5th May 2020

Whilst we have been unable to leave the UK to distribute aid to the Greek Islands we have remained busy with assisting the distribution of material and hospital scrubs.

We initially registered the availability of our trucks and drivers with the government and locally with Rotary International’s Covid-19 Liaison & Resilience team.

We were contacted by a Rotarian who asked if we could help by collecting 67 x 30kg rolls (total just over 2 tons) of rolls of blue cotton fabric from NW London and delivering it to a factory in Barking where they will be changing from their normal production of jackets for shops such as River Island, to making ‘scrubs’ for Basildon Hospital.

Subsequently, Since 11th April, our trucks have been used on five occasions and have delivered 948 Rolls of medical scrubs and gowns material to factories in North London and Barking.  From those factories, whose staff are working flat out, our trucks (Big Rig and Frantic) have so far delivered 8311 sets of new ‘scrubs’ to Basildon Hospital….on one occasion another truck arrived to immediately transfer some of the boxes straight away to Southend and Chelmsford hospitals.

Andreas of GRACE has also helped and delivered 1179 scrubs for us to Fulbourn hospital in Cambridge.

Today, we will be collecting a total of 10,000 urgently needed gowns in two trips, and delivering those again to Basildon Hospital……and on an ongoing basis until at least the end of June….

Meanwhile on the Islands

With the possibility of the end of the Covid virus in sight, life for the Refugees on the Islands should become less stressful, or one would think so, but there are a number of interlinked factors that mean life is more likely to become even worse.

Whilst the refugees have had very restricted movement during the lock down, life for the Greek population has improved since there are far fewer refugees arounds the towns and many Greeks are very happy that they have finally reclaimed their islands. For that reason, it is unlikely that full freedom from the camps will be reinstated. The authorities will need to find other ways to justify further lockdown post Corona.

The Greek ‘decongestion’ of the islands initiatives are starting to bear fruit, in that ‘activities’ within the Aegean Sea have successfully stopped almost all new arrivals on the Islands. This has been achieved by turning around boats at sea and forcing them back to Turkey. And for those boats that do arrive, authorities have collected the people from beaches, confined them to secure buildings and then shipped them out to camps on the mainland. This has been justified by a perceived Corona infection risk.

In parallel, some refugees have been moved to mainland camps and a very small number of unaccompanied minors have been transferred to EU countries that have agreed to accept them. Cumulatively, these initiatives have reduced the number of the refugees on the islands but only by a small percentage.

On Samos, the situation has been further exacerbated by three major fires within the camp that resulted in several hundred families leaving the camp and setting up life outside the perimeters. Authorities have failed to find a solution to allow these people to return to the camp due to the both the existing damage to the area and also by providing reassurance for their safety

Tensions on the islands have been increasing and this was demonstrated during the first fire when NGO’s attempted to setup tents to briefly provide shelter for those who had lost their homes. As the fired raged, a small number of local people gathered to shout abuse at the refuges and they attempted to destroy the new tents. Migration Minister Notis Mitarakis visited Samos following the fires and stated that the authorities would be closing the overcrowded Vathy migrant camp on the island by the end of 2020. New ‘Secure’ camps on the major islands are nearing completion and is likely that many refugees will be moved over the coming months.

It’s crystal-ball-gazingly unclear when European lockdowns will be lifted, and at best any plans to drive aid across Europe for the time being can only be speculative. Our thoughts are leaning towards Container shipment of aid as soon as the island’s NGO’s are no longer in lockdown and in a position themselves to distribute what they have, thus releasing space and being able to receive much need aid replacements. We are investigating options.

 The future remains very uncertain and deeply worrying for everyone involved.

27th March 2020

Our biggest challenge for everyone at the moment is Coronavirus. The ramifications of it are global, and affect pretty much everything and everyone. Every day there is something new, and as we all know, it’s extremely worrying. Many of you will know one of our volunteers Glenys Newton who has the virus and is at home pushing back against the threat of hospitalisation if her symptoms don’t ease. I know you’ll all now be routing for her as well as for other friends or family that you may know in the same position.

We cannot plan any trips or deliveries to the Islands or to the refugees at the moment, BUT there are some things that we can and must do.

  1. Please will everyone do what they can from home, to ramp up all fundraising efforts. By all means share this email update below with friends, to inform or update them, and they may want to make small donations. We are hoping soon to put fundraising ideas that we can all do from home, into the website, but if you have any, please share them. When we need to mobilise, we will definitely need more money.
  2. Please do keep seeking aid, but it now has to be the right aid! We all need to reduce quantities of used clothing that we accept, and at least for the time being stop requesting it. Smaller quantities will still be required in due course, but we neither have the storage space here, nor in our destination locations at present. Most NGO’s on the islands have aid coming in and none going out!
    Please continue to collect from friends but also contact any personally known senior staff in companies who might be in a position to influence pallet-quantity donations of surplus stock of the type that is needed:-
    For male and female all ages, New underwear, Socks, ladies leggings, all sanitary products, hygiene and cleaning products such as wet wipes and disinfectant and toiletries, blankets, sleeping bags and tents (which must be tested amd complete if not new). As other needs emerge specifically, we will advise everyone and put the changes into the website.
  3. Some of you already work for the NHS, it was wonderful to see the thanks that was given last night at 8pm to all our wonderful healthcare professionals.  Please continue to support them in whichever way you can.
  4. For those of you that have any medical connections, please will you check our website later today for the list of medical things that are needed in Moria, and tap into all your sources. Things must of course be well in date, and in original packaging.
  5. BACK HERE - We want our three empty and idle trucks to be used here in the UK to support the coronavirus logistics. We have given details online through the government website that is requesting manufacture of ventilators, where there is a logistics need, but I can’t find another way online to make contact with the right people and make our offer. If you know someone senior in government or MOD who needs urgent transportation support, PLEASE SPEAK TO THEM NOW, and let us know ASAP. I have also made the same offer to my local councillors and Essex Council, and I await any calls for help. Because of the lockdown, and where the trucks are parked here in Essex, I have already contacted those of you, our volunteers, who may be able to help with the driving, and within minutes of my appeal, I had a list of willing drivers, all under 70, and without worrying health issues. A VERY big thank you to all of you who I contacted and who have volunteered for it, if and when needed. To those of you that I didn’t contact and are already 70 or above, please stay at home and stay well, and be reassured that we are keen to have you back in the trucks or helping us in all other ways, just as soon as is allowed and sensible.

Situation update 26 March 2020

From a totally practical point of view, borders all the way along our driving routes to Greece are now closed to non-EU citizens, and may even yet be closed to EU citizens. There has been much discussion about keeping borders open for commercial goods, but I don't yet have information or confirmation about humanitarian aid vehicles; we know that countries in the EU (Austria were a specific example) have in the past made arbitrary negative decisions about what they consider to be a humanitarian emergency, and therefore what they will or won't give exemption to, and therefore it is not 100% certain that we would be allowed to journey all the way across Europe. Hungary as another example are very anti refugee or migrant. On Wednesday last week, there was a 40 kilometre queue of vehicles waiting to cross between Austria and Hungary, where there is normally no need to stop. Even if open, we would potentially have EIGHT such borders and passport checks to cross, in each direction, and each border has two check points. Of course some will be easier than others, but the probable reality is that the situation is going to get much worse, and be a very long time (many months) before it gets better. Brexit almost pales into insignificance!

Restrictions because of 'social distancing' and 'lockdowns' are just one element of an extraordinary jigsaw puzzle – At the moment, P&O Ferries are still operating for freight. Ferries to the Greek Islands may be stopped (one already was because of a case of the virus), but now only home-bound public journeys are allowed in either direction. There are no flights in or out of Greece or the islands other than for repatriations. Most volunteer NGO's have had to stop working because of the upsurge in right wing neo-Nazi violence and intimidation, (Although prosecutions have started), and most volunteers have gone back home to families. Those few NGO’s that are still operating, are very restricted in terms of contact with the refugees, and most of the remaining volunteers are pretty much in full lockdown in the accommodations where they are staying.

On Lesvos, the wonderful ‘One Happy Family’ refugee day centre was torched just after my last update and largely destroyed; it was officially confirmed yesterday that it was arson (a fact that everyone knew anyway). Lesvos is now in lockdown. The fabulous café ‘Home for a day’ run by Nikos and his wife has had to close for the time being, and although Aris and the Attika warehouse are still working on site, it’s only to receive aid that was already on its way, or to sort aid and/or provide it for specific purposes such as boat arrivals.

On Chios, the aid warehouse run by our friends Kostas and Ceruline was torched and destroyed, and our friend Toula and the Offene Armene CESRT team have had to spend large sums of money installing sprinklers, metal shuttering, security cameras and other protection measures. They too are locked down and only able to respond now to official infrequent requests to provide arrival packs to refugee boat arrivals when the police deem it safe to attend.

On Samos, Steve Walsh, our co-trustee who is volunteering and has become the warehouse coordinator with Refugee4Refugees who manage the main aid warehouse in Samos, is now unable to leave the island, and he has confirmed that they are all in full lockdown. Steve is in shared accommodation with two other coordinators, and they have to seek written approval daily if they need to leave the property to work, or must self-certificate and carry that paper with them even to go to the shops or pharmacy. On the spot fines are imposed if out without permissions. Again most other NGO’s have had to close including the Project Armonia food kitchen, and as with all the islands, the refugees are now pretty much having to survive without help! The aid warehouse in Samos had already been destroyed by fire in December, and more land with a building was rented, and Shipping containers were purchased to store some of the much needed aid that we delivered in a protected steel environment. Yesterday Steve and the five people remaining in the team, received a shipping container of aid that had been stuck in Athens for two weeks incurring daily 50euro demurrage charges because of paperwork problems, plus 11 pre-ordered pallets of supplies from UNHCR that had been ordered 3 months previously. Their ability to receive the much needed truck-loads of aid was already greatly diminished, but they are now full to the gunnels and unable to do anything other than small distributions!

All across Greece, restaurants, bars, cafés and hotels are all closed. Unbelievably, refugee Food kitchens have been required to close, and yesterday the simply incredible Refugee Community Kitchen (RCK) in Calais had no choice but to close too. All that is open are essential businesses such as pharmacy's, fuel stations and supermarkets. In the camps, food continues to be distributed by the army, but food queues are notoriously long and the refugees have to stand in line in all weathers for several hours per meal, and the food that they get is worse than poor and with almost no nutrition. As we all know, many thousands of the refugees are sleeping under plastic or poor ‘weekend’ tents, and now the refugees who are inside the barbed wire fenced official camps are in lockdown and officially unable to exit and re-enter. There has been one reported Coronavirus case on Lesvos so far, but not yet in the camps, but it is predictably inevitable that an outbreak will occur, and God help them all if that happens. Sanitation is atrocious, and medical facilities are pretty much nil; medical teams of volunteers have largely reduced to a handful. Everyone is dreading the moment when the camps have coronavirus cases, and the Greek authorities seem to be totally unprepared, or unwilling to act. This week I received a desperate appeal from a new medical team in the Moria refugee camp for supplies, and at the moment, I have had to say that we can’t predict the next dates when we might be able to get our aid out there. However, we have a list of the items that they need, and will be posting this on our website. See more details below. One bit of positive news – the sewing machines and stuff that we took out to Lesvos last October are now being used by the refugee women in the Team Humanity Hope Centre, 300 metres from Moria camp, in what they call a ‘mask making factory’, where they are making thousands of homemade face masks, in the hope that they will offer at least some coronavirus protection. (See links in the ‘Latest’ ‘news’ section of our web site).

I'm sure you can all get the picture. The circumstances of two weeks ago are now dwarfed by the ramifications of the Coronavirus outbreak.

Naturally we are constantly monitoring the situation everywhere, and as soon as we can mobilise, we will do. We could potentially send shipping containers, but this method too is fraught with challenges. So the bottom line is that we can't plan anything at the moment.

Please all stay safe and well – look after your families and loved ones, and please continue to do what you can to prepare so that just as soon as its safe for us all to do so, we can mobilise to get back and help the poor refugees that are currently in a far worse situation than we are.

We will do what we can to continue providing UPDATES.

15th March 2020

I am sure by now you will have received lots of emails about how companies, shops and events are dealing with the Coronavirus.  I would like to personally provide an update about how Hope and Aid Direct is currently dealing with this emergency.

Firstly, the health and safety of all stakeholders is our top priority.  This includes all of our volunteers, our suppliers, other NGO’s that we work closely with in the UK and abroad and of course the refugees.  Given the current situation on the islands, which will be discussed later the urge is to rush to help, but given the complexity of a Hope and Aid Direct convoy which involves moving aid, trucks and people across multiple borders we are currently not in a position to put another convoy on the road at this point in time. 

We have had meetings with UHNCR, MSF and other NGO’s with regards to the Coronavirus.  Whilst currently there are no confirmed cases in the refugee camps our fear of course is that it may spread there.  Given the proximity of people living together and the hygiene levels in the camps if this does happen it is likely to spread at a fast rate.

We are of course monitoring the situation on a daily basis but as you can imagine in such a fluid situation with borders closing with limited warning, planning a 3-week round trip is a very complex operation.

That said, we remain operationally active and it is critical at this time that when there is a window of opportunity to plan a trip, we are ready to go.  To that end, I urge you all to continue the fundraising effort and also the collection of specific goods that will be needed when we are ready and able to take them.  There remains a huge need on the islands, more so now than any time in the past 3 years at least and with some very costly repairs and security issues to attend to, the fundraising and donations remain a vital source of funds. 

With regards to the collection of aid, we are currently looking for the following: Underwear, toiletries, shoes, socks, sleeping bags, tents, towels, wet wipes and anti-bacterial cleaning products.