European Commissioner for home affairs has stated that the conditions in the Greek camps are ‘unacceptable already’ and Members of the European Parliament have described the situation as a ‘humanitarian crisis’. Under these circumstances, many believe it is only a matter of time before the virus hits, and when it does, experts warn of disaster.

The Aagean island of Samos.

Revealing an unstable reliance on NGOs

On Samos, the pandemic has forced NGOs to reduce their operations and many closures have occurred, leaving residents to effectively fend for themselves.  Only Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF), Med’Equali Team and Movement on the Ground have remained open, operating with reduced staff. Chloe Mandelbaum reports that UNHRC usually runs an information point at the entrance to the camp, staffed by volunteers, to meet new arrivals from the boats. This is a vital service to ensure people are directed appropriately to collection points for tents, sleeping bags and other necessities. Now, refugees arrive on the beaches with no one to meet or help them. This situation is even more concerning for lone children and other vulnerable groups.

The sudden decline in NGO support has exposed the danger of an over-reliance on NGOs to maintain the day-to-day operations of the camp on Samos, and others like it across Europe. With much of the NGO workforce made up of volunteers, and their capacity funded by donations, a situation like COVID brings to the surface just how unstable this set-up is. Even with lockdown restrictions across Europe now easing, the continued fallout of the pandemic will mean the situation in the camps will not be easily or quickly resolved. With millions out of work and many industries now in decline, the world is braced for an economic recession. A recession, the beginnings of which are already being felt, will undoubtedly result in a sharp decline in donations to NGOs, as well as dramatically impact the ability of people to volunteer. The situation highlights more than ever the need for organised government support to the camps, both from the countries who house them and from the EU as a whole. In April, Portugal, Germany, Ireland, Finland, Luxemburg, France and Switzerland agreed to accept 1,600 children from the camps in Greece to be resettled. However, without further European countries stepping to grant asylum to refugees, the situation in camps like Samos will continue to deteriorate.

Abandoned boats and life jackets.

The future for Samos

Despite quarantine measures now being eased in the rest of Greece, the government has announced that the camps will be subjected to a further 2 weeks of quarantine from June 22nd- July 5th. This decision has sparked outrage and criticism from many against the Greek authorities for the treatment of migrants in the camps. Migrants are now facing yet more weeks of lockdown in overcrowded and unsanitary conditions, whilst other parts of the country are preparing to welcome tourists. So far, there have been no recorded deaths in the camps and only a few infections, making the extended quarantine seem even more unjust.

On Samos, one positive that is starting to emerge is the resilience that is being built within the camp to lessen the reliance on NGOs. Chloe Mandelbaum explains that MSF have initiated a system of engaging refugees who have studied medicine to operate as volunteers with the Med’Equali team. Building this type of infrastructure is progress in the right direction, but the real issue of the migrant crisis continues. One hope for the future is that the pandemic has instigated the beginnings of a shift in people’s attitudes towards refugees, with a greater awareness of the inhumanity of forcing people to be confined into overcrowded camps. With the economy slowed, the environment being given a moment of respite and communities volunteering time for one another, perhaps this period of reflection will facilitate a more empathetic approach to our treatment refugees. For them, COVID is just one threat amongst many.

Inside the camp, Samos.

Living without water

A people pushed to breaking point: living without water in the West Bank.

On the brink of survival

In Area C of the West Bank, Occupied Palestinian Territories, Israeli and Palestinian communities are living distinctly different realities. Area C covers 61% of the West Bank and is under near full control of the Israeli authorities, affecting 300,000 Palestinians access to water. Sitting within the Jordan Valley, the land in Area C is rich and fertile, fed from underground aquifers. Whilst Israeli settlers are able to exploit all of the potential of the land, maintaining vast and lucrative agricultural businesses, Palestinian communities are living in a state of permanent poverty.

The settlements in Area C are deemed illegal by international law, however, Israel’s de facto control of the area has enabled them to develop an extensive water infrastructure. Their state-owned water company, Mekerot, provides the settlements with thousands of litres of water daily. In contrast, the Israeli authorities restrict Palestinian’s access to water, forcing them to either purchase water from trucks at a much higher price, or resort to more clandestine methods of water collection. After decades of resilience by Palestinian farmers in Area C, life is about to get even harder. Israel has recently announced they will be moving forward with plans to annex large sections of the West Bank, meaning that they will formally claim the land as part of the state of Israel. Alongside the potential for this igniting a considerable escalation in conflict, the ability of Palestinian communities to continue to resist the occupation is in serious doubt.

“The Palestinian is targeted through water, which is the pillar of life and he will stay here resisting until the last drop.”

– Abu Saqer.

A history of division

The current situation is as a result of over 50 years of land seizures in the West Bank by Israel. Since 1967, Israeli policy has been to occupy land by building settlements. It is estimated that between 600,000 – 750,000 Jewish Israeli’s now live in settlements across the West Bank and East Jerusalem. In the early 1990’s, the Oslo Accords divided the West Bank into three areas, A, B and C. The majority of Palestinians live crowded into areas A and B, however, it is within the largest section, Area C, where most of the water resources and fertile land exists, and therefore where the majority of Israeli settlements are. The control of Area C was supposed to be handed over to the Palestinian Authority in 1999, as per the Oslo Accords, however this failed to happen, leaving Israel in full military control of the area.

In the present day, Israeli settlements and Palestinian communities sit side by side, sharing the same stretch of land, yet their experiences are entirely disparate. Israel wields its control of the area in unconcealed favour of the settlers, and at the detriment of Palestinian communities, severely limiting their access to water and therefore their ability to build infrastructure. Abu Saqer, a Palestinian from the Al Hadiddya community, comes from a long line of farmers who have called Area C of the West Bank their home for generations. Despite his ancestral ties to the land, Abu’s access to water is precarious at best, barely managing to support food production to feed his family. In stark contrast, living just north of Abu is Eli Gilad, an Israeli farmer from the Masua community. Eli maintains a date plantation of thousands of water-thirsty trees, with crop yields so abundant that he exports his dates internationally. This is just one of many examples of how the division and inequality between Palestinian and Israeli communities can be seen in practice in the West Bank.

Abu Saqer, Palestinian farmer, at his home in Area C, West Bank.

Punitive water policies

Palestinian’s living in Area C are in desperate need of a solution to address water security, with the lack of water access leaving their communities thirsty and impoverished. According to OCHA, some Palestinians in the West Bank are surviving on only 20 litres of water per person per day, the recommended daily minimum is 100 litres, and the average consumption by Israeli’s is 300 litres. The reason for this glaring disparity is due to the punitive water policies imposed on Palestinians by the Israeli authorities, depriving and restricting their access to reliable water sources.

Historically, Palestinian farmers have accessed water through wells on their land. The wells providing enough water for farmers to maintain healthy harvests, take care of animals and support their families. Under Israel’s control, this is no longer the case. The Israeli authorities have now sunk so many wells to divert water to the settlements, that many wells now supply extremely limited water to Palestinian communities, or they have dried up all together. Israel also blocks Palestinians from building any new water infrastructure. Palestinians are required to gain a permit for construction from the Israeli military, these permits are near impossible to obtain.  B’tselem views Israel’s treatment of water as a way of dispossessing and controlling Palestinians, in the hope of forcing them permanently out of the area. When comparing the two communities’ ability to access water, it’s hard to argue otherwise.

Eli Gilad, Israei farmer, on his date plantation in Area C, West Bank.

Inequality of resources

Israeli settlements in the West Bank enjoy unlimited access to water. Settlers in these communities can farm the land on a commercial scale, with their communities sporting lush green lawns and even swimming pools in some cases. Unlike their Palestinian counterparts, who are often forced to live in ramshackle encampments as a result of Israel’s policy of house demolitions, the settlements are made up of permanent concrete buildings. The largest settler community, Modi’in Illit, has a population of over 70,000 and has schools, shopping malls and medical centres inside its compound.

Whilst settler communities are thriving, Palestinians are struggling to meet their basic daily needs, let alone sustain businesses. In Area C, directly opposite Abu and the Al Haddidya community, lies the settlement of Ro’i. Ro’i produces a vast array of produce for international export, and even breeds exotic fish in an on-site aquarium. Compare this to Abu, whose farm sits on the same land – last year he was only able to produce three gallons of olive oil from his trees that are so weak from lack of water. Taking this example as representative of many others, the inequality of opportunity and resources between Palestinian and Israeli communities in the West Bank cannot be understated.

Abu’s son collecting water.

The future under annexation

At the end of May this year, Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced that Israel, with coordination from the US, plans to move ahead with the formal annexation of the illegal Israeli settlements in the West Bank. Annexation will mean that Israel permanently claims sovereignty over the land, denying Palestinians citizenship, and therefore equality of rights. In practice, Israel already denies Palestinians citizenship in the occupied territories, however, annexation will mark an end to the idea that the situation is in any way temporary. For Palestinian communities, the announcement is the final devastating blow at the end of decades of struggle for self-determination under the Israeli authorities. Many Palestinians will likely be ejected from the annexed territories, the Palestinian Authority could collapse, and what remains of the Oslo Agreement will become obsolete.

In terms of the global response to the plans, the international community is ‘discouraging’ Israel from the annexation, but tougher penalties, such as sanctions, seem to have gained little support. At the time of writing, the planned commencement of annexation for July 1st seems to have been stalled temporarily, but the threat is still very real, with many Palestinians of the view that if it goes ahead, it will destroy any hope for a viable future state. In the meantime, life for Palestinians in Area C looks more precarious than ever.

Disrupting the status quo

Is it time to decolonise the humanitarian aid sector?

COVID-19 and the Black Lives Matter movement are disrupting the status quo, and whilst doing so highlighting the paradoxical nature of the humanitarian aid sector. Organisations are queuing up to pledge their solidarity to the Black Lives Matter movement on social media alongside the appropriate hashtags. However, as advocacy director Angela Bruce-Raeburn highlights, whilst making such pledges, aid organisations are complicit in playing the dual role of “white saviours abroad and patriotic champions of democracy at home”.

In response to this age of extreme vulnerability, the way we define humanitarian aid and the concepts that underpin modern philanthropy is being questioned, with opportunities for fundamental change in the sector arising. Many activists, aid workers, and analysts are calling for taking a sledgehammer to the system, moving away from the traditional humanitarian principle of neutrality to ‘decolonise’ the aid sector.

“it is impossible to talk about philanthropy in Africa without talking about colonialism.”

– Uzodinma Iweala, CEO, Ventures Africa magazine

Re-defining the concept of a humanitarian crisis

With developed countries like the US reporting the highest COVID death rate in the world, coupled with the Black Lives Matter movement stressing the systematic inequality imposed on black communities, the face of vulnerability is changing. President and CEO of Oxfam America, Abby Maxman, has commented that Oxfam is “now looking at the situation in the US as a human rights and humanitarian crisis”. Such a phrase is something that we in the West are comfortable and practiced in applying to countries far away, however, when being applied closer to home it suddenly becomes far more unsettling.

Patrick Gathara, a cartoonist and political commentator, highlights the resistance that is present in the West to accepting a change of role from aid givers to aid recipients by posing the question “can we imagine the deployment of an African peacekeeping force to the US?”. When considering the answer to this question, the entrenched nature of our perception of what a humanitarian crisis looks like becomes highly apparent. Bruce- Raeburn also highlights how both the Black Lives Matter movement and the COVID pandemic have exposed the fundamental hypocrisy of the aid sector; white people traveling to Africa to offer aid whilst racial and social inequalities are rampant at home.

Black Lives Matter protest, Chicago, USA.

The legacy of colonialism in philanthropy

Uzodinma Iweala, an author and CEO of Ventures Africa magazine,  stated in his opening address at the ‘Rethinking Philanthropy’ conference that “it is impossible to talk about philanthropy in Africa without talking about colonialism”. Iweala argues that, as currently practiced, philanthropy preserves existing power structures and dynamics that cause much of the suffering it seeks to eliminate. Iwaela unpacks his position by explaining how our modern-day interpretation of philanthropy has been fundamentally shaped by colonialism. He states that for Europeans to justify the extraction of resources from Africa, the concept of colonialism as a ‘civilising mission’ was thought up. Under colonialism, Europeans positioned themselves as custodians of Africa’s resources until Africans developed the ability to manage them themselves. “This is the root of modern-day philanthropy in Africa” states Iweala.

In a 2015 article in The Guardian titled ‘Enough about aid – let’s talk reparations’ Jason Hickel estimates that around $97 trillion in labour was extracted by Europeans from African slaves between 1619 and 1865. Keeping this figure in mind, the mainstream accepted narrative of developing countries being poor because of internal problems, and western countries being rich because of hard work and good values seems absurd. Hickel argues that instead of talking about ‘aid’ and ‘charity’ we should start talking about the debt that the West owes to the rest of the world. This argument mirrors Bruce-Raeburn who uses the metaphor of “a band-aid on a gunshot wound” to describe the current application of humanitarian aid. Fixing the immediate emergencies does not address the underlying issues that were caused by colonialism, nor does it pay back the suffering inflicted. Iweala argues “if philanthropy is really about the love of humanity and changing structural dynamics that prevent the full expression of that love, we cannot hope to change the structural dynamics between Africa and Europe without acknowledging and righting the wrongs of the past”.

Portugese slaver ship.

An opportunity for change

Bruce-Raeburn states that “this should be a watershed moment for development professionals and international do-gooders”. She, and many others, are urging international organisations to move beyond what she labels “the hashtag engagement with black people” and instead make tangible actions that show them to be real allies against racism and inequality. She suggests that addressing the language used by aid organisations is one step in the right direction, for example, the elimination of using words such as ‘resilient’ when describing people. These words perpetuate inequality by telling vulnerable people how strong they are, whilst changing nothing in their lives. She also emphasises the desperate need for diversity in aid organisations if they are to work effectively and successfully, stating “no international organisation should have all-white leadership”.

There have been some positive examples of aid organisation’s reimagining their role in the face of the current climate. Oxfam has announced a 10-year strategic plan that will phase out the organisation’s presence in 18 out of their 66 country offices. This decision was made in recognition of moving from a confederation where power is held by its northern members, to a global network of organisations and local partners, shifting power closer to those they exist to serve. Whilst it’s encouraging to see that this period of reflection is instigating recognition to some of the structural problems of the aid sector, many have voiced concerns that it will not ultimately lead to meaningful change without disruptive tactics. Garatha states “rather than trying to create change in a rubbish system, let’s take a sledgehammer to the whole thing”. Whether we agree with Garatha’s radical approach or not, acknowledgment of the colonial roots of philanthropy that underpins modern humanitarian aid is an uncomfortable but wholly necessary first step towards progress.

UNHRC convoy, Dollo Ado, Ethiopia.