Hotel Refugees

In early 2017, a rare cold spell hit Southern Europe bringing subzero temperatures and dumping snow across Greece, including more than a foot of snow on the islands most know as summer resorts. Though predicted by meteorologists, the storms caught the authorities unprepared, leaving thousands of refugees stranded in adequate tents exposed to the freezing conditions.

In a panic to move refugees from deadly conditions, the Greek Authorities turned to empty hotels and vacant apartments. Refugees who had been living in tents for up to a year were suddenly transported into the surreal surroundings of hotel rooms, the likes of which, many had never seen in their lives.

With continued confusion within the European refugee management program, asylum seekers remain in these hotels, waiting. Waiting, with no certainly of departure, no transparency into the process, indefinitely, in small rooms, warm, but idle.

The result is a demoralized and disappointed group. The feelings of being forgotten and let down are brewing into feelings of betrayal and distrust. The anger that is building flows logically from the loss of agency, a feeling of abandonment. The sense of being thankful for the support is being overwhelmed by a new feeling that they are just pawns, that their personal situation does not matter. It looks to many like they could be so easily helped, making them wonder why it is that they live in uncertainty.

What’s even worse, this poor result is being achieved at great cost.

The Greek refugee response, on a per person basis, is the most expensive humanitarian response in history. It is dogged by large overheads, expensive operating environment, and a plethora of agencies, local, European and International who at times compete for the same budgets. Add to this an irregular flow of volunteers, oscillating from too many to too few, and almost all staying for too little time. Finally, layer on all of this the usual levels of Greek bureaucratic and endemic corruption that locals complain accompany everything in Greece.

Three times a day, meal are delivered by a contractor, pre-heated and wrapped in foil containers. And with no say in the menu, no role in preparing it, and the difficulty of adapting meals for different ethnic tastes, the food is a constant complaint. Once again an expensive solution is getting a poor outcome. The daily per refugee cost for food is more than the weekly food budget for refugees living in developing world camps.

These images were taken in Ioannina, Greece over a series of days in February 2017.

Room 203. A young Syrian man stands at the door of the hotel room into which he has been moved into. He admits it is warmer than the tent from which he was summarily plucked in early December, but just as confusion. What he wants most is to understand what will happen to him next, where he will be allowed to move, and when.


The Stairwell. A mother and daughter move between floors of the hotel into which they were moved. Most days we found the children sitting on mobile devices playing some sort of game, the girls seemed to mostly be paying games with colourful fruit, the boys were drawn to first person shooter games. There were limited opportunities for school or language classes, although there were many different excuses given for why the children were not in attendance.


Little Man in Pink Gloves. A young Yazidi boy stands in the corridor outside his room. The hotel room has been his family’s home for three months, and the children find ways to amuse themselves playing in the corridors.


Samira and Child. Samira’s child was born when she was on the move road in Turkey, and as a mother of a young child, she is particularly grateful for the warmth of the hotel room which she keeps impeccably clean and orderly.


Empty Nest. Nabi Hassani is an Afghan man who made the voyage to Europe via Iran and Turkey. His trip took over two years, including 8 months living in Iran, and included three attempts to cross into Iran from Afghanistan, three aborted boat trips from Turkey, and being beaten by police in three countries. His family has found safety in hotel accommodation but with no certainty as to where they will be moved, an uneasy stillness rest on his brow.


Follow Me. Each family inhabits a single room together, often with beds pushed together to cover almost the whole floor area. I was invited into this Yazidi family’s room by their eldest daughter who was keen to share her story with me.


Idle Time.  Mohommed Ali is a Syrian asylum seeker whose hotel room is decorated with an incongruous image of a meteor streaming towards Europe. In Damascus he had been a chemistry student but when forced to flee he turned his energy to photography, capturing images of the lives of refugees in the Katsika camp, one of the toughest camps in Greece. His work to expose the harsh living conditions had been exhibited locally and in Spain, and has been the basis for three different books and social media projects. That was, until one night after an exhibit opening, his tent and all his belongings, including his camera and computer, were burned to the ground. With no camera, he no longer takes photographs.


7 to a room.  A Syrian family of seven share the one room in the hotel into which they have been moved. This family has been unable to move on as the mother is bedridden with illness. As her children played nearby, she lay in bed, while her husband smoked a cigarette nearby.


Little Princess. Some of the Syrian refugees moved into hotels awaiting news of their relocation opportunities do what they can to create a sense of home in their rooms. This family has assembled a small family of stuffed toys, gathered from donations, to provide their daughter with comfort. Like many other children in this unsettling environment, a mobile phone that provides constant distraction is often the plaything of choice.
Waiting to get in; waiting to get out. A young Syrian child looks out from the lobby of the hotel in which his family has been moved. More than glass separates him and his family from finding a new home.