Fulbright Specialist in Athens Assists Local Government in Dealing with Refugee/Migration Crisis

Joseph Bock, Director of the International Conflict Management Program at Kennesaw State University
2015-2016 Fulbright Specialist to Greece

In December of 2015, Fulbright Specialist Joseph Bock traveled to Greece for three weeks to help the Municipality of Athens with their influx of migrants and refugees. Before his second trip to Greece in February 2016, he reflected on his Fulbright Specialist experience in this interview.

“My wife and I get the New York Times, and I had been reading almost daily about the plight of these migrants, feeling, “Oh my gosh, I wish I could do something.” And I got an email from [the Fulbright Specialist Program] saying, “Would you be willing to go to Athens?” It was just so wonderful to have them contact me and ask if I could help – what a blessing it’s been.”

Editorial Note: the term “migrants” is used specifically as the refugee status has not been accorded to all of the individuals with whom the City of Athens and Dr. Bock have been working.

What is your academic background and area of expertise?

My Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees were in social work. My Ph.D. is in International Relations and the vast majority of my career has been in humanitarian relief and development. My area of research and writing has predominantly been on violence prevention. So, if you combine my humanitarian relief expertise with a focus on research and writing (and to some extent experience) in violence prevention, everything goes hand in hand. A lot of humanitarian situations are called complex emergencies, which means that not only do you have a need for aid and humanitarian relief, you also typically have the potential for a violent crisis as well. 

What challenges is the City of Athens facing that your Specialist project has helped to address?

The City of Athens is asking for help with how to handle the migrant influx. They’re already doing a lot of good work. In fact, I went to the camp they set up for migrants, and it’s by far the best camp I’ve ever been to in terms of the facilities, hygienic concerns and otherwise. Athens has a lot going for it. Their challenge is they’ve got a huge unemployment rate – roughly 50% of the young people in Athens are unemployed. There aren’t jobs. So, you’ve got a lot of migrants coming in, and if they’re idle, can’t find work, they lose hope. It can really be bad. There could be challenges with security and that sort of thing.

Can you explain your role as a Fulbright Specialist for the City of Athens?

I’m working as part of a small team to help the City of Athens with the strategy they’re using for managing services. I am also helping with the technology that may assist the City of Athens collect data for use with different programming activities. The city requires ways of collecting information on what the needs of the migrants are as well as what the people of Athens are willing to do to help the migrants at an individual level. Facilitating that linkage between people in need and people who want to help is the primary objective of my work in Athens.

What projects are you and the City of Athens pursuing to address refugee and migration concerns?

Some of the concerns are very preliminary, but obviously one of the main concerns is, security. It is possible to crowdsource to identify situations that could turn into violence and to use digital maps to identify what are commonly called “hot zones.” An internet-based platform like CrowdMap where you can crowdsource certain types of incidents can be very valuable in identifying violence against migrants, or conversely, violence by migrants against citizens of Athens.

How does access to information and technology play into the refugee crisis?

The city is sponsoring a website called Synathina that facilitates citizen involvement. I believe we can use it to identify who is willing to help with what.

It seems like every single migrant family has a smartphone, and so the ability to communicate in this way is already substantial.

You will return to Athens soon for second Specialist visit, how are you preparing?

I have been in contact with a group called The City at a Time of Crisis. They’ve already developed a Crowdmap on violence against migrants in Athens. They no longer have funding so that map has gone dormant. This was a very good beginning, but it could be developed further into something that is functional for interventions on the ground.

I also recently met with a geographer here at [Kennesaw State] University. There is an international group of geographers called the International Charter, who are willing to help in using GIS (geographic information system) data for various applications. Perhaps we could use satellite information to keep track of vessels in the water near the Greek islands so that if there is a vessel, people can keep an eye out to see if it’s in distress. 

I teach a Special Topics course, designed to allow students to collectively problem-solve and develop projects to address the challenges that are identified. I am hoping to get my students involved in this Crowdmap project to provide early warning of conflict in Athens. There’s no reason you have to be in Athens to work on that part of the project. I hope to get students involved in monitoring satellite data, to keep an eye out for boats in the water, which could indicate refugees in distress.

How will your upcoming trip to Athens be different than your first?

Based on what I learned during my first three weeks in Athens, and what I’ve learned since I’ve been back in the United States, which has enabled me to drill down on some of my questions, I hope that I can implement some of the practical solutions that have presented themselves.  For instance, if we can work with the U.N. High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) to get data on refugees and migrants, and if we can keep track of the people who need help through that system and ask them to articulate what specifically they do need help with, there might be a way to link them with people or organizations providing help, using a cellphone-based questionnaire platform like Open Data Kit.

When you complete your next Specialist project, will you continue to engage on these issues? 

I certainly hope to continue working with [the City of Athens] after I get back. I feel like I’ve made some lifelong friends there. It’s great to be able to play even a small part in trying to bring about a solution to those challenges.

I personally find it really helpful that I was able to go in two separate trips. The space between trips has given me time to wrestle with some of the issues and research additional resources for addressing the challenges facing my colleagues in Greece.

I feel like the Fulbright Program has taken a really good step with this approach of a grant that brings people in who have a certain kind of knowledge base and can apply it to real life problems in other countries. I think that’s a wonderful application of the Fulbright methodology.