Comb, cushion, constitution: What can we offer refugees?

On 11-12 November EU and African leaders are meeting on Malta to take yet another stab at securing Europe’s borders and creating safer routes for refugees making their way to Europe. High on the agenda is how to reduce the refugee flows to Europe through better coordination with other Mediterranean basin countries.

In addition, EU Council President Tusk will focus on getting Member States to deliver on financial pledges and relocation decision made at the October crisis summit in Brussels. Meanwhile, the first refugees to be re-located from Greece and Italy are arriving elsewhere in Europe.

Credits: Stefanie Eisenschenk, Michael Gubi, Travis Nobles (Flickr)
Credits: Stefanie Eisenschenk, Michael Gubi, Travis Nobles (Flickr)

Two months ago FNF produced a report where we travelled along one of the main refugee routes. From the beaches of the Greek holiday paradise Lesbos, through the muddy roads of the Balkans towards their final destination of choice in Western Europe.

We explored liberal solutions to the crisis at hand, by finding an equitable distribution key for refugees landing on Europe’s shores, re-framing Frontex in a way which secures Europe’s borders or cutting the time it takes to treat asylum applications in the EU. Already at this early hour it was clear that EU member states were unable to deal with a new wave of migration, unprecedented in Europe since the Balkan Wars of the 1990s.

Instead we identified the local heroes of the refugee saga as those who work at local level, either in politics or civil society to better the situation of the refugees. We took hope in the words of French philosopher Alexis du Tocqueville who stated that “Man seldom stays at his usual level when confronted with a critical situation. He either rises above it or sinks below it”.

We had then already found proof that civil society had risen to the occasion. Since our first report the EU has agreed to re-locate 160,000 refugees from Greece and Italy, but by as of 4 November only 116 have been relocated, according to the European Commission.

Two months later FNF gathered three such unsung heroes in Brussels to learn more about their experiences with refugees in their country. We followed a similar route, starting on the beaches of Lesbos, making a turn by the central station in Budapest and ending in the idyllic South-Western German town of Leimen. At each station we will ask our local heroes to tell us their story and the situation in their home towns.*

Washed up on the beaches of Lesbos…

Moawia Ahmed, you lead the Greek Forum of Migrants and you daily encounter new refugee arrivals on the beaches of Lesbos. Tell us your story.

President of the Greek Forum of Migrants, Dr. Moawia N. Ahmed
President of the Greek Forum of Migrants, Dr. Moawia N. Ahmed

The refugees who arrive at Lesbos today are not the first ones; in fact our island has a long history of helping stranded refugees in need. However, this time around they are not here to stay. Greece does not have the infrastructure needed to provide a new home for the refugees. The Government has proved unable to answer the crisis in a responsive way, making it the task of civil society to pick up the slack. Today, the aid migrants receive on Lesbos is mainly the result of charitable acts. Let me give you an example; not one publically financed Greek course has been offered to the refugees on Lesbos, all courses made available are run by people like me. In our daily work there is a shortage of nearly everything, and what we need is greater European solidarity in helping these people cover their basic needs, but also in learning the language of their new homes, something absolutely instrumental for any new arrival in Greece. That way we can offer them support the moment they step on their first grain of sand on Lesbos.

Arriving at Budapest Central Station…

András Léderer, you are a coordinator with the Hungarian charity StreetAid, attempting to help refugees who have made it to Budapest. Tell us your story.

Activists András Léderer
Activist András Léderer

From the outside, you might get the impression that since the erection of the fence on the border between Hungary and Serbia, the situation of refugees in my country has disappeared as an issue. Unfortunately, we could not be further from the truth. The Government has purposefully abandoned the refugees in Hungary. Luckily the people are not all on Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s side. The Government has overplayed its hand in demonizing refugees to the extent that when they now see them, they are surprised to find they are just normal people like you and me. Orban has so far denied refugees the right access the Hungarian asylum system and this is currently the perhaps greatest challenge faced by refugees in Hungary today. You will still find refugees at Budapest Central Station, but they are not able to seek refuge in our country.

A walk through the wine fields of Leimen…

Claudia Felden, you are the mayor of the picturesque town of Leimen, a small community of 25,000 people known for its good riesling. Would you tell us your story?

Mayor of Leimen, Claudia Felden
Mayor of Leimen, Claudia Felden

Just like Lesbos, my town also has plenty of experience with refugees. Following the Second World War Germans expelled from Eastern Europe arrived in our midst. In the beginning of the 1990s we experienced a new wave of refugees, this time from the Balkans were war was raging. For now, few have arrived, and about 100 refugees are currently in Leimen. This is a major difference to last year, when the only refugees in Leimen came from Balkan countries like Kosovo or Albania. From the beginning there has been an outpouring of support for the refugees and my constituents are integrating them at every turn, from carnival preparations to football matches. Meanwhile, local authorities are struggling to find adequate housing for them and for that reason we have sought new ways. In our county we are utilizing gym halls for emergency shelter, old American army barracks as more long terms housing as well as what social housing remains vacant. At the moment we can manage, and I am optimistic that we can put our knowledge from the last wave of refugees to good use in helping to integrate this next group. Leimen’s industry needs additional labor forces. However, I worry about the consequences of overburdening small communities with such responsibility, without making resources available to house and integrate the refugees. I would therefore strongly urge the German Federal Government to come up with a plan to shorten the time it takes to treat asylum applications in Germany, so that those who seek refuge need not wait too long to hear a decision on whether or not they can stay or not.


We have taken a route from Greece in the South to Germany in the North to learn more about what awaits refugees at every stop. There are committed volunteers and dedicated local politicians ready to help, but they need more support as well. Our three cases demonstrate what creativity can be unleashed to help refugees, whether it is to offer them a comb, a cushion or even their first copy of our constitution. Returning to Tocqueville, civil society has risen above expectations, as has local politicians. Now member states need to deliver on the promises they made at the last EU Council. 


Håvard Sandvik, European Affairs Manager FNF

Håvard Sandvik
European Affairs Manager



*The above interviews are based on answers given at the panel discussion “Comb, cushion, constitution: What to offer refugees?” at FNF.