Polykastro, Greece

Khaled wakes up early. Most people in the refugee camp in Polykastro, in northern Greece, do – the tents get too hot to sleep shortly after the sun rises.

But Khaled wakes up with intent: he has to get to work, one of the rare people in the camp who do. He starts prepping the falafel stand he holds, in a corner of the gas station convenience store next to which the refugee camp is set up, sprawling across the parking lot and surrounding spaces.

Across the camp, a family also wakes up early. After the elder son comes to the kitchen to take the dough, the family will spend the next couple of hours cooking flatbread on a makeshift outdoors oven, on a tin over a woodfire, right outside their tent.

Together, they make the cheapest falafel wraps in the country: €1 each. The sandwiches offer an affordable respite to the refugees from the terribly bland food rations they normally receive. Volunteers working in the camp are also regular patrons.

The falafel stand barely generates any income. “For every 100 sandwiches sold, the net profit will be €3 or €4,” Khaled tells me. He’s making sandwiches, he says, “as a service to people here”. But there’s another reason: working for free is better than the idleness of the long days. “Otherwise, you go crazy,” he says.

 Khaled prepares falafels in the EKO station camp
Khaled prepares falafels in the EKO station camp.
Image: Mohamed El Dahshan

Working to make ends meet

Job creation in refugee camps isn’t a luxury. It’s a necessity.

“If we don’t get jobs soon, refugees will start turning to theft – from each other, mainly. Then perhaps from people outside,” explains Anas, an engineering school graduate, suffering the idleness of the wait.

As we stand around a fire on a cool evening in the camp, everyone agrees. Even though people can receive the required calorific intake and some (often ill-fitting) clothes and shoes from the distributions offered by NGOs and independent volunteers, many of their basic needs are not covered, and there is no mechanism in place for fulfilling them or for offering financial support of any kind.

Ad-hoc volunteer attempts to provide telephone credit or internet connectivity to refugees, their online lifeline to the world outside their camps, are heroic but terribly insufficient. From obtaining a simple juice box for a child to fixing your broken glasses to obtaining diabetes test strips, going through overstretched NGOs is tedious and long-winded, and refugees need to provide for themselves and their families.

A meager camp economy

Throughout refugee camps in Greece, the story is very much the same. Some refugees have made a routine of walking a few kilometres into the nearest town, buying from supermarkets the items most in demand in the camp, and reselling them for a small markup. Cigarettes, fresh vegetables and fruits, biscuits, milk cartons, flip flops and Crocs will be set up on small stalls at the entrance to the camp.

One astute man even managed to find a Greek shop selling shisha tobacco, which he then divides and sells in smaller packets, more affordable to fellow refugees.

A couple of barber shops, displaying their trade with a pair of scissors drawn on a piece of cardboard, complete the landscape of the market. In one camp, a man fashions some trinkets out of scrap metal – a heart with an initial enclosed on a wooden stand or such, which will probably be picked up as a souvenir by foreign volunteers.

A place nobody wants to call home

Effectively, this is the sum total of the camp economy, and it’s meagre, hardly fulfilling the needs of the residents. And the reasons for this are multiple. Some are obvious.

First, there’s the little amount of disposable income available to refugees: as their stay in Greece lengthens, the precious few savings they have managed to hold on to after their long journey, exploitation by smugglers, and robbers, are rapidly dwindling.

Then there’s the lack of opportunities, with neither the conditions nor regulations allowing them to set up more complex economic operations. Language barriers prevent them from engaging in partnership with the neighbouring Greek villages and towns, unlike in places such as Jordan, where refugees have promptly plugged into the local economy.

But there’s also the psychological barrier, the one that makes refugees maintain their luggage constantly half unpacked: if they were to unpack it and set up anything more than transient, it would be an admission that their journey ends there, at least for a while. It is a prospect nobody wishes to face, painfully realistic as it may be.

In some camps, entrepreneurialism thrives

The development of the camp economy is commensurate to its perenniality. For instance, the world’s largest Syrian refugee camp, the Zaatari camp in Jordan, has nearly 3,000 businesses, from elaborate pastry shops to bridal gown rental stores.

 Syrian refugees shop at the main market in the Zaatari refugee camp
Refugees shop at the main market in the Zaatari camp.
Image: REUTERS/ Muhammad Hamed

Goods manufactured in the camp are sold outside, to Jordanians and Syrians alike. But Zaatari is five years old – and its inhabitants expect to remain there until conditions in Syria allow them to go home. As such, the Jordanian government has slowly relaxed some of its restrictions on refugee labour, especially in light of a pre-war agreement with Syria regarding exchanges of qualified workers, and often willfully turns a blind eye to informal work.

Back in Europe, in the once-sprawling and squalid Jungle camp in Calais on France’s northwestern coast, refugees had also developed a local economy, having realized that their hopes to cross the Channel were being blocked. Bakeries and eateries, bike repair shops, and a public bath were among the additions to the local camp economy, in addition to corner shops, more elaborate than those in the Greek camps. Most of this was bulldozed by the French government in February, and many of its inhabitants forced to relocate to another, equally squalid camp.

Tearing down what refugees have built

But Greek camps are a fresh wound to the refugee heart. After 20 March – fatidic date when a highly controversial agreement that supports sending refugees back to Turkey came into effect – all refugees who crossed the Hellenic border in the hope of continuing onwards to other European countries found their plans shattered by closed borders and armed guards.

Around 60,000 refugees find themselves thus stranded in Greece, and have since lived in a handful in large, informal camps hugging the country’s northern borders, which they looked towards every morning in the hope that the gates would be open, allowing them to carry on, but in vain.

It gets worse. After more than three months, during which refugees started to organize their living quarters with the help of volunteers, these informal tent cities have been cleared and refugees transferred, at times forcibly, into army-managed warehouses and other disaffected buildings where large tents were hastily erected. As a result, refugees have been forced to recreate the fragile social ecosystems they had painstakingly built, with foreign volunteers largely excluded from providing assistance.

The precariousness of the refugees’ existence in Greece is further compounded by the growing dislike of Greek authorities regarding the refugees’ sojourn – the new camps they were moved to, even more insalubrious than their previous irregular accommodation, is a clear indication that the state has no intention of allowing them to pursue any kind of livelihood during what all hope will be a brief stay. It is unlikely the Greek authorities would ever allow the most enterprising of refugees to set up anything more formal than a flatbread oven on wood.

That many host communities are hoping for a quick dismissal of the refugees is deplorable, but understandable. But the Greek government’s policy, of making life barely tolerable for the refugees in the hope that they will choose to leave voluntarily, is both unsustainable, and deeply unjust. Nobody wants the precarious situation in the refugee camps to end more than the refugees themselves.

An urgent need for short-term solutions

As everyone ponders long-term solution, few are considering the short-term economic needs and dynamics of refugees, even though those are of most immediate concern.

Nearly all initiatives to help refugees obtain work and generate income – including initiatives providing refugees with job-matching services, online piecemeal work à la Taskrabbit, or even prepping them for interviews and helping them draft resumes in the hopes of obtaining jobs in the formal economy – are geared towards refugees with a more permanent residency status. The gap in analysis and intervention is staggering.

Involving refugees in the provision of services to their own camp, in exchange for pay, would be an important first step. From cooking to cleaning to teaching children, these functions should be formalized and remunerated, if only for a few months. It takes much less time than that for a soul to despair anyway. And formalizing this employment would generate important services to camp residents, most notably education to children, who right now have none, or at most a couple of hours of basic school per week.

Making it work

An important funding gap emerges here: where would the money come from? With the bulk of the support provided by independent volunteers on shoestring budgets themselves, it is unlikely they would be able to sustainably offer financial remuneration to the refugees, even those providing vital services and functions. UNHCR, embarrassingly understaffed and overstretched, will never be able to keep track of payroll functions.

Temporary work permits allowing refugees to conduct some basic labour – with the language barrier, there will be little beyond that anyway – would resolve an important part of the problem. The numbers in question would hardly affect the local economy.

Of course, a system where refugees were offered cash handouts or redeemable vouchers would be best, because it would allow people to obtain the basics they need while preserving their dignity. However, the barriers to such an intervention are more than regulatory: with Greece in the throes of its own economic crisis, it is possible that some locals might perceive refugees obtaining any source of income as a precursor for their resettlement, and thus generate an unnecessary backlash.

A few days after we spoke, Khaled the falafel vendor had upped his prices – but as his entire informal camp was removed, so was his little business.

Back to square one.

The author is a Global Shaper in the Cairo Hub.