Lessons from the IRC’s Early Emergency Response in the
Urban Areas of Lesbos between September 2015 and March 2016
International Rescue Committee | NOVEMBER 2016
International Rescue Committee | NOVEMBER 2016
front cover: In Mytilene, migrants and refugees set up tents near the
pier where ferries to mainland Greece embark.
opposite page: A young girl watches the ferry in Mytilene port.
©2016 International Rescue Committee
3 Bloomsbury Place, London WC1A 2QL, UK | Rescue-uk.org | Rescue.org
Annex A: Detailed Methodology
Annex B: Interviews
Annex C: Monthly Refugee Arrivals on Lesbos
Less than 10 km from the Turkish mainland,
Lesbos is uniquely attractive as an unauthorised
entry point into the European Union.
Migrants and refugees typically gather in Izmir,
They are then bussed to a remote coastal location,
where they are put on ﬂimsy inﬂatable craft to make
the sea journey to Lesbos.
After landing on the north coast of Lesbos,
Mytilene, where, eventually, they begin the registration
process and wait in shelter sites for authorisation to
make their way by ferry to Athens and beyond.
where refugees gather after
disembarking their boats on their
journey to Mytilene to register
Although a large island,
largely covered in semi-desert scrubland.
Extensive olive groves occupy much of the rest
The resident population is
As the European refugee crisis highlights, displaced people are increasingly travelling to
or through towns and cities, rather than being accommodated in centralised camp settings.
Today, more than half of the world’s displaced people live in urban areas
and will, on average,
The humanitarian sector must adapt to meet the
as sites of heightened risk of crisis, marginalisation, and inequality. It is therefore critical that
humanitarian actors take a coordinated and collaborative approach to supporting refugees
and migrants, tailoring their response to suit the urban context and its various stakeholders.
Urban areas are characterised by the size, diversity and
mobility of their populations, the density and diversity of the
built environment, the number and diversity of government,
civil society, private sector and academic organisations, and
the reliance of urban populations on social, political, technical
and economic systems rather than the natural environment
for their livelihoods.
These characteristics create both
urban crises. In particular, they create an imperative for
the humanitarian sector to adapt to the complexity of
urban environments, the diversity of their populations,
and the large variety of stakeholders present within them.
The arrival of large numbers of people in an urban area
brings challenges for both displaced and host populations.
It also presents opportunities. Currently, however, both
the challenges and opportunities are not adequately
recognised or addressed in humanitarian response.
The emergency response to an unexpected influx of
asylum seekers and other migrants in a town or city
sees “traditional” humanitarian actors sharing the field
of operations with a broader range of stakeholders than
they are used to cooperating and coordinating with.
Additionally, this is an environment in which local and/
or national actors will often have an existing operational
presence and where local authorities will expect to continue
to exercise (and have respected) their mandate for oversight
of the activities taking place in their constituencies.
This report underlines the importance of a coordinated
and collaborative approach to emergency response in
urban areas. The recommendations, addressed
primarily to humanitarian actors, reflect lessons
learned from the International Rescue Committee’s
(IRC) initial emergency response programming
on the island of Lesbos, Greece, between
September 2015 and March 2016, while the crisis
on Lesbos was at its peak. This report is not
a reflection of the IRC’s current programming
on the island. The findings recognise the complexity
of urban areas and the need for greater coordination
of response activities and better collaboration among
responders, stakeholders, and local communities.
This report also contributes to the continuing discussion
around how to improve urban humanitarian response.
The findings and recommendations are intended to build
on the growing knowledge base around good practice.
It is not an evaluation, but rather a product to inform and
influence operational practices and policies in ongoing and
future responses to humanitarian crises in urban settings.
lesbos map, opposite: Basic data © OpenStreetMap contributors,
available under the Open Database License; Landsat and
SRTM3 data, NASA; UNHCR, “Lesvos data snapshot,” 30 March 2016;
Alfred Thomas Grove, Oliver Rackham, The Nature of Mediterranean Europe:
An Ecological History, Yale University Press, 2003, pp325-327
aegean location map, opposite: CC BY-SA 3.0, original by
Wikimedia user Future Perfect at Sunrise, no endorsement implied
right: Refugees and migrants often arrive on the northern shores
of Lesbos in overcrowded rafts and wearing inadequate life jackets.