Swiss humanitarian aid workers engaged on the Greek islands

Article, 04.02.2016

Thousands of refugees and migrants are arriving on the Greek islands every day.  The large majority come from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan. At the request of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), three experts from the Swiss Humanitarian Aid Unit are assisting in the emergency work there. Patrick Galli, who has been working there since September 2015, talks about the first months of his mission.

A UNHCR employee welcomes refuges on a shore.
The UNHCR takes care of the installation of sanitary facilities to respond to the needs of refugees. It also organizes their cleaning, the waste management and the maintenance of emergency shelters.

Patrick Galli, a native from Konolfingen in the Canton of Bern, is a water and sanitation expert. Until December 2015, he was the only specialist in this sector working for the UNHCR for the whole of Greece. Since the beginning of 2016, he has been assisted by another expert from the Swiss Humanitarian Aid Unit. Thanks to them, showers, toilets and water distribution systems can now be installed for the large numbers of refugees arriving. A third Swiss expert helps set up emergency shelter.

Passport picture of Patrick Galli.

Patrick Galli, what exactly is your role with the UNHCR?

Briefly, my job is to coordinate all the UNHCR's work with regard to water supplies and hygiene in Greece. Specifically, we install water-distribution systems, showers with hot water, and toilets for the refugees. We also have to organise cleaning the toilets and showers, collecting rubbish and maintaining the temporary shelters to ensure decent hygiene conditions in the reception centres.


This is an enormous task...

Yes, all the more so because I frequently have to travel between the different centres and islands to coordinate everything that has been set up. I have to attend numerous meetings with a whole range of actors working for the refugees, including other UN agencies, NGOs working on the ground, groups of volunteers and, of course, the local authorities. Each island can have a different way of organising aid to the refugees depending on its geographical situation and its available resources. In this context, 'coordination' is the key word. I also have to ensure that the measures decided on are actually carried out by the various partners and that the basic services for water and hygiene are up and running.

What are the main challenges regarding sanitation in the face of the thousands of new refugees arriving every day?

The main challenge, as I have just mentioned, is to keep up with the maintenance and regular cleaning of the infrastructure that has been put in place for the refugees. It is essential to keep the risks of illness and epidemics as low as possible and to provide temporary accommodation that is safe and ensures at least the minimum of human dignity. The accumulation of rubbish both in the shelters and on the coast is another major concern. We have installed waste bins and posted instructions translated into the migrants' languages. Unfortunately, it appears that this is not a priority for the new arrivals. Consequently, we recuperate quantities of blankets, sleeping bags, clothes and shoes so that we can wash and redistribute them. On the beaches we find abandoned life jackets and even inflatable dinghies. We are currently thinking about how to recycle these materials. We are working on a pilot project that uses them to insulate the floors of the shelters and make mattresses locally.

How much time do the refugees remain on the islands in general?

That depends on how fast registration can proceed and the number of new arrivals. On Lesbos, for example, the refugees stay two to five days on average whereas on the island of Samos, they may stay for as long as two weeks. In the latter case the pressure on the reception infrastructure becomes enormous. 

How would you describe the refugees you help?

Most of them come from Syria but there are also many from Afghanistan and Iraq. From September to November 2015, there were many more men than women. Since the beginning of 2016, it has become more balanced and we are seeing more families with children. Otherwise the refugees are all very different. You can meet engineers and teachers as well as women from rural areas.  

Besides the infrastructure you are setting up, what other needs of the refugees are you attending to?  

The vast majority of them are soaking wet when they arrive. The first thing we do therefore is to give them blankets, sleeping bags and clothes. Furthermore, many of them have no idea about the place where they have arrived or of the next place they are going to.  Giving them practical information about these places and the registration processes, as well as the right to asylum in Greece, is therefore crucially important. The UNHCR takes care of these aspects in cooperation with NGOs and the many volunteers here.

At this stage, what has affected you the most during your mission?

Perhaps the fact that this influx of refugees that I am witnessing  is happening in a country that itself is facing a severe economic crisis with high unemployment. I have already been on humanitarian missions in Africa, Afghanistan and Haiti, and I thought that the working conditions would be better here. Not at all. The lack of money is having a direct impact on how the refugees are being received.  Some municipalities have been denied funds intended for providing food aid to such an extent that the task had to be transferred to humanitarian organisations such as the UNHCR from one day to the next.

What preparations are you making to manage the arrival of new refugees this year?

We have managed to draw up an overall plan of action for Greece with regard to providing water and sanitation that will serve as the basis for all the UNHCR's activities and its NGO partners in 2016. I am pleased about this because it is very important to plan ahead  at the same time as dealing with the immediate, urgent needs. We are also creating synergies in many different ways with other UNHCR centres in the region. For example, our colleagues in the Balkans have adopted a sign system that we developed here in Greece to help direct the refugees to the water points and sanitary installations. The UNHCR's headquarters in Geneva has developed standard indicators for managing water supplies and sanitation that are in use all along the migration route in Europe. To put it simply, it is crucial that we work together and network.