Late in 2021, we began an initiative, Synelefsi, in Northern and Central Greece. Despite some successes, we have been forced, with regret, to announce the end of the project.
Below, we share the reasons, some lessons learnt, and some ways in which we - all humanitarian and development workers - may be able to do better in future.
Geneva, Thursday 8 February 2024
It is with no small regret, and no doubt to no surprise to those of you who were part of the collaboration, that I have to announce that I have called time on Synelefsi.
In all but name, we ceased operation late last year, but this is to confirm and notify anyone who has not yet been made aware.
There are a number of reasons for this, including that I simply could not afford to fund the operation solely from my own resources, which I had been doing since the middle of last year, and lack of 'buy-in' made it impossible to create anything meaningful for considerably longer than that.
This is not to criticise most of those who I approached regarding the initiative: I very deliberately spoke to organisations which I knew had little cash, to make an effort to build for all a platform from which we could benefit from one another's expertise and experience, and build meaningful and impactful communications, analysis and advocacy, including by giving the men, women and children with and for whom we work a platform on which to share their experiences, challenges, and aspirations.
The problem with the model, of course, was that this lack of money meant that few of the organisations could afford to pay anything at all, and even the two which were willing to contribute cash could not afford to do so for long, or to pay what was necessary for the scheme to operate effectively.
Simultaneously, in some ways surprisingly and in others – upon which we will touch in a moment – depressingly predictably, successive funding applications were ignored by donors and potential donors.
It really is not possible to run an operation like this on the tiny amount of money I had myself, and even harder to do so when one factors in that without money for childcare I was looking after my two-year-old daughter most weekdays.
Even when one considers that two of the nine organisations involved paid in at certain points, it was simply impossible to travel, interview, write and promote in the way the project – and more importantly the people it was set up to assist – required and deserved.
Simply, I paid for almost everything, including web hosting and all sundry costs, and I cannot continue to do so.
I have relocated the material from the Synelefsi site, on the Koraki website, at https://www.koraki.org/synelefsi-1. I will also leave the Synelefsi site operational until my contract runs out, as there is no advantage to taking it offline immediately.
If I can, at some point in the future, I hope we can perhaps revisit Synelefsi and this time make it work.
Another major reason I have had to call this – perhaps temporary, but likely long-term – halt, is of significantly greater importance, and concern.
Because as the date-line of this update indicates, I am now in Geneva. This is not particularly through choice (though Geneva seems perfectly fine, so far) but a direct result of the Greek government's behaviour, and major (and sadly, though for different and more understandable reasons, minor) organisations' response to it.
Because while I was attempting to set up this initiative, and funding it in part from consultation fees (which were small because setting up Synelefsi required a great deal of time, and no little effort – in the end, I could not do both) the majority of our household income came from my partner. Now her organisation, in common with many others, has significantly downsized and is preparing to leave Greece altogether.
The reasons are stark and extremely worrying.
In the last four-and-a-half years, the Greek government, which has certainly been assisted in this claim by COVID-19, has built a narrative stating that it has 'solved' the refugee situation in Greece.
Even were we to set aside for a moment that its means of doing so – including violently pushing people back from Greece and leaving those who do manage to arrive in underfunded, overcrowded and under-provided-for ghettoes all over the country, before ejecting them and leaving them without assistance – have killed men, women and children by the thousand in the last year alone, the claim is simply a lie.
This can be amply demonstrated by the fact that in 2023, the number of people arriving to Greece by sea was 39,725 (UNHCR reports a slightly higher total: 41,561. This is not the number reported by the Greek government and as I am setting out the clear dishonesty of the government's claims, I feel it is fair to use their numbers instead of UNHCR's), equivalent to almost 109 (108.8) per day on average. As usual, the months August-December saw significantly higher numbers than January to July.
This is the second-highest number since the years 2015-16, in which just over one million (1,030,173) people arrived.
While it is clear that 2023 was nothing like those years, more people arrived than in five – 2017, 2018, 2020, 2021 and 2022 – of the six years since then.
In fact, of the full years since Nea Dimokratia took power, almost four times (3.73) as many people arrived in Greece by sea as did so in 2022 (10,661), more than 11 times (11.3) as many as did so in 2021 (3,567) and more than four times (4.4) as many as in 2020 (9,105).
The simple and transparent untruth of the Greek government's claim is clear as long as one bothers to look at the numbers. In fact, it was obvious – and we stated so consistently – even before this year that the single major factor in the 'drop in arrival numbers', apart from the government's vicious and illegal pushbacks which certainly played some part, was COVID-19.
This year's figures simply confirm that obvious fact.
And yet, because of a lack of effective analysis of what was happening, and forward projection of what it might result in, combined with their own unwillingness to talk about what is happening, major iNGOs – and their donors, who should have been better informed by those organisations – have chosen either to believe what the government and wider EU has claimed, or to do nothing to counter it.
Although there are reasons for this (failure to employ people to run meaningful analysis, and short-staffing in communications and advocacy, in part fed by a lack of understanding from donors of why those departments and staff are vital to the continued operability of any response, and a genuine and more understandable fear that 'being critical of governments' will lead to 'lack of access' to the people we are all dedicated to working with and for) the result, as it was always going to be, and as we have pointed out many, many times in the last seven years and before, is that those organisations are now walking away.
The people who will suffer as a result are those who most need those organisations – and need also a political and social environment in which people are well-informed rather than stoked by fear of new arrivals to their country, and 'reassured' by claims that their government has 'solved' the 'problem' – the men, women and children seeking safe places to live, learn and work.
There is really no excuse for Nea Dimokratia's consistent smearing of new arrivals to Greece, for the EU's backing of that activity and the Greek government's open violation of EU and international law. The situation is their responsibility, and has been engineered deliberately by them.
But major organisations share some of that responsibility. Their failure to ensure they are aware of what is actually happening, to predict what that situation is likely to lead to, and to communicate and advocate regarding this reality, made Nea Dimokratia's job far easier and, as a bitter irony, also ensured the party was far more easily able to deny humanitarian organisations access to men, women and children being victimised and attacked by that government.
And that is the truth. All of us – every single person now working or who has ever worked on this response – are less able than ever before to reach and work with and for people seeking, and who are legally entitled to, safety in Greece and the wider EU. Those people are more isolated and less supported than ever before. As a result, major organisations, having failed to inform supporters and donors, let alone politicians and other decision-makers, are leaving Greece, leaving those isolated people to the neglect and cruelty of the Greek government.
This is not simply to attack or criticise those organisations. It is to underline the importance of ongoing situational analysis, planning based on understanding gained from it, and applied and proactive advocacy and communications to shape and reshape outcomes predicted by that analysis.
As far as is possible – and it may not be – we will remain engaged with the situation in Greece through Koraki, and we will be very happy indeed to communicate with and indeed help on communications, analysis and advocacy for, any organisation which wishes to do so. I do not intend to 'walk away from' this response or the people caught within it. So please do let me know when and how I can help.
It's also important to note that whatever path each of you take from here, the consistent failures of communications, analysis and advocacy from every organisation – including especially those who have claimed to be most engaged in them – must not continue.
Donors do not wish to donate because they believe the response is all but over, even though it is not. They believe that because it is what the Greek government pretends to be true, and the EU pretends to believe is true, but also because absolutely no-one has effectively worked to counter that demonstrably false narrative.
I must include myself in that, but I must also note that those with the resources to do so – and that does not include me – and especially those who claim that this is their major, or one of their major, purpose(s) simply must do better. And will have to in every consecutive crisis, if we are to avoid identically disastrous outcomes.
On that point, it's probably important to leave you with this:
It's not advocacy to wait until the EU or any other political bloc/state has already agreed a policy, to say anything about it. You will probably be correct, but it isn't advocacy: it's a complaint after the event; dissent against a policy that's already in place.
If you have lobbied for meetings with politicians, met them and presented compelling reasons not to pass such a policy before the event, that's better, but it's still not really advocacy. It's a polite (and correct, but still, only) request that they don't do something you'd rather (rightly) they didn't do.
If you want to do advocacy, you speak early, informatively, and engagingly, to the general public, including within that the words of those most affected. You build public support and then you head to those politicians and show not only your arguments but also the public support for your position. That's what advocacy is.
Because that's how you drive decision makers to make decisions. If decision-makers are convinced - even if by themselves - that 'the public' wants the despicable nonsense they have devised, you have to show them that's not the case. Otherwise, to them, you are just some 'try hard liberal group' (which I agree you are not) 'pushing your agenda'.
There are exceptions to this rule, but they are vanishingly small in number and they take a great deal of imagination.
We could all have done a great deal better. Particularly those who say that's their only job, and who have had time – almost eight years, in some cases – and money to do so.
Our failure is our rapid losing of the ability to operate.
It has honestly been an honour and a privilege to work with you all, and if I can help in any way whatsoever, please just let me know.
Yours, for now,