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Study of Humanitarian Aid Agencies Service Delivery

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Human Rights
Wordcount: 5462 words Published: 20th Sep 2017

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Stuck in no man’s land:people of nowhere are people of now here

A study of humanitarian aid agencies’ service delivery to residents in Kara Tepe refugee camp in Lesvos.

DR Disaster Relief

EASO European Asylum Support Office

EU European Union

FMO Forced Migration Online

HA Humanitarian Assistance

HSA Humanitarian Support Agency

IDPs Internally displaced persons

IOM International Organisation for Migration

IOs International Organisations

IRC International Rescue Committee

MSF Médecins Sans Frontiers

NGOs Non-Governmental Organisations

RCRC International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement

ROs Regional Organisations

UN United Nations

UNHCR United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees   

Since the twentieth century, the migration of refugees has been a significant and constant feature of the world order. There has been several factors causing its occurrence, including international wars, civil wars, the rise of fascism, decolonization, national liberation struggles and the creation of nation states (Bloch, 2002, p.1). During 1914-1918 World War I, millions of people were left homeless, fleeing their homelands to seek refuge, and the international community and governments responded by providing travel documents to those people who were the first refugees of the twentieth century (1951 UN Convention). However the flow of refugees did not stop there, but the numbers drastically increased after World War II (1939-1945), when millions were forced to resettle, be displaced or were deported (Guterres, 2011).

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While the refugee crisis is a phenomenon that has been around for many years, the ongoing conflicts in Syria, Iraq, Somalia, Afghanistan and other troubled countries have resulted in an unprecedented number of 65.3 million people around the world forcibly displaced from their homes. Among them are 21.3 million registered as refugees under UNHCR and UNWRA mandates, over half of whom are children (under 18 years old) (UNHCR, 2016a). Syrians make up, without a doubt, the largest refugee population in the world. The Syria conflict alone, known to be “the biggest humanitarian and refugee crisis of our time” (UN High Commissioner for Refugees in UNHCR, 2016b), has spawned 4.8 million refugees in neighbouring countries (predominantly Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan), hundreds of thousands in Europe and 6,6 million displaced inside Syria (Mercy Corps, 2016; UNHCR, March 2016).

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Figure 1: The increase of registered Syrian Refugees from almost zero in 2012 to 4.8 million in 2016 (source: UNHCR, 2016 Which UNHCR article? You need to specify)

According to Amnesty International’s assessment of October 2016, more than half of the world’s 21 million refugees are hosted in just ten low and middle-income countries in the Middle East, Africa and Asia.[1] Europe, however, hosts a share of 6% of the world’s refugee population (Check percentage of refugees in Europe in 2016, add source).

In 2015, over a million refugees and migrants made it to Europe by sea, with a majority arriving via the Aegean Sea from Turkey into Greece (UNHCR, 2015). Responding to the massive influx of refugees, several international humanitarian aid agencies established themselves on the Greek Islands to meet the pressing needs of the novel refugee and migrant population. However, it has been widely debated whether these aid agencies are effective in their service delivery and whether they fulfill the tasks they have set out to do. Despite the allocation of millions of dollars of funds to guarantee a decent living standard for the refugees and migrants in the Greek camps, reports reveal dire conditions, with a lack of the most basic livelihoods, such as edible food, basic sanitation services and education (Strickland, 2016; ?). Deeply moved by the horrifying images of human suffering in these camps, I chose to travel to Greece to volunteer in Kara Tepe Camp in Lesvos in the summer of 2016 to investigate the topic further. It is of great importance to examine the efficiency of these humanitarian aid agencies’ service delivery on the ground in order to build future humanitarian aid programs which adequately meet the needs of the vulnerable refugees and migrants in Lesvos.

1.1 Question and Motivation of Study

This dissertation sets out to answer the following research questions:

Primary question: To what extent are humanitarian service providing agencies operating in Kara Tepe camp managing to live up to their stated aims and guidelines?’

Secondary question: What are the obstacles to effective service delivery?

This dissertation is a reflective research based on my time spent volunteering with a humanitarian aid organisation, Humanitarian Support Agency (HSA)[2], in a refugee camp in Lesvos, Greece over the course of summer from June to September 2016. However, the area of research of humanitarian assistance to refugees, sparked my interest already in 2011, when the flow of thousands of Syrian refugees began to Jordan, my home country, following Syria’s descent into civil war. Jordan, a small yet strong Kingdom, surrounded by countries undergoing conflict, is a host of over 656,000 Syrian refugees (Amnesty International, 2016). Seeing the difficult suffering faced by the Syrian refugee population in my own region (Middle East) as well as in Europe strongly motivated me to gain a hands on experience of humanitarian aid work with refugees. Following, for my applied field experience[3], I chose to travel to Greece and join HSA as a volunteer in Kara Tepe camp in Lesvos; a refugee camp in the largest transit point in the East Mediterranean route, which is the first assistance site for refugees and migrants departing from Turkey to Europe (HSA, 2016).

During my time volunteering in Kara Tepe, I had the opportunity to work closely with humanitarian aid agencies operating in the camp, gaining insights into their day-to-day provision of services to the residents. It also allowed me to speak to and get to know several of the camp residents – refugees and migrants predominantly from Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq – who often expressed their concerns and hardships of life in Kara Tepe.

In this dissertation, I aim to draw on this experience to investigate the humanitarian aid agencies’ services to refugees and migrants in Kara Tepe camp. More specifically, by comparing these aid agencies’ stated aims and guidelines to the real situation of refugees and migrants on the ground, I wish to examine where the agencies are failing at fulfilling their promises in providing adequate assistance to the camp residents. Furthermore, I aim to identify some of the apparent obstacles hindering these agencies’ effective service delivery.

I do not intend to generalise my results regarding humanitarian aid agencies’ service delivery in refugee camps as it would require a more comprehensive material than what my study is based upon. My ambition is rather to attempt to highlight the humanitarian aid situation in Kara Tepe and voice out the concerns and needs of the residents, drawing on their living situation in the refugee camp.

This study will be structured into five chapters. In chapter 2, I will give an overview of the living conditions of refugees and migrants in Greek camps. Here, I will also provide a set of definitions of the key terms adopted in this dissertation. In chapter 3, I will give a review of the existing literature on the humanitarian aid system. In this section, I will outline the theoretical foundations used in this study, including the UNHCR, IRC, Save the Children and HSA’s stated aims and guidelines in relation to the factors of water, sanitation, education, food and health care. In chapter 4, I will draw on my first-hand experience in Kara Tepe in order to spot the gaps between the stated aims and guidelines of the aid agencies and the real situation on the ground, based on the stories and interviews with the residents. Furthermore, the analysis will identify some of the apparent obstacles hindering these agencies’ effective service delivery. Finally, I will conclude by giving a summary of the main findings and their implications, and the possibility of suggesting further research on the topic.

1.2 Methodology & Material

The choice of method for this dissertation is a mixed study between an autoethnography approach which is a form of qualitative research[4], based on primary qualitative data collection, and a case study using Kara Tepe Camp as the case, in addition to secondary research on academic articles in relation to the humanitarian aid system, UN reports and newspaper articles on the topic. Moreover, I will look at the guidelines, aims and goals of three main agencies operating in camp, namely UNHCR, IRC and Save the Children. The material I have used for my analysis is predominantly based on material gathered through the interviews I have conducted with different refugees from the camp. For their safety and integrity, I have decided to keep their names anonymous and have given them pseudonyms/alias. These interviews that I have conducted are valuable and have provided me with the useful information and insights that are necessary to establish an adequate answer to the question. Moreover, the analysis is also based on my own lived experience through working in Kara Tepe camp.

1.3 Limitations of study

When researching the above questions a few limitations had to be considered. First, due to time and space restrains, I had to limit my data collection to the period of my stay in Greece between June and September 2016. The humanitarian assistance keeps developing in camp so there may be new improved services that did not exist back then, which would have been valuable to include in my research. Second, it has to be taken into consideration that the refugees interviewed are in a vulnerable position; hence they may not be able to fully reveal all truths for a public audience, and this is why for some questions, unfortunately, the answers were either very broad or unclearly answered, due to the sensitivity of the matter. Third, there are several possible factors to take into consideration when researching humanitarian assistance provided to refugees living in camps. However, due to space and time restraints, I have chosen to focus on three key humanitarian aid agencies and their services in Kara Tepe camp, namely UNHCR, IRC and Save the Children.

‘To be called a refugee is the opposite of an insult; it is a badge of strength, courage, and victory…’ (Tennessee Office for Refugees)

2.1 Definitions of keywords

In our current era, more than 65 million people worldwide are displaced by force as refugees, asylum seekers, or internally displaced persons. According to the 1951 Geneva Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, to be recognized legitimately as a refugee, a person must be fleeing persecution on the basis of religion, race, political opinion, nationality…etc. However, the present factors around displacement are complex and multi-layered which in turn makes the protection based on a strict definition of persecution increasingly problematic and very challenging to implement (Zetter, 2015).

Between asylum seekers, refugees and economic migrants there is an overlap and this can cause confusion; therefore, it is very important to distinguish the difference between the terms, and which term applies on the people in the camps in Greece specifically in Kara Tepe Camp.

Asylum seeker is: ‘a person who has applied for asylum under the 1951 Refugee Convention on the Status of Refugees on the ground that if he is returned to his country of origin he has a well-founded fear of persecution on account of race, religion, nationality, political belief or membership of a particular social group. He remains an asylum seeker for so long as his application or an appeal against refusal of his application is pending’ (Mitchell, 2006). Principally, asylum seekers flee in fear of persecution because of the reasons stated in the definition, so they seek refuge in another country looking for safety, and until their asylum process is ongoing they are called asylum seekers, but once it is processed and the approval is given then they are given a refugee status.

In the literature on refugees, there have been many definitions of the term, but I found the following by the UNHCR to be the most inclusive. A refugee is someone who: “owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality, and is unable to or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country… (Article 1, UN Convention, 1951).

They also added that the term refugee can be defined as: ‘… people fleeing conflict or persecution. They are defined and protected in international law, and must not be expelled or returned to situations where their life and freedom are at risk‘ (UNHCR, 2016). But according to migration watch UK, they define a refugee as an asylum seeker whose application has been successful, i.e. that person fleeing war and conflict as defined by the 1951 Refugee Convention.

The difference between asylum seeker and a refugee is very difficult to state as they are very similar. Basically, an asylum seeker is someone who is seeking international protection and is waiting for his refugee status, but a refugee is someone who is recognised under the 1951 Convention relating to the status of refugees to be eligible to be a refugee (Phillips, 2011, p.2).

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Last but not least, migrant, as defined by the UN Convention on the Rights of Migrants is a : ‘person who is to be engaged, is engaged or has been engaged in a remunerated activity in a State of which he or she is not a national‘. Article 1.1 (a) states that migrants decision to move to these States is taken freely, because of personal convenience and without any external factor that might affect the decision (UNESCO, 2016).Thus, there has been a gap along the lines with the usage of the terminology, especially between the term refugee and asylum seeker.

People who have crossed the Mediterranean by paying organised criminals (smugglers) to get them across the borders are known as ‘irregular’ migrants, because they have not entered the EU legally (European Commission, 2016).

Humanitarian aid system (add definition)

Humanitarian aid system or humanitarian assistance is intended to save lives, alleviate suffering and maintain human dignity during and after manmade crises and disasters caused by natural hazards as well as to prevent and strengthen preparedness for when such situations occur (Global Humanitarian Assistance, 2016). Humanitarian assistance should be administered by the four key humanitarian principles which are: humanity, impartiality, neutrality and independence; these key principles are the fundamental principles of many NGOs including the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement (RCRC) (Global Humanitarian Assistance, 2016).

Therefore, in the immediate area of conflict, the main goal is preventing human causalities but at the same time assisting displaced people and making sure they have access to the basic needs of survival which are water, sanitation, food, shelter, and health care (Branczik, 2004).

2.2 International and legal framework/ Humanitarian assistance and relief efforts – add more info

Humanitarian assistance is and has always been an extremely political activity. It always influenced the political economy of the recipient countries, and is influenced by the political considerations of donor governments (Curtis, 2001, p.3).

The effect of conflict on civilians can be directly or indirectly through the so called complex emergencies. The primary aim in any immediate area of conflict is preventing causalities and making sure that everyone has access to the basic rights for surviving, which are water sanitation, food, shelter, and health care. In addition, the priority is usually to assist displaced people and try to prevent the spread of conflict, support relief work and create a space for rehabilitation (Branczik, 2004).

Complex humanitarian emergencies are defined by five collective characteristics: first, the deterioration or complete collapse of central government authority; second, ethnic or religious conflict leading to human abuse; third, episodic food insecurity that leads to mass starvation; fourth, macroeconomic collapse that involves unemployment and decrease in GDP per capita; last and the most important focal characteristic is having mass population movements of displaced people and refugees that have escaped a conflict or in search for a better life (Natsios, 1995, p.405).

Natsios stated that there are three sets of institutional actors that respond to the above emergencies in a so called complex response system that evolved over the years. These institutional actors are NGOs, UN organisations and the International Red Cross movement (Natsios, 1995, p.406).

These sets of actors were reckoned in the 1990s; however in the 20th century, the academics understanding and the literature on the main actors have widened, and have included more detailed actors. For example, according to Branczik (2004), there are four main actors that represent the humanitarian aid sector:

  • International (IOs) and Regional Organisations (ROs); the most important actor in the provision of humanitarian aid is the UN.
  • Unilateral assistance, as well as multilateral, i.e. the countries provide direct aid unilaterally through their own foreign-aid or part of their foreign policy.
  • Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs), which play a key role in the provision of humanitarian aid, either directly or as being a UN partner.
  • The Military and its main role is to make sure to create a safe environment where other agencies can operate from, they can also directly provide aid when necessary in cases where the IOs and NGOs are unable to perform or deal with security issues, and it can act as a managing body for the humanitarian relief process.

It is important to stress that in order to have a successful humanitarian relief effort, effective leadership and coordination should be present to avoid conflicting activities and duplications of projects and so forth. The UN is the agency that acts as the coordinator in most cases (Branczik, 2004).

In addition to the UN, there are other non-governmental organisations (NGOs) that also respond to complex humanitarian emergencies and work together with the UN.

The humanitarian assistance and disaster relief efforts (HA/DR) had faced a major challenge in terms of that the diverse information and knowledge are distributed and owned by different organisations, and are not efficiently organised and utilized during HA and DR operations (Zhang et. Al, 2002).

Obstacle to the humanitarian aid agencies

Moreover, there have been other factors that are defined as great challenges that have affected the performance of the humanitarian aid agencies, and two of those are efficiency and effectiveness. For example and according to Branczik (2004), if the assistance is needed in a conflict zone that is located in a poor area of infrastructure then it would be impossible and dangerous for the humanitarian agencies to deliver aid, this leads to some beneficiaries being neglected due to that (Branczik, 2004). Another important point is the increasing number of agencies operating on the ground, this causes the struggle to obtain accurate intelligence, and when it is difficult to obtain accurate intelligence, the unpredictability of humanitarian crises causes effective management and coordination within the agencies to become difficult, therefore, and in order to solve this difficulty, agencies should improve gathering and sharing the information by improving the management and coordination within them (Branczik, 2004).

Furthermore, political dilemmas play an important part in influencing the performance of humanitarian agencies. As Branczik (2004) and Stockton (2006) call it, humanitarian alibi, which refers to the fact that most humanitarian crises are caused by bad governance and the bad performance of the humanitarian agencies is also affected by deliberate acts by governments to frustrate humanitarian access to, and deny the existence of the people that are in need of protection. It is therefore defined as: ‘the misuse of the humanitarian idea and humanitarian workers by governments eager to do as little as possible in economically unpromising regions’ (Branczik, 2004; Stockton, 2006).

2.3 Aims and guidelines of humanitarian aid agencies in Kara Tepe camp

UNHCR Legal Framework

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights that was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly was published in 1948 and is still used and relevant today as it was back then. The main reason for issuing it was to declare the rights and freedoms to which every human being is equally and inalienably entitled (UDHR, 1948, p. iii).

UDHR is a promise to everyone and not country-specific or for a certain era or social group, it is a promise to all the economic, social, political, cultural and civic rights whatever colour, race, ethnicity they are, gender, whether they are disabled or not, citizens or migrants, and no matter what creed, age or sexual orientation (UDHR, 1948, p. v + vi).

Abuse of Human Rights did not diminish when the UDHR was adopted, but at least more people have gained more freedom, and violations were not permitted. According to part 1 of article 14 of UDHR:’ 1. Everyone has the right to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution‘, onwards the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees was adopted and entered into force on 22 April 1954, and is now called the centrepiece of international refugee protection, and its amendment the 1967 Protocol which removed all geographic limitations to include everyone and make it universal (UN Convention, 1951, p. 2).

Refugees are considered part of the most vulnerable people in the world; and for that reason, the UN has issued the 1951 Refugee Convention and its 1967 Protocol to help protect them (Guterres, 2011).

The UNHCR works under the United Nations General Assembly and its goal is to seek international protection and permanent solutions for refugees. It was established in 1950 with a core mandate to protect the refugees. However, nowadays it is responsible for a slightly larger group that does not only include refugees but also asylum seekers, internally displaced persons (IDPs), stateless persons or migrants (UNHCR, 2014).

Although the protection of refugees is the primarily the responsibility of States, however the main partner that works closely with the governments is the UNHCR and has been doing so throughout the past 50+ years (Jastram & Achiron, 2001, p.5).

UNHCR aims

Specify here what these conventions say about humanitarian assistance to refugees. And specify what they should do in Greece/kara tepe (Provide legal advice, information about asylum processes, housing tents, medical care).

IRC – aims and guidelines in lesvos

The IRC is the only international aid organization working on all fronts of the crisis. In Europe: The IRC was one of the first aid organizations to assist the thousands of refugees arriving each day on the Greek island, Lesbos. IRC aid workers continue to work around the clock in Greece and in Serbia to provide essential services, including clean water and sanitation, to families living in terrible conditions. And we are helping new arrivals navigate the confusing transit process and understand their legal rights. https://www.rescue.org/topic/refugee-crisis-europe-middle-east


Education is the most powerful tool for children, their families and communities in order to survive and recover from a crisis or a conflict; it enables people to drive their own health, safety and prosperity (IRC, 2016).

According to the IRC goals that they have published, they state that poor access to education can affect people’s chance to improve their lives, which is why they provide children, youth and adults with educational opportunities which therefore keeps them safe and learn the skills they need to survive and succeed (IRC, 2016).

Moreover, the IRCs main goals in regards to education are the following:

  • Ensure that children aged 0 to 5 develop cognitive and social-emotional skills
  • Ensure that school-aged children develop literacy, numeracy and social-emotional skills
  • Ensure that youth and adults have high levels of livelihood, literacy, numeracy and social-emotional skills
  • Ensure that children, youth and adults have regular access to safe and functional education services (IRC, 2016).

Save the children – aims and guidelines

Save the children’s main priority in Greece and especially in Lesvos is to protect the children that are in refugee camps, and to ensure that most importantly they are physically safe and have enough food and good shelter. Apart from distributing the basics, they claim to have started providing items such as sanitary pads, soap, shampoo, toilet paper and simple food items such as crackers and tea (save the children, 2015). However, since their priority is protecting children, they have also met with national charities in Greece to identify child protection needs, and have worked on transporting the new arrivals to the island to different registration points, to make sure that families and unaccompanied children to do not have to walk 70km to register (save the children, 2015).


Asylum Process


“Give me the money to pay a smuggler and I’ll go back to Syria right now. There the death is quick. Here we are dying slowly.”

In this chapter, the theoretical foundations of humanitarian aid discussed above will be applied to the case of aid agencies operating in Kara Tepe camp. First I I will give a brief overview of the situation in Kara Tepe according to my own lived experience and reflection there during summer. Second, I will compare and contrast the agencies stated aims and guidelines to the real situation on the ground in Kara Tepe in order to clarify to what extent they manage to live up to their words. I will then underline some of the key obstacles currently hindering the organisation’s effective service delivery to the residents.

Before arriving to Lesvos, I had no expectations of how the situation would be there. All I had in mind was the image often portrayed to us by the media about the refugee camps, which is one an image of violence and chaos, and I thought our task as volunteers would solely be to only distribute food and clothes as it was mentioned on the organisation’s website.

However, when I arrived to the island, nothing was as I imagined it to be. In fact, Kara Tepe was a well-organised camp, and our job as HSA volunteers with HSA was to distribute food and clothes to families in camp, but it was done through a well thought out system. We had the meals delivered to the resident families’ door- to-door to their housing units in teams. The residents themselves were also part of the distribution teams, depending on what area they lived in as they were more familiar with the people of the camp than the volunteers residents. Moreover, we also distributed clothes by giving the residents tickets for monthly appointments. This system has indeed created a harmony in the camp, and a sense of belonging to a community.

A very important factor that played a huge role for me while in Kara Tepe was the language. Arabic is my mother tongue, so it was easy for me to communicate with most of the refugees which had come to Lesvos from Syria and Iraq. Consequently, I therefore created a special bond with them and they turned to me to translate when misunderstandings or problems occurred in the camp. Being the only staff speaking their language, I felt that it became my duty to voice their feelings and opinions in everyday situations, being the only staff speaking their language, and I believe this was why I allocated a leading role in the team from the outset. My boss saw how the refugees turned to me for help as I could voice their concerns, and assigned me as a team leader shortly after I arrived.

As I gained an understanding of the family’s needs, my duties did not just involve the clothing distribution part, but also comprised on the task of improving the existing system to avoid stress and queues. This project was successful and it led the UNHCR to ask to publish our standard of procedures to the benefit of other organisations operating in the camp, and we got praised by the camp management for increasing the safety and dignity of the refugees residing in there which are referred to as residents of Kara Tepe.

It is important to stress that the refugees living in camps are human beings just like everyone else. Fleeing wars and conflicts, being homeless, does not make them any different from anyone. They had normal lives in their home countries when the war forced them to leave everything and flee, and they are often well educated and skilled. Unfortunately, the way the refugees are forced to live in camps portray them in a very bad way, that everyone including myself had our own assumptions towards them due to the situation.

It has been my privilege to have known and live among the refugees that I call my friends and family now for three months in Kara Tepe, and therefore I had to give this background of my time spent in camp as a tribute to


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