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Winter threat looms over the forgotten refugees in Derveni camp

Despite repeated promises by the Migration Policy Minister, Giannis Mouzalas, Derveni (Alexil) camp has not been closed in spring 2017[i]. Instead, it regularly receives new refugees from the islands and elsewhere. It is the only refugee camp left in mainland Greece still «housing» refugees in tents. Refugees living there-including many families call once more desperately for assistance and ask for this inhumane place to be closed.

At the end of May 2016, following the evacuation of Idomeni, the Greek authorities set up dozens of emergency reception sites all over Greece with the purpose of providing temporary accommodation to thousands of refugees. One of them was ‘Alexil’, a former wood warehouse, situated in Derveni, a small village outside Thessaloniki.

About 90% of the residents in the camp are adult refugees and asylum-seekers from Afghanistan, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Pakistan and Syria. Among them are vulnerable individuals such as victims of torture, children and elderly. There are 100 tents in the camp and its original capacity was for 850 persons. The numbers in the camp decreased from 399 residents[ii] in January 2017 to 181 in the beginning of August. But lately numbers rose again[iii] even though the camp was set to close. As of mid-September, there were 210 residents in the camp, among them ten families with a total of 18 women and 23 kids. The families usually stay in the camp only for a few days or weeks until a place is found in other camps or apartments

The refugees we spoke to, have in the majority of the cases been transferred to Derveni from the islands after spending several months in desolate conditions in the hotspots. Others have reportedly also arrived newly from the Greek-Turkish land border or returned from the Balkans where they had been stuck for months because of the closed borders. Refugees who currently live at this place, fear that increasing numbers of residents might soon cause more problems to them, as living conditions are already poor and many people suffer from psychological problems. At the same time the sanitary infrastructure is already insufficient despite recent efforts to repair broken toilets and bring new ones. The refugees told us, that most of the times, there is no hot water, a problem of major significance with winter getting closer.

Instead of placing refugees in proper accommodation in flats inside urban areas, the government still spends 10,000 Euro monthly only for the rent of the buildings in Derveni, where protection seekers live marginalized and under deplorable conditions[iv]. In winter 2016, the Ministry had announced that the camp would be closed by Easter 2017. Reportedly, new plans foresee the closure by the end of the year.[v] 

Residents are hopeless and feel abandoned

Extreme temperatures, extreme living conditions, serious mental health issues is the summary a refugee gave us to describe Derveni.

G.* (55), a male refugee from Afghanistan who is waiting for family reunification to another European country has been in Derveni for more than five months. He suffers from psychological problems. Before that, G. had already spent many months in a small tent in the Moria hotspot. He told us “We have been dumped here, like garbage”. G. described to us how hopeless and abandoned he feels while staying in Derveni camp.

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Everybody now fears the upcoming winter cold. The tents placed in the buildings of the former wood warehouses cannot protect the refugees from the harsh weather conditions. «During the summer temperatures rose over 40 degrees in the tents. If one person was sick, all others were getting sick. They created the best climate for epidemics. How should we survive now the winter?», says L.* (28) a vulnerable male asylum-seeker from Ethiopia.

No proper treatment for sick and traumatized persons

An increasing number of residents are asylum seekers or even already recognized refugees. Among them are also vulnerable persons. L. from Ethiopia for example suffers from health problems. «We came here because we were identified as vulnerable on the island. The authorities just registered us and then we were transferred here before we had our asylum interview. They lifted our geographical limitation which had forced us to stay on the island in order to send us faster to a better place. I still wait for my interview today after four months here. Others who were not vulnerable and had their interviews already on the island got recognized by now. I feel it’s a waste of our time and time matters for me». He seems depressed and without hope. «The sick and traumatized persons are not treated adequately and don’t always receive the required medication. We also have problems because the ambulance wouldn’t always come when we call it and we have no translators to come with us to the hospital. So we end up just with a painkiller most of the times», he says.

The Hellenic army coordinates the camp, while site management services are with the International Organization of Migration (IOM). Health Services have been limited in hotspots and refugee temporary accommodation sites all over Greece since 1. August 2017, when the state agency the Hellenic Center for Disease Control and Prevention (KEELPNO) was supposed to take over. The newly created gap resulted amongst others from KEELPNO encountering difficulties recruiting a sufficient number of doctors.[vi] In Derveni, refugees report that they lack mainly mental health support. Already in the end of July, Medicines sans Frontiers (MSF) ceased its operations in Northern Greece as KEELPNO was to replace their services amongst others. This has left also the victims of torture who are living on the site without adequate medical assistance.

“We spend all day in silence, coexisting one next to the other and looking into our phones. In Greece, we learnt that you cannot take anything for granted. You don’t know what will happen next. Here, we feel that we are without any future,“ the young man from Ethiopia concludes.

Marginalised and without safety

All refugees we talked to, describe strong feelings of despair and hopelessness in this camp. More than half of them have visited a psychologist at least once in the last year while being in Greece and have been diagnosed reportedly with depression and / or other psychological problems. They reported that the living conditions along with their marginalization and the unknown future affects their mental health. As they lack activities while being also far from the local society, their mental health worsens day by day. “What should I do here? Look at the wall?” asks E.*, male refugee from Iraq. “We must have the opportunity to integrate and to be with locals. But we are not in the center of Thessaloniki. I get 90 Euros per month and the ticket to the city is 2 Euro to go and come back.”

Meanwhile, the camps residents also lack privacy and security as they cannot close their tents. “Our tent has just one zip and even this doesn’t work. We don’t know the other people who stay here. If they are good or if there are also some bad. So there is no safety. Not for us and not for our belongings. There are people traumatized from war, some are crazy,” says L.

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F.* (16) from Afghanistan is a minor alone in the camp. After four months in detention he was transferred by the Greek authorities to Derveni, he tells us. “I am here more than four months. I always sleep. I haven’t been to school since I came to Greece one year ago. Derveni itself is the problem. The fact that I live in a tent.”

At the same time, a recent study of UNHCR recorded an increase in drug abuse in the camp.[vii] Other organizations visiting the camp talk of increased alcohol abuse. “You know, for some people who are forced to live here, drugs or alcohol seem to be a way to escape from the hard reality and from a life without prospects,” said G. from Afghanistan.

“Like prisoners”

A.*, a recognized refugee from East Africa who wants to stay anonymous is hopeless and angry: “I have received asylum here. I want to bring my family, but how will my family survive in Greece? Now I am here in Derveni and they are back in our home country. There is no difference after getting international recognition in our living conditions. We are like prisoners. Before, I stayed in the Moria hotspot on Lesvos for many months and I have been staying here for more than three months. When we left Moria they said to us that they would bring us to a better place… .”

But there are no improved conditions for recognized refugees in Greece so far. In theory they have equal access to social rights as Greek nationals and, thus, have to provide for their accommodation and food by themselves or look for one the rare places in shelters for the homeless. There are also many obstacles to find work in a country that is more than seven years in a deep economic crisis and what so more without any knowledge of the languages. Furthermore, there is no prompt system for family reunification with their close relatives who are still in the crisis regions and no environment to confront and heal the often existing trauma because of lack of experts in this field in Northern Greece.

Continuous protests without result

Refugees have been protesting against the conditions in Derveni (Alexil) since its opening as an emergency reception site in May 2017,[viii] but they said to us that they are tired and have lost their hope as they are still there and so is the camp. On 13. July 2017, Eritrean refugees who are beneficiaries of international protection and who came from the Aegean islands living on the site had addressed the civil society with an open letter[ix] protesting out about the deplorable living conditions in Derveni.

In their letter they said amongst others: ”What is our future? Until now we are blurred, fainted, blocked and in a psychological disaster”.

After our visit in Northern Greece, we received another letter from one of the refugees we had spoken with, with the request to publish it. “I come from a third world country and even for me when I came here it took me by surprise. This is much worse than I ever expected. I bet most people don’t know that this camp still exists. I beg you to spread the message and to show solidarity to close this god-forsaken place once and for all”, he writes.

* All names have been anonymised upon request of the people

[i] Mouzalas announced closure of camp Derveni first by the end of 2016 and then again in May 2017. See:θεσσαλονίκη-κλείνουν-τα-περισσότερα/ (visited 15. September 2017) and (visited 15. September 2017)

[ii] See: (visited 15. September 2017)

[iii] See: (visited 15. September 2017)

[iv] See: (visited 26. September 2017)

[v] See:σε-σπίτια-αλληλεγγύης-οι-πρόσφυγε/ (visited 26. September 2017)

[vi] Organisations providing services inside Derveni (Alexil) by September 15. 2017 according to information from the UNHCR: IOM, WAHA, UNHCR, CARITAS, Terre des Hommes, Hamogelo tou Paidiou and FIRDAEUS.

[vii] See: (visited 15. September 2017)

[viii] May 2016: Protest against living conditions in Derveni.

See: (visited 26. September 2017)

September 2016: Protest of 150 refugees from Derveni.

See: (visited 26. September 2017)

April 2017: refugees transferred from Vasilika when it closed deny to stay in Derveni. 70 refugees were already there. The 42 denied to stay.

See: (visited 26. September 2017)

Demonstration 28.8.2017. See: (visited 26. September 2017)

[ix] Read the letter here (13.07.2017). See: (visited 26. September 2017)

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