WATER: why is there such a shortage for asylum seekers on Chios?

This week, we’ve been drawing attention to an ongoing shortage of water at ‘Vial Camp’ for asylum seekers on Chios Island, Greece. Action for Education runs education centres on the island where the issue has been brought up as an urgent issue repeatedly by students and participants. Our ongoing investigative work aims to lay bare the facts, and ask those responsible what they're doing about it.

In Autumn 2017, the landscape on Chios changed. Up until this point, two camps, Souda (in the middle of the city) and Vial (10km away in the mountains) had held a combined population of between 2000 and 3000 asylum seekers.

Photos: Souda Camp, 2017

Prolonged strain and growing antipathy from local townspeople saw the closure of the more informal Souda camp and the relocation of its residents to Athens, to Turkey, or to Vial.

At this point, affronts to human rights and the stark reality of abysmal living conditions were hidden from sight. Those living in the town no longer had to live next door to a refugee camp.

Yet despite the difficulties of life in Souda camp, it had this positive: run in collaboration with NGOs and solidarity groups, it galvanised support from volunteers and its visibility meant accountability.

Fast forward to 2019 and the only camp left is Vial, hidden near the village of Chalkios around 10km from the main town of the island. Here, between mountains, the camp is barely visible, and that which you can see is kept behind reinforced metal fencing and barbed wire.

At present, well over 2000 asylum seekers live in a space with capacity for 1014 people. Many services are stretched, but since the summer months have arrived, an apparent shortage has arisen in one crucial resource: water.

Visitors to the AFE Youth Centre have been reporting signifiant gaps in water supply, both for drinking and washing. One visitor told us that there’s only water in the showers and toilets ‘for maybe three hours from 8:00 - 11:00 and sometimes we have water in the evening from 18:00 to 19:00, if the water doesn’t run out first’. Another told us that ‘lately they give just one bottle of water a day for drinking.’ This, on an island where tap water isn’t drinkable and the closest shop is 2km away, is a major cause for concern.

We asked for clarification from the authorities (First Reception - a government agency under the Ministry of the Interior) and they responded saying, “Every beneficiary receives two bottles of drinkable water per day (3 litres) as it is prescribed by the World Healthcare Organisation (WHO). As regards the water provision for usage (shower, etc.), it is a problem that concerns all the island generally.”

This rosy image of the truth goes against many individual statements which tell of beneficiaries receiving just 1.5l of drinking water a day, and in some cases none at all.

Whilst the camp management aren’t wrong in drawing attention to general island water issues (water supply is in fact cut often daily during summer months), most businesses and residential properties are well-equipped to deal with this by large water storage facilities ensuring continued access.

In the case of Vial Camp - where over 2,000 people reside - these additional, non-luxury facilities aren’t sufficient.

Instead, those already living in undignified circumstances can’t wash, can’t clean themselves after the bathroom, and can’t cool the little drinking water they have in the 30+ degree heat.

Speaking out over the course of the past week, we’ve been positively surprised by the responses we've had to our statements. The camp management has openly acknowledged the issue - and even claimed they are ‘looking for larger water storage facilities’ - and we’ve received many offers of support and engagement from donors and concerned individuals.

Our next steps are to conduct a more thorough and comprehensive survey amongst the camp population. We continue to provide cool water in our centres and offer transport to the city where cheaper supplies can be purchased. We are exploring options to distribute more water, to provide more showers, and to advocate and effect change in water infrastructure in the camp.

Join us and lend your support by emailing us at chios@actionforeducation.co.uk.