While the 2015 refugee crisis somewhat faded from the international media’s view, the flow of refugees and the vulnerability of their human rights remains a meaningful concern among the international community.
From the start of the year to July 2017, more than 100,000 asylum seekers arrived in Europe by sea and upward of 2,000 additional individuals did not survive the attempted crossing. Since the beginning of the crisis, asylum seekers who managed to reach Europe arrived to inadequate and sometimes even dangerous conditions.
At first, in 2015, this seemed to be a symptom of inadequate legislation. However, the fact that these inhumane conditions have persisted point to insufficient humanitarian funding and the deliberate neglect of refugees.
Emina Cerimovic, a researcher with Human Rights Watch, stated that “the mental impact of years of conflict, exacerbated by harsh conditions” and “the uncertainty of inhumane policies, may not be as visible as physical wounds, but is no less life-threatening.” This warning came at a crucial time, as Hungary continues to house asylum seekers in shipping containers despite protests from the United Nations, European Union and greater international community. As time has gone on, conditions in refugee camps remained stagnant and residents became increasingly less independent. They are forced to rely on the entity running their center for more of their basic needs.
NPR reporter Soraya Nelson, who visited a camp on the Hungary-Serbia border, describes it as a detention camp with only one accessible exit, which enters Serbia, a country that also struggles to uphold just migration policies. According to Nelson, all other gates are heavily guarded. The idea is that “people will get so fed up, they might just decide to leave.”
The containers that make up the camp, while more sturdy than the tents provided in many E.U. refugee centers, are undeniably cramped and allow for little ventilation. Their structure provides no clear separation of families and also house unaccompanied minors, one of the most controversial groups within the asylum-seeking population.
Despite this failure, the Elpida Home for Refugees, located near the industrial Center of Thessaloniki, Greece, provides a model for the future. Elpida, which means “hope” in Greek, managed to bridge the gap between inhumane refugee policies and the humane treatment of refugees. The center was founded by American philanthropist Ahmed Khan in partnership with the Radcliffe Foundation and the Greek Ministry of the Interior as an experiment in refugee assistance.
The Ministry donated an abandoned textile factory to the cause when presented with the concept for Elpida: to provide refugees the independence and services they need to continue their lives. The 6,000 square-meter space was converted into 140 residential units, each for six people or less, with shared bathrooms and a communal kitchen, allowing residents to enjoy private space, prepare meals and participate in the community.
The Elpida Home for Refugees is based on the idea that refugees need assistance from the bottom-up instead of from the top-down as is provided elsewhere. Top-down assistance means asylum seekers receive a small designated space in an overcrowded, often outdoor facility, with limited access to proper nutrition, hygiene and medical care. In these scenarios, typical of most refugee camps, residents are entirely reliant on the government or NGO who operates the camp.
Alternatively, the bottom-up care provided by the Elpida Home for Refugees allows its residents to utilize the tools made available by the organization, such as access to medical care, education, and their own personal rooms, to reclaim their lives and become independent.
The cooperation between the Greek government and the Radcliffe foundation can easily be replicated by other countries and organizations and then even more asylum seekers may find Elpida’s “hope” when they are most vulnerable.
– Alena Zafonte