Street papers are in a unique position to tell the human story of Europe’s refugee crisis.
This was the consensus in Athens this week when INSP delegates discussed how the growing crisis could affect street papers – and how our network can show solidarity with those already working on the front line in Greece.
Last year alone, more than 1.2 million refugees entered Germany, Austria and Switzerland.
European street papers must be ready to support those who have fallen through the system and into homelessness, agreed a panel discussion during the Global Street Paper Summit.
Given the scale and complexity of the crisis, the topics raised were equally wide-ranging and covered the subject on a humanitarian, management, political and emotional level.
One of the main takeaways was that the current refugee crisis is a global issue that not one country – or street paper – can face alone. Street papers can also play a vital role in putting a human face on the issue to encourage solidarity and understanding within communities.
The event gave INSP delegates the opportunity to learn from people already working to support refugees in Greece, where the task has been largely left to local governments and NGOs.
“[In Athens] we are doing what we can, but we cannot do it alone,” said Lefteris Papagiannakis, Athens Deputy Mayor in charge of Migration and Refugees.
“This is a black and white issue. We either move on together or we close up shop. We are 28 countries and are facing a very complex situation. Right now we are failing.”
Papagiannakis’ small team co-ordinates efforts between the city and NGOs to support refugees coming to Athens. One such response is the Eleonas Refugee Camp, which INSP delegates visited on a research trip led this week (read more about the visit here).
He added, “The situation is not yet stable and will get worse for all of us. You cannot stop people fleeing crisis. It is like trying to hold water. It overflows.
“The way we are acting is a dead end. We need to be brave and open to discussing common and cohesive refugee-friendly policies across Europe.”
“We saw conditions you couldn’t imagine. There was no space for the dead. ”
Lesvos Solidarity is a network of NGOs that campaigns for better refugee living conditions and support on Lesvos – the tiny island destination for many refugees who cross the Mediterranean. Volunteer Effie Latsoudi travelled from Lesvos especially to attend the INSP Summit.
She gave delegates a harrowing account of the suffering she witnessed when refugees began arriving in 2006.
“We saw conditions you couldn’t imagine,” Latsoudi said. “You had families who had lost loved ones in the sea. There was no space in the cemetery for the dead. We had to use a shipping container at the hospital for a morgue. It was obvious we had to help and do something.
“I think Europe has two faces. It’s amazing the number of people who want to help and show solidarity. Then you see Europe politicians saying ‘no we don’t want them, take them back’,” she added.
INSP board member Paola Gallo is the managing director of Swiss street paper Surprise. A quarter of Surprise’s vendors are refugees. She admitted her country is one of many in Europe not doing enough to help.
“Half of people applying for asylum in Switzerland are turned away. We decided in next five years want to accept 3,000 people from Syria. It’s nothing to what is needed,” she said.
“We need to do more. We have to care about the people, the human beings. Integrate them as soon as possible and make them part of society.”
This is a mission many street papers have already embraced, including Austrian paper Augustin. Editor Lisa Bolyos has campaigned for the rights of refugees for many years. She said roughly one third of Augustin vendors are refugees, mainly from Africa.
“I live right at the border between Austria and Hungary, the border my father crossed as a refugee 60 years ago. Every day we see people crossing. We know there is a lot of homelessness among these refugees,” said Bolyos.
She added that street papers can help rekindle the initially welcoming and celebratory attitude western Europe first showed towards refugees. Positive editorials and campaigns can help, such as Augustin’s current collaboration with young refugees to secure them free public transport in Vienna.
“We are responsible for this. As a network of journalists and social organisations we need promote the idea of welcoming and inclusion,” she said.
Street papers have a long history of giving the marginalised a voice, starting with their own vendors. Greek vendor Mike Samolis told the panel more must be done to inform and put a human face on the escalating refugee crisis. He suggested street papers fill this role.
Samolis sells Shedia in Athens. He was once mistrustful of refugees coming to Greece, but living beside Syrian refugees in an Athens homeless shelter has changed his opinion.
“I have [refugee] friends who are scared to go out because they will be attacked. We have to explain to people all over Europe that they are people like us. We have to tell them why they risked their lives to come here,” he said.
“Three years ago I didn’t want them here. Now I spend 24 hours a day with them. When I meet them and hear their stories, now I understand.”
German delegates admitted that the refugee crisis is not widely covered in their country’s mainstream media. Street papers, however, are well placed to tell stories from the side of the marginalised, and encourage empathy by challenging the misconceptions fueling extreme right wing, anti-immigration views.
“Street papers are an instrument for the dissemination of information, and of promoting social integration. We have to create and promote social cohesion,” added Papagiannakis.
Latsoudi agreed, adding that the interaction between vendor and buyer is another way to inform and help refugees become integrated in new communities.
“This is important to share information but it needs also the interaction of people refugees and locals. That social integration is a big issue and very difficult. It is also important for them to understand where they are.”
She added, “Knowing I have people standing next to me is very important.”