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Meet Gerardo, Caroline and Frank, Member State experts from the Netherlands and Raf, Member State expert from Belgium, deployed in the EASO Spain Operation (Canary Islands)

Gerardo, from the Netherlands works for the Dutch reception organisation COA as a manager of a reception centre where asylum seekers wait for their asylum procedure to start. Since the second half of March, he has been working as an Expert for EASO in the Canary Islands.

Caroline has been working with the Dutch Reception Authority (COA) for the past 15 years. In the last 8 years she has been working as a manager of a site and for the past 6 years she has been the manager of a site where COA provides housing and guidance for unaccompanied minors. 

Frank is a construction engineer, responsible for the housing of refugees at various reception centres in the Netherlands. 

Raf works as an Engineer-architect at FEDASIL, the Belgian Federal Agency for the Reception of Asylum Seekers. His work mostly concerns the technical maintenance and renovation works of some of our reception centres.  

You were deployed in the Canary Islands. What motivated you to apply?

Gerardo: In the past I worked in Latin America and afterwards I always had the wish to be deployed to Southern Europe or the Middle East. For the last five years the work in the Netherlands was hectic and I felt very responsible for the centres where I worked and therefore, I did not apply. When the EASO support operation in Spain started I felt that it was the right time to apply.   

Caroline: In 2019 I was deployed at the hotspot in Samos, where I had a great experience working with EASO. When the opportunity arose to work with EASO again, but this time in Spain, I did not hesitate to apply for this project. What satisfies me the most is that not only my knowledge and experiences can be used in a broader context (than just in the Netherlands) but I also receive new information and ideas that I can take back to the Netherlands and share with my colleagues. 

Raf: In Belgium, our Department of Infrastructure is considered a 'support service'. We take care of the facilities wherein our operational colleagues provide the actual reception. And this was also my motivation to apply. I was deployed previously to other hotspots so I know that the conditions in the reception centres can be 'challenging'. I hope to contribute with my own experience and know-how to the improvement of both the working conditions of the employees and the application of the minimum standards for reception.

Frank: Last year I was deployed on a mission to Lesvos in Greece. It became clear to me that the reception of refugees at Europe's external borders is under pressure due to the high influx. This motivated me to apply to go to the Canary Islands because there the same problems arise with the unforeseen influx of refugees arriving by boat.

Could you briefly describe your experience in the Canary Islands?

Gerardo: The first month we visited five emergency reception centres on the islands of Tenerife and Gran Canaria and mapped the operations. I was especially interested in the site management. After this initial period my work concentrated on two centres on Gran Canaria where more detailed information was sought on information provision and lately on end of stay.  

Caroline: Together with a national colleague we were asked to gather information on four specific sites on two different Canary Islands regarding information provision, standards and processes. My task was to gather as much information as possible on the topic of vulnerability. It took us about 4 days per site to gather the information and to report everything in the designed templates. It was very interesting to see how all the sites put in their best effort to make it work, disregarding the high number of arrivals at those sites while trying to make the site liveable for the migrants and to secure everyone’s safety.

Frank: We visited several reception centres on Gran Canaria, Tenerife and El Hierro. We provided recommendations, in consultation with the Spanish authorities, on how to set up the centres according to European standards for reception.

Raf: In just under two weeks, we visited several sites on Gran Canaria, Tenerife and El Hierro. Most sites were already operating reception centres, for which we provided advice and drawings on how to upgrade from an emergency centre to a long-term, standards-compliant shelter. We also visited some near empty terrains, for which we made an analysis and proposed some variants of a reception centre design.

What were the main challenges, also considering that you were deployed during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic?

Gerardo: In the Netherlands, I work in a reception centre so even though conditions are different in the emergency centres on the Canary Islands I don’t see this as the main challenge, but working in an environment were only English and Spanish is spoken and the face mask is mandatory really makes it difficult to hear and understand everything that is said, also because I have a hearing problem. 

‘’Working with the colleagues from EASO and the Spanish NGOs is not exactly a challenge but rather a gift I am glad to be able to experience.  ‘’

Caroline: The biggest challenge of all was the communication with people who speak another language other than your own while wearing facial masks. Fortunately, everybody recognised this as a challenge, so we could have a laugh over it and adjust the wrongly interpreted conversations. Another challenge was to maintain 1.5 metre distance at all times. This was not always possible, especially on the sites, so it was extra important to consider the other advice such as as washing hands often and properly as well as wearing the face mask at all times.  

Frank: The goal is to collect as much information as possible in the short period that you are present at the location and to process it in a report. This requires adaptability, being able to consult with other team members and allocate tasks well.

What did you learn during your deployment to the Canary Islands which you think you will be able to apply to your everyday work in your home country?

Gerardo: I realised that having staff on the ground working together with and for the beneficiaries is very important. In the Netherlands, we simulate this but in practice there is a lot of computer work and not enough work directly with the beneficiary. 

I am quite a practical and problem solving person. Within the framework of the EASO operation I have to lean back and work on protocols and procedures and this is a very good experience which will help me in the future. 

Last but not least I take the time to walk to the office and even though it takes almost 45 minutes I feel a lot better doing this then stressing in the morning and evening traffic.   

Caroline: Again I realised that we spend a lot of time behind our desks in the Netherlands, where we should be more present at the units. 

Besides that, I think we could introduce different activities and community meetings. There are many ways to do so and every time I visit other sites I am inspired!

Raf: I am inspired by the way the staff in the reception centres we visited are doing their work often lacking the essential elements, such as an office. I sometimes catch myself designing in a more minimalist way now, using available space much more versatile.

Frank: I discovered that it is important to share the experiences and knowledge about how the reception of refugees is organised in other Member States.