Exclusive: The abusive American-Christian NGO with a stranglehold on refugees' lives

Exclusive: The abusive American-Christian NGO with a stranglehold on refugees' lives
Investigation: Refugees on Lesvos say volunteers use promises of food, clothes and WiFi to coerce the vulnerable into converting to Christianity, reports Matt Broomfield.
8 min read
01 May, 2018
EuroRelief volunteers reportedly offer extra help to those it takes to church [AFP]
EuroRelief is an evangelical Christian NGO and is the sole official provider of tents and clothing, and overseeing day-to-day life for more than 6,000 refugees currently trapped in the Moria refugee camp on the Greek island of Lesvos.

Their hard-line religious stance may at first seem harmless, if antiquated - guidelines for volunteers shared with The New Arab sternly warn "under no circumstances are EuroRelief volunteers to initiate… handshakes or high fives with refugees of the opposite gender".

However, refugees, frontline volunteers and a former EuroRelief volunteer all tell The New Arab that the group's position as the sole major NGO active in the former military prison has granted the group immense power over refugees' lives.

EuroRelief allegedly use food, clothes, travel permits - and even access to WiFi - to coerce vulnerable refugees into converting to Christianity. They are also accused of forcing Christian ideology on refugees - even when asked not to, and exploiting refugees through free labour, all while working together with the police and camp guards - becoming complicit in their abusive processes - as the price of continued access to the vulnerable.

EuroRelief director Stefanos Samiotakis rejected the specific allegations contained within this report.

"Our people have been many times sexually harassed, threatened, bitten, falsely accused, shouted, cursed at by migrants and refugees - and falsely accused by part of the media for doing good," he told The New Arab. "But we know that this is something to expect in such a world that doesn't know Jesus.

"Jesus said to His disciples: Remember the word that I said to you: 'A servant is not greater than his master.' If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you," he added, quoting the Gospel of St John.

However, both a whistleblowing EuroRelief volunteer and a refugee community leader report being forced out of their positions in the camp after criticising the group.
I told them 'I don't need f**king Christianity, I need food and clothes because I'm cold'
"I saw when some person goes to EuroRelief and shows them [they are] Christian, they have a good welcome," former Moria resident Arash Hampay told The New Arab. "I told them 'I don't need f**king Christianity, I need food and clothes because I'm cold'."

Do unto others

EuroRelief are at pains to appear organic and local, "a Greek non-profit NGO working on the Greek island of Lesvos, providing assistance to the many refugees arriving on Greece's shores".

But as refugee news source Are You Syrious found in a recent investigation, the organisation is US-based, American-funded and primarily staffed by American volunteers. In fact, they are part of an organisation which recently spent millions distributing Bibles across Greece, and rely on volunteers from American evangelical and Mennonite-Amish organisations.

Exclusive: Coercive 'voluntary' deportations leave refugees trapped in jail and facing torture 

When the major NGOs pulled out of the former military prison at Moria, EuroRelief remained, becoming the primary point of contact for refugees in need of shelter or emergency care.

Report continues below image
Refugees say they need food, clothing and shelter - not Bibles [AFP]
Responding to The New Arab, director Stefanos Samiotakis describes EuroRelief as a "non-profit, non-governmental, humanitarian organisation, based on values that derive directly from the Holy Bible".

"The purpose of EuroRelief is to show Christ's love to people in Greece and abroad by providing for their needs in the areas of relief, development and education," he added.

But as former EuroRelief volunteer Jean tells The New Arab, EuroRelief volunteers view Moria's majority-Muslim residents as "moving away from the Muslim world, leaving and coming to the Christian world".

EuroRelief made headlines in 2016 after their volunteers were found foisting Christian propaganda on refugees. Perhaps as a result, guidelines shared with The New Arab vigorously forbid the distribution of Bibles in Moria - "no warnings. No exceptions".

However, Moria residents tell a different story. "If you are interested in Christianity they will take you to church, give you a Bible, they will help you for anything you need," Kathem, a Sunni Muslim, told The New Arab. "Because of that, people don't like them."

Moria is two hours' punishing walk from the nearest major settlement, but EuroRelief offer free bus travel to church services in the town; Bible classes reportedly come with better food and free WiFi - an absolute priority for many refugees desperate to get in touch with friends and relatives both at home and in possible destination cities. Non-Christian residents of Moria report being given second-rate shelter and clothing, or made to wait longer to access vital services.

"First they said, 'are you a Muslim?'" says Arash, recalling a conversation near the beginning of his seven months in the camp. "I said, 'no, I'm not Muslim, I don't have any religion'… They said 'do you know about Christianity?' and I said 'no, I don't want to know'."

But the volunteer kept pressuring Arash, saying he'd like Christianity if only he knew more about it, offering him religious literature.

"I said 'no, I won't read it, I hate religion, I just need a tent'," Arash says. "I was very angry when they started [talking] about Christianity because if I'm hungry I can't [think] about these things."

Out of depth

EuroRelief's key roles are allocating housing and providing "non-food items" like clothes, tents and sanitary supplies - but refugees report being made to wait days or weeks to access supplies gathering dust in storage by inflexible, inexperienced or favouritism-prone volunteers.
They either can't help or they don't want to help
"I hate that I cannot wash myself properly," refugee Hassem tells The New Arab. "In winter it is freezing. Everything is soaked. When you wake up you cannot move your limbs… Last winter we burned paper and plastic to stay warm - you're covered in ashes. It's as if we were not human beings."

In the winter of 2016-2017, six refugees died due to the hellish conditions in Moria. Arash describes sleeping without shelter for three days after his tent collapsed under the weight of snow, though he knew EuroRelief had tents in stock. "They either can't help or they don't want to help," he says.

Even former volunteer Jean, who believes the majority of Eurorelief volunteers have "good intentions", is clear that "a lot of NGOs that are active could be so much more useful and appropriate" and that EurorRelief volunteers are "teenagers" without adequate training.

"It's ridiculous," she adds.

Overstretched, they must rely on the unpaid labour of refugee volunteers. Volunteer Rebecca tells The New Arab about two refugees who "thought they were getting paid three euros a day - not an hour - for translating".

"[But] EuroRelief workers lied - they had been translating all day, every day, for nothing."

Others report refugees are pressured to work unpaid, building shelters for new arrivals while tents lie unused, or refused access to the camp once they've gained asylum and want to come back and volunteer - unless they agree to work in the EuroRelief church. 

These are challenging conditions for any organisation, but only EuroRelief accept them as the price of continued access to the camp. Perhaps tellingly, the EuroRelief offices were targeted and burned to the ground during refugee protests last year.


"Please also refrain from posts [online] that are critical of the Greek authorities," the EuroRelief guidelines state, before noting that the Greek authorities have made EuroRelief volunteers "remove" criticism before.
The other NGOs left Moria because they didn't want to be accomplices in deportations
"The other NGOs left Moria because they didn't want to be accomplices in deportations," former volunteer Jean says."The only way EuroRelief still has permission to be so visible and so active is because they will never challenge something the police does."

EuroRelief's website notes their work includes "24-hour gate security", while Kathem points out that "only EuroRelief knows the [location] of refugees in the camp, so when someone's [asylum application is] rejected and the police are going to arrest them, how else would they know where the refugees are?"

EuroRelief, which oversees the division of the camp by nationality, facilitates arrests and deportations, refugees say. Samiotakis responds: "EuroRelief works under the leadership of the Greek authorities and has a distinctive role: to help make the lives of the refugees and migrants better."

EuroRelief's presence appears to facilitate and legitimise the dehumanising fast-track asylum and deportation process. "I spoke up to a military guy who was being super aggressive towards new arrivals," Jean recalls.

He summoned her to empty the trash-cans in the squalid area where a boatload of new arrivals were shivering and awaiting detention or processing, and she replied that she'd only do so if he "treat[ed] those people like human beings".

Word got back to her employers, and after that "EuroRelief kicked me out… it was the end."

Read more: Queer refugees on Lesvos crying out for help

Likewise, Arash was elected "community leader" of the Iranian population in Moria - a role purported to allow the refugees of Moria a measure of self-representation, but it is a system entirely run by and through EuroRelief's offices and widely seen as a token gesture.

He was removed from this role after publicly criticising EuroRelief following the death of a five-year-old Syrian child in the camp last year. Arash claims the child's father told him she died of exposure, while EuroRelief state she had a pre-existing medical condition.

But the NGO's volunteer staff also have the power to decide who is transferred out of the camp for medical attention, and refugees with broken limbs report having been left waiting for days or offered only paracetamol.

"Even if what EuroRelief says is true, why didn't they transfer her [to] hospital?" Arash asks. "You killed her because you didn't give blankets, or if she died just because she's sick… you killed her."

Of course, no-one at EuroRelief wanted this to happen. But if they accept their role as the smiling face of the brutal detention and deportation system at Moria, they must also take their share of responsibility for its residents' fate.

Some names have been changed to protect identities. 

Matt Broomfield is a freelance journalist who has written for The Independent, VICE and Motherboard.

Follow him on Twitter: @Hashtagbroom