[EN] Low-tech in Lesbos: simple and sustainable solutions in the hands of migrants!

15 min readJan 9, 2020

Since March 2018, the Low-tech Lab, [then EKO! from 2019,] has been running the Low-tech for Refugees pilot project on the Greek island of Lesbos, which is experiencing both a migratory and an economic crisis. A journalist, who went on site, reports about the situation there and about the potential of low-technologies.

Writing & photo-report by Pascaline Roi. 2018, May. — [ελληνικα, Français, Deutsch]

A migrant child playing on one of the solar cookers made in a low-tech workshop — © Pascaline Roi, May 2018.

At the gateway to Europe, the Greek island of Lesbos welcomes nearly 8,000 migrants from Asia and Africa. Despite the 2016 agreement between the European Union and Turkey, the number of arrivals remains high. Waiting times for an administrative response can be very long : often several months, sometimes more than 2 years. In addition to the urgency of the rescues, there was the daily management of a temporary situation that lasts: unbearable for the migrants, and also for the local citizens, who are already facing a major economic crisis.

Coming to Lesbos as a volunteer for the Low-tech Lab, I went to meet migrants, locals and low-tech solutions, keeping my eyes as a journalist open.

Lesbos, 3rd largest Greek island, less than 2 hours by boat from Turkey — Open Street Map

Low-tech in Lesbos, to do what?!

A quick reminder: low-technologies are simple, sustainable and accessible systems in terms of costs and know-how that meet basic needs: energy, food, water, housing… A low-tech is, for example, a home-made wind turbine, an energy-saving domestic cooker or a multifunctional pedal-board.

Low-tech kesako — © 2018, Low-tech Lab

With its low environmental footprint, this set of adapted and appropriate local solutions meets the major contemporary societal challenges. Moreover, low-tech is also a philosophy — that of doing better with less. The potential is enormous in many contexts!

First low-tech workshop “desert refrigerator making” with migrants from Pikpa camp, Lesbos — © Low-tech Lab, February 2018

The Low-tech Lab in Lesbos

The Low-tech Lab’s action consists in adapting and disseminating low-tech solutions, both technical and methodological, in order to enable migrants in particular, and all people in general, to meet their needs in a sustainable manner. At the heart of the project is the revitalization of a community of mutual aid and sharing, whether online (via the open-source documentation wiki platform lowtechlab.org for example) or via field actions (workshops, hackathons, etc.).

Meeting the Migrants

Migrants waiting for the bus linking the main town of Mytilene to Moria camp, about ten kilometres away. — © Pascaline Roi, May 2018

According to the UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees), there are around 8,000 refugees and migrants on the island of Lesbos, which has a population of just under 90,000.

When I landed in Mytilene, I thought that all migrants were isolated in camps. Although it is true that the camps are outside the city, it is very easy to meet migrants in the city centre (1): single men/women or groups, families, they stroll in the alleys, wait at bus stops, stroll on the terraces of cafés… like everyone else. All those I interviewed moved me, in one way or another, by their simplicity, their kindness, their history, their living conditions…

(1) According to UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees) statistics for May 2018, migrants in Lesbos include:

- 42% men between 18 and 39 years of age

- 21% women

- 32% children, 13% alone or separated from their families

Because of the war, there are a majority of Syrians (32%), but also many Afghans (21%), Iraqis (19%) and also Africans (including 7% Congolese, Cameroonians, Togolese and to a lesser extent Algerians, Moroccans and Tunisians). I was happy to speak French with them!

The motivations for coming to Europe are varied: political refugees from war zones or undemocratic countries, climate refugees, economic migrants seeking medical care, job opportunities, people seeking individual or sexual freedoms…

This great heterogeneity is cultural and also social: families with children, young people without qualifications and university graduates, urbanized elites… I met a mechanic, a teacher, a cleaning lady, a sales administrator, a veterinarian, an artist…

This diversity is a tremendous asset for collaborative innovation around low-tech because it allows interesting cooperation, rich in teaching and collective intelligence!

Although less important than in 2015/2016, arrivals remain very highPascaline Roi, June 2018

Despite the agreement of 18 March 2016 between the European Union and Turkey, the situation is not improving.

In May 2018 alone, there were still over 2,000 arrivals by sea compared to 480 in the same period in 2017. Not only are the arrivals important, but the waiting periods for the asylum application can reach up to 2 years, during which time the applicants are blocked on the island and in a situation of great uncertainty. In April, the Greek Council of State authorised free movement for newcomers. We have to wait and see what really happens…

When you get to Mytilene, the main town on the island, you don’t really realize what’s going on. But the tension rises when you take the only bus to Moria camp, THE camp that poses problems … The bus driver is stressed and unwelcoming, he even refuses to allow Syrian women and their babies to get on while the bus is far from full… When approaching the camp, migrants shout “Police, police !”… I admit I don’t feel very comfortable.

A heavy atmosphere on the spot which is difficult to define, but which can be explained.

Reasons for anger!

On the migrant side…

The main entrance to Moria’s hotspot : hell in heaven — © Pascaline Roi, May 2018

After multiple migration routes — for example, Afghans pass through Iran before arriving in Turkey and Lesbos — those who manage to reach the island are transferred to Moria camp. Guarded by police and surrounded by barbed wire, it is located about twenty minutes by bus from downtown Mytilene, in the village of Moria. The main “hotspot” on the island is overcrowded and has deplorable living conditions, with an estimated capacity of 3,000 people, according to UNHCR.

Many of the migrants’ basic needs are not fully met, particularly in Moria and the Olive Grove: extreme promiscuity in containers, lack of heating in winter, poor hygiene, physical and sometimes sexual violence…

The entrance of the informal camp nicknamed “Orchard” or “Olive grove”, a few meters from the main camp of Moria — © Low-tech Lab, February 2018

The conditions inside Moria camp being so difficult, some migrants still prefer to sleep in tents outside the camp, in the neighbouring olive grove.

Some migrants, particularly the vulnerable (people with particularly fragile physical and mental health, pregnant women and families, etc.) have the possibility to settle in one of the two other refugee camps on the island: Kara Tepe and Pikpa. The conditions there are more acceptable than in Moria.

This overcrowding causes tensions both inside and outside the camp. When I came to Lesbos last May, a violent conflict broke out between Syrian groups and the Kurdish community. A brawl caused several serious injuries. It is difficult to have exact information, knowing that journalists are persona non grata in Moria…

A migrant warned me: “Don’t walk around too long, it could be dangerous…”. It’s true that as a woman, I don’t feel very comfortable. But when I start talking with the first migrants, in one of the two small coffee shops that have taken up residence near the camp, I relax and the anguish gives way to new emotions.

Side view of the official Moria camp: migrants are crammed into containers — © Pascaline Roi, May 2018

Because I was looking for the Syrian teacher who teaches in the Moria camp school, I was able to get inside. A maze of alleys where containers line up; inside, migrants protect their privacy by laying large grey blankets. What bothered me the most were the pestilential smells in some places, smells that migrants have to endure daily…

After multiple wanderings, having to find money for the smuggler by any means, this place constitutes an additional trauma for these migrants who have come to seek refuge and hope for a better life in Europe.

Faced with the bad faith of the authorities, some NGOs such as Médecins Sans Frontières decided — without any pun intended — to leave the country! However, MSF remained on the island to continue its work under better conditions. But other NGOs, such as Save the Children, have left the island.

Words of migrants

“We are crammed into containers of a few square meters, without privacy”

“It takes several months to get an appointment with the doctor, up to 2 years to get an administrative response! »

Tap water is not potable, it is a little salty, it stings and gives skin problems; water cuts are frequent, especially at night but also at certain times of the day. In some places, smells are pestilential…”

“In winter there’s no heating, it can get very cold…”

“Food is undercooked and not in sufficient quantity; queues can last several hours, causing regular conflicts. »

Faced with some of these problems, low-tech can be very useful!

The beginning of low-tech solutions!

Whether in a context of humanitarian emergency or development, low-tech can find needs-oriented solutions at lower cost by leveraging local resources and people’s know-how!

Migrants — who are in a situation of waiting and heavy dependence (papers, meals, clothes, etc.) — can devote their time and energy constructively. Making their own solutions to meet their needs allows them to be in a position to be autonomous and worthy actors. In this sense, low-tech enables individual resilience while at the same time contributing to the transition and resilience of our societies in the face of environmental and climate challenges.

Together for Better Days Permaculture Garden at One Happy Family: A Breath of Air! Here, in the greenhouse around pallets (future plant walls), from left to right, Peter, Rachael and Andreas, who called for the Low-tech Lab to intervene in Lesbos. — © Low-tech Lab, February 2018

While a low-tech approach is sometimes used by citizens, beneficiaries and field actors, such as Lesvos Solidarity, (various permaculture gardens, upcycling workshops using used life jackets, light housing, etc.), there is little documentation and sharing. For example, several reception sites (camps, showers, etc.) have difficulty treating black and grey water: they could pool their experiences to find the best solutions adapted to the local context. Collaboration with the local branch of Aegean University would also create bridges between worlds that have little in common, much to contribute to each other and could contribute together to frugal innovation.

The low-tech workshops in Lesbos are preceded by a “trash hunting” session to recover everything that can be used! — © Low-tech Lab, June 2018

During the first weeks, Marjolaine Bert, International Solidarity Coordinator at the Low-tech Lab, and Andreas Müller-Hermann, who has supported the pilot project since its inception, essentially did a work of meeting and raising awareness among local actors. Today, the first members of the Low-tech Lab Greece community organize, in collaboration with locally based organizations, workshops to develop and share low-tech technical and methodological solutions with an open audience: associations, students, companies, local citizens, asylum seekers, international volunteers, etc.

Proposed method for the organization of low-tech workshops:

Step 1: Design the solution based on needs and identifying locally available resources (materials, skills, etc.)

Step 2: Collection of materials: trash hunt

Step 3: Manufacturing the low-tech solution

Step 4: Use the solution and continuous improvement

Step 5: Capitalization of the experience to share with others

The first desert fridge used in Moria! — © Low-tech Lab, May 2018

The “desert fridges” workshop was the first workshop initiated by the Low-tech Lab team. This fridge allows you to cool food and medicine without electricity. If it is traditionally made of earth, it was made from a plastic container, canvas, sand and water during the workshop.

Since the workshop last February, Aref and 6 of his Afghan friends use this fridge daily. “This fridge is really useful and practical,” says Aref.

« It’s always full! It is used to store cheese, yoghurt and olives. Usually we could keep the cheese only 2 or 3 days against one week or more with this fridge. »

While Aref gives this low-tech fridge an overall score of 5/5, he has identified some improvements to be made: “We don’t use the part where the water is stored because it drops if you fill it and it’s not practical. Moreover, the sand has fallen because the canvas has relaxed, we must repair it. Despite this, the fridge still works! ». Adapting to every need with the means of the edge is also what low-tech is all about!

On the inhabitants’ side…

Ermou, main shopping street in the tourist town of Mytilene — © Pascaline Roi, May 2018

For their part, while some inhabitants are sensitive to the fate of migrants and help them (accommodation for minors at home, language and computer courses, integration restaurants, etc.), others clearly show their hostility: “Migrants make tourists flee! They replaced them on the beaches and there is garbage everywhere…”, we hear here and there. Indeed the green island, as it is called, with its beautiful beaches, its charming villages and its thermal springs, lives a lot of national and international tourism . However, if there are fewer holidaymakers, volunteers working for local NGOs and associations and migrants constitute a new economic windfall for Mytilene.

It must be said that Greece’s economic context is very fragile. On paper, the country is just beginning to emerge from 9 years of crisis: according to economists, the beginning of growth (1.3%) has taken hold and the country hopes to renegotiate the reduction of its debt (178% of GDP in 2017). In reality, the Greeks are not yet taking advantage of this beginning of embellishment …

Another reason for dissatisfaction was theft from nearby businesses and fields. “Migrants steal fruits and vegetables; some even kill chickens to eat them! ».

During the night of 22 to 23 April 2018, in the centre of Mytilene, extreme right-wing militants of the “Patriotic Movement” injured a dozen refugees — mostly Afghans — with water bottles and flares. Anarchists came to the rescue of the migrants, who had been gathered in the square for nearly a week to protest against their miserable conditions in the camps on the island… The week before, an Afghan refugee reportedly died of a heart attack because doctors in the Moria camp refused to call an ambulance. Fortunately, this event remains exceptional but reveals deep tensions. I myself have seen the frosty reception of some cafe owners and traders who sometimes refuse to serve migrants.

Another reason for the anger of the citizens of Moria and Mytilene is the cutting of olive trees: “To heat themselves or cook food, some migrants cut and burn the olive trees. However, olive trees are very important economic, environmental and symbolic resources for the Greeks! “ Maria, a resident of Mytilene, is offended.

Cut and burned olive trees at the informal Olive Grove camp on the outskirts of the closed Moria camp — © Low-tech Lab, February 2018 /
A wood-burning stove between the tents of the informal camp of the Olive Grove — © Low-tech Lab, February 2018

Moreover, due to the risk of fire, fireplaces lit by migrants (whether burning olive trees, pallets or plastic waste of all kinds) are strictly prohibited in summer. Thus at the end of June, following a forest fire declared in the olive grove which destroyed 10 hectares, the President of the Moria Communal Community went on hunger strike to protest against the poor management of migration on a national and European scale.

What about low-tech?

The sun, a precious ally for low-tech!

Overview of Mytilene, under the sun exactly… — © Pascaline Roi, May 2018

Lesbos enjoys a lot of wind and sun. Solar energy, in particular, can represent an alternative to cutting olive trees and illegal and dangerous cooking fires!

Why don’t we cook with it? That’s the challenge the Low-tech Lab has set itself!

A little carpentery, a little energy, a little cooking… low-tech workshops gather many ideas and talents around the same objective ! Apart from the technical aspect of the solution, the workshops are collaborative and fun moments: everyone participates, the atmosphere is both studious and joyful! Collective intelligence in action! — © Low-tech Lab, June 2018

The first low-tech solar cooker manufacturing workshop took place on 4 June 2018 at the Mosaik Support Centre (run by the NGOs Lesvos Solidarity and Borderline Europe) in downtown Mytilene.

About thirty people participated in this first “solar cookers” workshop. Some were migrants (mostly from Moria camp), others were local citizens and others were volunteers from non-profit organizations. They came from different backgrounds: makers, designers, developers… An incredible cultural diversity too: they came from Greece, Afghanistan, Togo, Congo, Iran, France, Uganda, Australia, Guinea, Sierra Leone, Norway, United States, Comoros, Israel…

Their motives? Learn how to make a solar cooker, use and develop their manual and technical skills, solve social and environmental issues, or simply do something new.

Solar oven type box made from a wooden box, insulated with polystyrene and covered with a glass and a survival blanket reflecting the sun’s rays (tutorial movie here!) — © Low-tech Lab, June 2018

4 types of solar cookers manufactured during this first workshop:

100% upcycled solar oven made during a low-tech workshop from an inner tube (found in a garage), polystyrene (found at the fishmonger’s), a window pane (falls from a glazier) and a survival blanket (found in Moria camp) © Low-tech Lab, June 2018

This first solar cooker manufacturing test workshop made it possible to identify the advantages and disadvantages of each of the 4 types of cookers: the box oven is particularly efficient but more complex to manufacture, the tyre oven is very simple to assemble and does not require any tools, but the materials are more difficult to find, etc.

The workshops also allow participants to discover both the advantages and constraints of solar cooking compared to other cooking methods: need to have sun (of course!), a lot of time (we took nearly 3 hours to cook pasta during the workshop)…

Parabolic solar cooker, given to the Low-tech Lab and assembled during a workshop: if this cooker is not replicable by everyone (materials not available locally at lower economic and environmental cost), it is impressive in efficiency: the tomato sauce started crackling after a few minutes! — © Low-tech Lab, June 2018

It is not only a question of knowing how to find the materials and how to make the cookers, but also how to use them: you have to stay close to the cooker to make sure that it stays facing the sun as the sun turns, you have to avoid opening the glass lid of the ovens that work thanks to the greenhouse effect… And then you have to know how to cook with it! And that’s pretty cultural cooking, changing your habits isn’t that easy. A special “cooking with solar cookers” workshop is in preparation!

Challenge taken up: parabolic solar concentrator made with cardboard and a survival blanket, during another low-tech solar cookers workshop at the “One Happy Family” day centre! — © Low-tech Lab, June 2018

For Marjolaine Bert, coordinator of this pilot project for the Low-tech Lab, the challenge is swarming :

The low-tech belongs to everyone, but to have access to it, it is a matter of creating spaces for sharing, whether by meeting or online!

Faced with the enthusiasm generated by these first workshops, the NGO One Happy Family wishes to continue to organize low-tech workshops on a regular basis… business to follow!

After the effort, comfort: spaghetti tasting thanks to solar cookers! — © Low-tech Lab, June 2018

So many others challenges!

Many challenges have to be met: flies and mosquitoes in summer, thermal insulation of containers, lack of hot water for showers in winter, grey water treatment…

In recent months, new water points as well as prefabricated facilities with showers and individual toilets have been installed at the Oliver Grove. “Before we had to go downstairs to wash ourselves in the middle of excrement,” says A., from Cameroon. © Pascaline Roi, May 2018

For example, when I came, I started to explore water needs in the Moria camp: According to the NGO Watershed, which has replaced pipes and added water points, water would be consumed in the same way as water in the town of Moria.

Yet most of the migrants told me that the water in Moria was not drinkable, that it tasted bad and that it would even cause skin problems by washing with it. It would appear that the number, volume and age of the pipes (dating from the time when the site housed a barracks) are problematic. This would explain why Moria migrants receive a 1.5 litre bottle of mineral water daily.

The water would not be the same throughout the camp: the part nicknamed “VIP” of the camp (sections A, B, C) and certain “levels” (containers being distributed by levels) would be privileged. As G. from Uganda points out: “In our section where there are babies and women, the water is clean, you can drink it. Despite everything, mistrust still prevails, G. also preferring to drink the mineral water from which she benefits “extra”.

Especially at the sight of taps, promoting water savings would already be a solution. We could continue to explore the potential of low-tech systems, such as canacla, which allow hands to be washed with half a glass of water!

So, ready to take on more low-tech challenges?

Together, let’s innovate low-tech!

Join the Low-tech Lab community whether you are a maker, designer, developer, translator… NGO, company, media, makerspace, University, individual… and contribute your way :

  • Follow the progress on social networks: facebook group “Low-tech Lab Greece”, newsletter subscription, twitter, youtube channel, LinkedIn…
  • Contribute to test, experiment with low-tech solutions in various contexts to meet your own challenges
  • Document and share your low-tech solutions that could be useful to others on www.lowtechlab.org
  • Translate the tutorials into the language of your choice (English, Arabic, Farsi, etc.) directly on the platform or by contacting community@lowtechlab.org
  • Invest financially to launch innovative pilot projects and develop low-tech innovation
  • Become a low-tech ambassador and be a change-agent by using your skills to raise awareness and share innovative solutions with your own community!

To take part to Low-tech for Refugees, please contact Marjolaine Bert, coordinating the project: marjolaine@lowtechlab.org

Article key words : Lesvos, Lesbos, Greece, migrants, refugees, camps, solar cooker, solar cooker, desert fridge, empowerment, low-technology, frugal innovation, jugaad, grassroots innovation, adapted technologies, appropriate and accessible technologies, appropriate technologies, intermediate technologies, open-source technology, open hardware, free design, permaculture, frugal economy, voluntary simplicity, collective intelligence, collaborative documentation, maker…




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