Fighting refugee isolation in Greece: OCCycling and OCC Bus Service

The pandemic has hit the already concerning situation in Greece of migrants, refugees, and asylum-seekers harder than ever before. As of August 2020, approximately 30,000 asylum-seekers and migrants were currently living in Greece’s Eastern Aegean islands, concentrated on the islands of Lesvos, Samos, and Chios. In Greek Mainland, the number was around 84,500 (Migration and Health). 

Refugee isolation in Greece: an old story worsened by the pandemic 

Due to rising numbers in COVID-19 cases – although they were lower than expected in refugee camps – the Greek government announced new coronavirus restrictions of movement for migrant camps on March 17th, 2020. Residents would only be allowed to leave the camp between 7 am and 7 pm, with only 100 people permitted to leave per hour and only one person per family permitted to leave at a time. Moreover, visits to the camp by individuals and organisations were suspended for at least 14 days. Still today, and according to Time magazine, many experts say governments are using the pandemic as an excuse to violate refugees’ rights and block people from the right to seek asylum. 

Yet under Kyriakos Mitsotakis’ government, who succeeded Alexis Tsipras after the landslide victory of the center-right party New Demcoracy in the 2019 elections, migration policies had been already tightened. For instance, the period during which refugees who have been granted asylum can reside in public housing was reduced from six months to one month. Latest measures have included the take over of the assistance program by the Greek government, a new protocol that caused delays on the payments of allowances and prevented residents of the camp to access food; or the construction of walls surrounding the camps for “security” reasons. Added to this already critical situation, is the fact that the Nea Kavala refugee camp is located between 4 and 5 km from the nearest town, Polykastro, and no public transport is available from the camp. This absence of suitable public transport means that residents struggle to access supermarkets, pharmacies, and the local health center to cover basic needs. 

How we fight increasing refugee isolation in Greece

Migrants, refugees, and asylum-seekers suffer from huge deliberated isolation in camps. From OCC, we have been carrying out two different projects in order to address this isolation: the OCCCycling project and the Free Bus Service. 

On the one hand, having access to bicycles free of charge means that camp residents can access the amenities mentioned, as well as the community and social events beyond the camp. In addition, OCC’s Bike Space has given many volunteers opportunities to learn new skills, with workshops aimed at teaching how to ride a bike, how to fix damaged ones, etc. “Before I came to Polykastro I knew nothing about fixing bikes” – says one of the team members – “Now I can definitively say I have learned a lot: flat tires, broken handlebars, brakes, no bump is a problem to me anymore”.

Photo: Open Cultural Center

On the other hand, the Free Bus Service brings students from the countryside and the city of Axiopolis to the centers of the organization located in Polykastro on a daily basis. This is a small change that makes a big difference for our students, as it saves frustrations related to the long commutes to the city. Thanks to this service, children can also come to the Kindergarten and escape the hardships of life in the camp. “Now I can come every day with my four and five-year old children, even if it rains or if it is really hot”, says Sheren Haj. Another bus user is Shifa Hasan, who is glad to see how “trips are safer than when we had to walk”. 

Photo: Open Cultural Center

In sum, mobility restrictions among the refugee population in Greece are more severe than they appear. Not only do they violate freedom of movement, but can also lead to worrying consequences for the health of migrants, refugees, and asylum-seekers. At OCC, we are fighting to reverse this situation and will continue to do it. However, it is clear that the refugee population needs more initiatives like these.

Special thanks to Àrea Metropolitana de Barcelona, who co-finances both initiatives.