From Davos to Lesvos

(originally published in the World Economic Forum)

From Davos to Lesvos: Reflections from the worse European vacation ever

Our tour included seven ski-less days in the snow-blanketed Swiss Alps before visiting a series of Greek holiday resorts that have been converted into internment camps for desperate refugees and undocumented migrants. It was a total of twelve flights, almost as many trains, a few of those adorably compact European rental cars, and one trip with the luggage car provided for a celebrity’s excess baggage.

This unlikely itinerary was booked as part of a global review of the state of refugee and migration flows that I am undertaking alongside photographer Alissa Everett, both my tour guide for inconvenient locations and also my wife.

I am home again, finally warm, but deeply shaken. It’s hard to know what had the most impact: the immediate suffering of some, the lack of compassion of so many, or the dearth of ideas amongst those who are able to make a difference.

But first our trip, and some conclusions.

Winter came late this year in Europe and then it hit hard. Few got a white Christmas, but shortly after New Year, temperatures plummeted and snow began falling across the widest definition of what is called Europe.

On the Greek islands, where thousands of refugees remain stranded in lightweight tents, the falls were the highest in a generation, enough to collapse the woefully inadequate structures. On Donald Trump’s Scottish golf courses, the snow-filled bunkers forced short closures of the links. To the East, the recently emboldened Mosques of Istanbul also received a light dusting, while a somber blanket covered the recently bloodied streets of Berlin.

Nothing divides the strata of society more than the fluffy white stuff. It is welcomed by those that ski, a travel inconvenience for the commuting class, and deadly for the most vulnerable.

In the Swiss alpine town of Davos where we attended the World Economic Forum’s Annual Meeting, the snow glistened on five consecutive, cloudfree days. Ironically the powder remained mostly untouched as the resort is filled to overflowing with delegates who spend their days, long evenings and early mornings, firmly indoors. Deep in the caves of the conference centers and hotel meeting rooms, the conversations were decidedly dark. The world of the multi-stakeholder consensus builder, the globalized cosmopolitan, the free-trading centralist, is nothing short of ablaze. It’s under attack from every direction and currently losing just about every battle.

Worse, the well-dressed Davos Man and Woman didn’t see this affront coming. I should know, I have dressed my very best and tried to absorb as much as I could at the gathering over the last five years. Even in 2016, despite finally waking up to the humanitarian disaster spinning out of Syria, the confidence remained reasonable. The consensus was that Brexit was a troglodyte’s joke, Trump more so; the market were going to be flat, and interest rates would remain forever low. Turns out that England’s off on its own path, Trumps in, the markets are up and so are interest rates.

By the time we got to Greece, starting on the island of Lesvos, the snow had mostly melted. While it was 10 degrees warmer than Davos, the damp, subzero breeze sliced effortlessly through the double layers of thermals and two overcoats that I was wearing.

The camps are dangerously over-crowded, the resettlement process is at best obscure and slow, at worst, blocked and broken. More than 160,000 migrants remain in Europe’s entry countries of Greece and Italy, some seeping north into Europe, and a few accepting assistance to return home.

We entered at our first camp through the same portal as those leaving use to exit. “This place is worse than hell” an Eritrean man said as he awaited his transfer to a flight home. He was the first man we met, just inside the door with his bags at his feet. “The screaming every night, the lies, the fights. I would rather go home. Maybe I will die, but here I know I will.”

Yet the boats continue to arrive. Forty two new arrivals were plucked from a overladen vessel by the Greek coast guard the same day we arrived. Cramped in the same room as those about to depart, the group included a young North African boy who had been given a small jigsaw puzzle to occupy him. Sitting on the floor he was slowly assembling a picture of Snow White. “Welcome to Europe,” I thought.

“What was the boat like?” I asked one of those who had paid between $500 and $1000 for a ticket from Turkey, the shoreline of which was easily visible from where we stood. “The man promised us a big boat, but it was small; not even a boat, it was a balloon!”

The wealthier parts of Europe have agreed to take hundreds of thousands of refugees, but less than 10% of this number have been accepted, even less processed. All of this is before the largely untested protocols of the “Dublin Deal”—an agreement to return refugees to the country of first entrance, even if that is the near-bankrupt Greece and its substandard freezing camps—and is multiplied by the uncertainty of EU-Turkey relocation scheme—each migrant found not to a refugee in Europe is swapped for a Syrian stuck in a camp in Turkey in return for Turkey being fast tracked to become an EU member.

We spent long days sitting with the refugees and migrants living in uninsulated tents, hearing their stories of sleepless nights huddling in summer-weight sleeping bags. I returned each evening to a perfectly comfortable 3-star hotel room where there was nothing to stop me sleeping except the sight of what I had seen that day.

In Moria, the worst camp, men, women and children from 42 nationalities are packed into a converted detention center. Two rows of barbed wire fencing ring a facility built for 2000, housing nearly twice that. Two people died inside their tents while we were there, another made a remarkably dexterous but ultimately unsuccessful attempt to hang himself. The graphic video was sent to me by a man I had swapped contact details with the day. It’s not the type of video I am used to getting from friends on Facebook.

The tragedy is amplified because all of this is taking place within sight of near-empty holiday resorts. The difference between life and death, it seems, is just a matter of room key allocation.

In another camp on the mainland, a disused toilet-paper factory has been converted to cover a grim collection of tents. The tents are now coated in a thick layer of dust. A little light spreads from a few high windows augmented by the blue neon thrown by a row of dilapidated fly-zappers. It is not lost on the residents that the paper with which Europe wipes its backside was warehoused in better conditions than they now are.

It wouldn’t be Europe if there weren’t some movements of true Kafkaesque absurdity. We met men who had escaped persecution from the military in their home countries and undertaken frightening voyages by boat only to be housed in the hold of a military ship. We met a young, overwhelmed volunteer who was teaching English to teenage students with a game of hangman. Another group of volunteers built detailed models of sailing boats with children who had the lucky one in their families and survived their inflatable boat trips. Elsewhere we marveled at the array of donations that volunteers didn’t know what to do with: short skirts and high heels had arrived this month, earlier, a sex toy was placed at the top of a box.

There were some bright sparks, we did see a few rays of hope.

At Davos, at least people are talking realistically about the magnitude of the issue. Refugee movements are finally being put in the context of the large migrations that are the human movements naturally following capital flows. Climate change is now discussed in terms of its creation of a new class of climate migrants. Each year the amount of the program devoted to these issues grows, one hopes in time to make a difference.

We did visit one quality camp on Lesvos, Kare Tepe, which maybe the world’s best example of how to do camps well, (if you have to do them) and spent time in the Elpída Home, a private sector response that was teeming with innovation. We joined leading companies in Athens, including AirBnB, Mastercard and Western Union, who are joining forces with large private donors, including Soros’ Open Society and the Canadian Radcliffe Foundation, with a determination to do something about the situation.

But these types of private sector responses are small, the number of foundations and corporates acting on the best new ideas remains relatively tiny.

We met the local grassroots NGOs who have historically been overlooked by the global humanitarian giants. There is a roll for helicoptering-in experts, but many of the indigenous organizations are ready to do good work and just need to be incubated to handle this new challenges.

We also met some inspiring locals doing everything they can to make an impact. We ran headlong into a demonstration outside the Moria camp. The men had just lost a brother, the fourth in a month, they were angry and looked ready to rip up a scapegoat. In a rotation of French, Arabic and English the group were whipped into a frenzy and we found ourselves the only outsiders, the only media on location. Our local driver, Vassili, went to extraordinary lengths to keep us safe. When he realized we wouldn’t retreat from recording the protest, and that Alissa intended to insert herself into the middle of a group of angry young men, he interjected himself. He took his big arms and warmly wrapped them around the leader of the protests. Sometimes a hug is best disarmament tool.

And finally, of course our “European Vacation” also included some of the nicest of meals.

The UN’s World Food Program, with chef’s including Jamie Oliver, put together a dinner at Davos cooked entirely from food waste. That it was delicious was only half the point: the scraps on the way to our tables, the spoils from our supermarkets, the offcuts of our industrial farming system, would go a long way to feeding the underfed of this world.

We wouldn’t be doing our bit to help the struggling Greek tourism industry if we didn’t mention how consistently wonderful the cuisine was there. Even though we often dined as the only people in the restaurant.

However, the hospitality highlight of the trip came from the self-titled “Chapatti Kitchen,” a group of about twenty Pakistani refugees living in an unofficial squat, camped in the basement of an abandoned industrial building. Their contribution to a communal kitchen is to supply their traditional bread. They cook 700 to 1000 a week, they told me with obvious pride.

They, like many others with so little, demanded we join them for a meal. We bought a pack of flour to add to the mix and half the young men worked as a team to prepare their trademark flat bread on a dented and blackened pan. In stark contrast to the squalor of some of the worst camps, the room was brushed clean and white butcher’s paper was placed down on all cooking and eating surfaces.

The steaming chapattis were then divided, and all of us used pieces of it to scoop up mouthfuls of white-beans cooked in tomato and chili. It’s not exactly typical Greek fare, but its the example of what would make the greatest difference. If only we could get those around the table at Davos to sit down here. If only those making refugee policy could see the impact of being able to share a home cooked meal. If only the locals of Lesvos who warned us to stay away from the squat could see this. Finally if only the wider world could see the humanity of this, of people who through their work have found dignity, of the logic of adding a minimal amount of cultural sensitivity, and bright eyes of people with a purpose.

I don’t think its too much to dream and if truth be told, it ensured we had a great vacation after all. It’s a holiday itinerary I highly recommend.