As we approach the Christmas holidays it has been getting increasingly cold in Greece. We have had several days recently where the temperature in the Epirus and Thessaloniki regions has been broadly similar to the temperature in several UK towns. We haven’t yet seen any snow but people are increasingly talking about it as a possibility.
In October it was reported that the initiative had started whereby refugee children would go to Greek schools. Two months later and we have still not seen a lot of progress on the ground with that initiative. We understand that the EU gave Greece some 70 million Euros to facilitate the provision of classes for 5-15 year old refugees in Greek school. Some children have definitely gone to school. But for very large numbers the situation is unclear, unhopeful and very confusing.
We still have children asking us when they will go to school. We still do not know the answer to this question. We ask Aid workers and those close to the Greek organisation and no one is able to give us a clear and definite answer. We are still hearing exactly the reasons cited that were being cited two months ago. In some camps they do not have buses organised so they cannot get the children to the schools. In other camps the excuse cited is that the local schools do not yet have the teachers in place, so they cannot take the children. In still other camps people are saying that there are teachers and there are buses and they simply do not know why the children are not going to the local schools.
It certainly isn’t because the children do not want to go to schools. Whenever the children themselves are asked they are always very keen to leave the camps and go to the local schools.
One reason why things may have got a lot more complicated recently is because of the winterisation which is going on. As the weather worsens, people are being moved out of camps to villages where there are empty houses. Camps near to cities are seeing residents moved into empty apartment blocks and empty or abandoned hotels. Each time groups with children are moved, this is causing confusion about where the children should be going to school, and how they should be got there.
However the fact that the weather is getting colder in the winter should not have come as a surprise to anyone. After all, it happens every year ! We knew back in the summer that the weather would get colder in the winter, and we knew that something would need to be done about winterising the camps. So it is astonishing if now the plans to get the children into schools are being disrupted by the “unexpected” fact that it has got colder and it is necessary to move refugee families for the winter.
Critics of Aid efforts in Greece have long questioned why the refugees were put in camps in the first place. Almost any trip through Greece passes disused houses and boarded up hotels. The question of why the families were not put into accommodation like this much earlier, becomes much more pertinent each time families are now moved out of camps into the towns for winterisation.
Supporting a family in a refugee camp has been estimated by some commentators as generating costs equivalent to putting the families into 4 star hotels, as the camps have to be run, provisioned, supported and guarded. To date there has been almost 1 billion Euros spent on the refugee situation in Greece, a situation which currently confronts around 60,000 people. Now the movements of families to get them into better accommodation for the winter is adding further costs.
And in the background of all this, the educational tragedy is that the sudden efforts of winterisation are potentially preventing the money provided by the EU to get the children into schools from being used properly and quickly in order to get the children back to school. In the summer a survey showed that the average refugee child had been out of school for 15 months. Since then large numbers of children can add another 4 months that they have been out of school. Each month that goes by is just putting the children further and further behind educationally. And the saddest aspect of this educational disaster is that it was a totally foreseeable and avoidable tragedy within a tragedy.