We arrived on the island of Lesbos on the 18th of September. Our initial plan was to provide Internet access and communications to several sites for the refugees as well as for the other NGOs there. Our first task was to get to the island and assess the situation to see where the NGOs had set up operations. We needed to assess just what the communications needs were.
Based on that we would then be able to decide what our overall plan was and what communication systems we would put in place. We would also be able to understand the manpower and equipment requirements.
We got a call from the UN who asked if we could provide internet connectivity and communication services for two of the main refugee camps. The camp near the capital is where all the Syrian refugees were being held. About 15 miles away is another camp where refugees from other nations are being housed. Between the two camps we are looking at 7,000-9,000 refugees. In addition to this, there are a dozen or so NGOs with camps and operating centres set up. They all needed connectivity. Furthermore, 60 km north of the main camps, are the beaches where the refugees are landing. In this area, there are a number of small less formal NGOs, and there was little coordination between them.
In the region of the major camps, there is virtually no infrastructure, no electricity, and no telecommunications infrastructure.
The pattern of arrivals of refugees is very much dependent on the weather. The beaches are long, and suddenly on the horizon you see 10 boats arriving at the same time - that's 400 people, in a state of extreme agitation but also great relief, landing all at once.
There had been virtually no sharing and planning of resources among the aid agencies - and so the satellite phones provided by Globalstar made an immediate impact. The devices were swiftly put to work helping to coordinate resources.
To get the refugees from the beaches to the camps, 60 km away, the elderly, women and children and the injured were being transported on buses while the young men walked this long arduous mountain journey.
Disaster Tech Lab provides first-line paramedic medical care and we coordinate with medical staff based at the camps. The ability to give advance notice to those at the camp via our satphones, advising them that people who require medical attention were on the way, proved invaluable.
Of course the Disaster Tech Lab team have also relied on satellite communications to communicate with each other. This current crisis has turned out to be our biggest deployment yet - it's quite a challenge, but very satisfying to be able to help people in this extreme situation.
It is difficult to anticipate the flow of people arriving on the island. On days where weather conditions were poor there would be almost no boats. But then, on one occasion, on the first morning after a few bad days of weather, 1,200 people arrived within one hour.
So now we are looking at and planning for the onset of winter. I've spoken to the NGOs, but also to the local police department - whom we are also providing support with satellite communications equipment from Globalstar - the general consensus is that the huge day-to-day fluctuations of refugee arrivals will continue.
I don't see this situation improving very much for at least another six months. We are sending out teams of four or five technicians every 10 days to help support the relief operation with communications equipment.
We'll keep going as long as we are needed. We will continue to coordinate and collaborate with other NGOs as well as local police and medical staff to try to provide as much relief as possible to these people in this most unimaginable, stressful situation.
Simply Helping People Get in Touch With Loved Ones is Making a Difference
One of the things that is really making a difference to the refugees is simply enabling them to contact family. Many of them are carrying smartphones when they arrive, but lack of GSM infrastructure means that they are of little use.
We gave them satellite phones to use so they could notify their families back home that they had arrived safely. The response we got to this was amazing; some people were in floods of tears at the simple opportunity to make a one minute call. It has to be said we were grateful for the long battery life of these satellite phones.
During our ongoing deployment on Lesbos we used the satellite phones for a variety of purposes:
- Team communications: supplying our teams with satellite phones enabled us to contact them without having to worry about location, cellular coverage, or having the right subscription. We were able to contact the teams and individual team members whether they were on location in Greece, travelling to and from deployment locations. and even when two team members went on a reconnaissance trip to Turkey to see where the refugees were departing from. The satellite phones gave the team unprecedented access to reliable communications.
- Cross organisational communications: There are several locations on Lesbos where boats with refugees are landing. Different organisations have teams and look-outs on these locations but due to lack of landlines and cellphone cover in these areas, the teams are unable to communicate directly. This means that if there are a lot of boats landing in one area, the team at that location was unable to contact the other teams and ask for reinforcements. They were also unable to rapidly call for medical aid. We loaned our satellite phones to various organisations working in these locations allowing them to contact each other and to direct the required resources and manpower to the right locations at short notice.
- Refugee communications: Often we offered the satellite phones to refugees who had no other means of communications - they either had no phone, a damaged phone or simply no funds. They were extremely grateful for the opportunity to make a quick call to family back home to let them know that they were safe. From a humanitarian point of view, this had the biggest impact for these people in such extraordinary circumstances. We saw people foregoing medical treatment in order to queue to use the satellite phone. Many were overcome when talking to their families and burst into tears. It was absolutely fantastic to be able to just pull out the satellite phone, hand it to someone and they could just make a call there and then.
We are also using Globalstar's SPOT Gen3 trackers to remotely keep track of our own teams. The devices allow us to have an instant overview of our teams' locations and enable improved response times and efficiency.
Overall, having the Globalstar satellite phones and SPOT trackers has greatly improved our organisation's efficiency and coordination.
It has also added yet another valuable communication service that we can offer to people and organisations in need.
Evert Bopp - Disaster Tech Lab