Kos: Material Witnesses

Over 1 million people made the perilous journey to Europe via the Greek Islands during the Summer of 2015. The small island of Kos became a frontline destination with 18,600 arriving in a six-month period to increase the island’s population by 62%. This four-year research study, located at Sheffield Hallam University presents new insights on the inadequacies of International non-Government Agencies to the refugee crisis in Kos through the optic of design. The study investigated: the activities of the unofficial volunteer group Kos-Solidarity (KS) who provided essential frontline humanitarian assistance as no official reception facilities existed at the time; the improvised systems and solutions they created to provide daily care to <1000 refugees and conceived new frugal innovations in response to the challenges and behaviours witnessed. In 2016, Kos-Solidarity along with 16 volunteer groups from the Aegean Islands were nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize.

“I am a high school teacher. I started helping because I heard about a new team- Kos-Solidarity helping the people. And my first experience was… I’d just go there to give some bread. I bought some bread from the bakery and went there to give it to this team. And then, they ask us to help them. I realised that to give something once is not enough. You have to do it, because these people need help every day.”

2015 to 2020

Longitudinal Data: Migratory Flow & Occupancy on Kos


The methodological approach brings together three datasets. Firstly, six years of Hellenic Republic Ministry of Citizen Protection National Coordination Centre for the Border Control, Immigration and Asylum (NCCBCIA) data and European Border and Coast Guard Agency statistics (Frontex) were synthesised to provide a quantitative and longitudinal picture of migratory flow to and from the island; from 1st January 2014 to 31st December 2019.

Prior to 18th March 2016, authorities only captured daily arrival data. As a consequence of the EU-Turkey agreement, the data collected by Frontex after the 18th became increasingly comprehensive and comprised of: daily arrivals; departures to the mainland, departures off the island and EU-Turkey deal repatriations; occupancy rates in UNHCR accommodation, the island’s Reception & Identification Centre (RIC) Detention Centre and the Police Station; and the total number of refugees on the island.

“There were thousands everywhere. In the sea, outside the sea. The bad thing is that we don’t know how to save who wear this life vest.”

“they were arriving in the fake boats, fake rubber boats…And because they were crowded, were very low in the sea because of the waves was full of water. So they use it [air pumps] to keep alive. Keep floating.”

“I have a memory of an arriving refugee. I remember once in the sea, in front of the Police Station there was a TV channel. And two guys wearing the life vest and just for the…fake news for the TV channels! Two guys wearing this in the sea and the reporter faking. I didn’t like that. Probably gave them some money or something to do this.”

On the 18th March 2015 the number of refugees on the island had fallen to 61. Throughout 2019, the occupancy of the RIC exceeded its capacity of 816 and exponentially grew to <4000. Today (13th May 2020), five years later, the total number refugees on the island in all types of accommodation is 2935.

“The first time I go to the beach, I found about 20-30 people. Come on, come to give you water. How much? No, no pay! It’s free. Solidarity! Why? because Solidarity. But Turkey its everything pay. This is Greece. Welcome to Greece. Welcome to Kos.”

“The white board. It was our life! Without it we would have organised nothing. Very important for everything. At the beginning for one or two months, we we’re basically, we didn’t have a board. We were organised by saying. I remember some volunteers from Sweden that came to have the initial idea to buy a board and put …let’s say in place. Because they was so many people and things in mind, so we couldn’t have time to make the simple stuff. Go straight to the most important: prepare food to, yunno, to recognise not by word. It was very helpful, every one checking this when they first step in the warehouse, to see what they can see…what they can help.”

“We started doing this as a temporary solution until the State, I don’t know who else, finds what to do. But since we were doing this, everybody was relaxed and said okay, let them feed the people. So, at a certain point in August 2015, we decided that we can not do it anymore. We announced from next week, we stop distributing food. And they sent the Red Cross with Police support. They gave food for one day and said we can’t do it. It’s too difficult. It’s too hard. The next day we were there again.”

“Then, there was a need for some people to be on the beaches to save the new boats arriving. To give them the first help in a way. The first help. And so, the other job that K-S started was the night patrols. It was illegal to take these people with your car and to transfer them. It’s illegal. We gave them help when they arrived and they walked on their own maybe one, two or three kilometres [to the Port] to have more supplies. But after that the UNHCR and Samaritans had a bus because of the situation. The weather was worse and the peoples, naked and wet, the bus bring them to the Port for supplies. And so, there were many times people were wearing only underwear with the grey blanket.”

“Every night. A lot of bottles of water inside my car. I have food, water, shoes and clothes, blankets. Everything. About 100, 150- 200 bottles every night I give to people… Inside my car everything for the age. One packet: clothes, shorts, underwear, pampers- everything. How old is he? Okay. One year? this is the packet for you and change now because in the Port many children. And I help to change the children. This is the first [one] for me. And after, the woman and after, the man. Okay.”

2015 to 2016



A pre-planned field trip scheduled for March 2016 corresponded with the date that the EU-Turkey deal came into force- 18th March. The original objective of this trip was to support Kos Solidarity and the implementation the LifeHacket Trio project; a collaborative project instigated by Louise Wallwein MBE (and KS volunteer), to repurpose abandoned life jackets into usable products to support the onward journey of refugees to the mainland. Given the significance of our arrival date, upon reaching Kos Town on the evening of 17th March, the UNHCR trailer in the Port Area was visited as it was assumed that there would be a major influx of last minute arrivals. This was not to be the case. Subsequently, it was discovered that the Turkish coastguard authorities had been enthusiastically deterring attempted crossings for days.

In anthropology terms, the standpoint of the researcher was flipping back and forth from an etic (taking the perspective of the outsider) to epic (the perspective of the insider). The original objective of the research now pivoted towards Kos-Solidarity themselves; after witnessing first hand the improvised strategies and systems they had developed to address the unmet needs of refugees and after listening to the personal accounts of a group of exasperated refugees.

Action research recorded distribution activities from their rented warehouse located in Kos Town. This former gym space was the a nerve-centre for the operational planning of their daily and evening volunteering activities. Activities which included the distribution of milk, water, clothing, shoes, blankets, hygiene products, sun screen and the preparation/ collection of food. Central to this logistical operation was their white board.

A series of site analyses of both informal and formal refugee settlements was conducted; abandoned and in use. This included the Captain Elias Hotel (2015) and the MSF run refugee camp (2016) located within the Archaeological Park adjacent to the Kos Town Police Station. A total of 38 refugee artefacts were retrieved from these locations and from beaches at Aigaioy and Psalidi. It was anticipated that these artefacts, which became the basis of an object archive, would help to narrate the story of Kos Solidarity.

A second data collection trip occurred in the Summer of 2018. The objective this trip was to expand the object archive (if any refugee artefacts had survived) and to revisit the site previously recorded to capture time-lapsed photographic evidence of their abandonment. The pictures of sun-bleached and decaying life jackets seemed symbolic of the disinterest shown by the international community and the media of an on-going international crisis.

Fieldwork also included a visit to the geographic location of the Reception & Identification Centre (RIC) on the outskirt of Pyli. Here a previously unknown site was discovered on the land adjacent to the RIC. Subsequently, it was discovered that this abandoned site became an unofficial overflow camp after the capacity of the RIC had been exceeded (July – November 2016). These refugees were primarily cared for by three Kos-Solidarity volunteers from Nisyros- the Nisyros 3.


Policing of Humanitarian Volunteerism


It could be asserted that a contributory factor for such a disinterest was an unintended consequence of the EU’s Facilitator Package legislation, and the introduction of the Council Directive 2002/90/EC Defining the Facilitation of Unauthorised Entry, Transit and Residence (28 November 2002). The Facilitation Directive (Article1:2) states that Member States can chose whether to criminalise civic society acting for humanitarian without profit (Carrera, Vosyliute, Smialowski, Allsopp and Sanchez 2018). The relevant paragraph states:

“Any Member State may decide not to impose sanctions with regard to the behaviour defined in paragraph 1(a) by applying its national law and practice for cases where the aim of the behaviour is to provide humanitarian assistance to the person concerned “

Only Germany, Ireland, Luxembourg and Portugal have been found to be exceptions to this rule. The Research Social Platform on Migration (2020) provides further clarification on who can be accused of facilitating irregular migrants:

NGO or merchant ships conducting search and rescue operations; NGOs and volunteers in the border zones providing food, shelter, showers, medical assistance, access to justice;  Individuals giving a lifts or providing shelter; Smuggled migrants (including family members and friends) helping each other; Journalists and filmmakers, making a story about the situation in border/transit zones; Taxi, Uber, other shared car services, bus drivers

As the EU law does not insist on the mandatory exclusion of humanitarian volunteerism from criminalisation, this has led to public prosecutions being pursued by EU Member States. As of December 2019, a total of 171 individuals had been criminalised with 60 cases of investigation and criminal prosecutions across 13 EU Member States (RESOMA 2020). Case exemplars are described in greater detail in the Fit for purpose? The Facilitation Directive and the criminalisation of humanitarian assistance to irregular migrants: 2018 update. A study commissioned by the European Parliament’s Policy Department for Citizen’s Rights and Constitutional Affair. See:

“I remember one day, I had four pairs of my shoes in a car. But that day we’re distributing only for children… Only for women today, only for children today and tomorrow only for men. So it was the children’s day. And when I was standing there helping with the distribution, I saw a guy passing by wearing a pair of shoes. I said, ah! I know those shoes! And then a second guy comes with another pair. Someone gave them my shoes, because anything we had in our car we’d just give it way anytime.”- K-S Volunteer”

2015 to 2016

Captain Elias


During 2015, the refugee population in Kos Town was growing exponentially. Between January and August a total of 33,299 had making the 15 mile sea crossing from Bodrum, Turkey. August witnessed the arrival of 16342 people with daily arrivals peaking on the 21st August-1134. Responding to this challenge the local government identified an vacant hotel on the outskirts of Kos Town- Captain Elias. Initially, the refugees were directed there by word of mouth and the Police. Upon arrival they discovered little administration and no INGO in place. There was no one there to take care of them other than one or two volunteers.

Eventually MSF arrived to provide medical assistance and installed tents and facilities such as showers and toilets. Kos Solidarity in stepped in and up to tackle the logistical challenge of providing a daily meal to each and every person as its occupancy exponentially grew from 300 to 1000. In rising to this challenge, K-S improvised by shifting away from providing a hot meal (which necessitated the huge task of finding and purchasing hundreds and thousands of plastic forks and takeaway cartons each day), to the pragmatic distribution of sandwiches and fruit.

“The [arm] bands of Kos-Solidarity. I was feeling safe wearing this because when we were going to the camp, Captain Elias to share food, to distribute food, and anything else. In a way, they respected that we were wearing this. They knew that we were there to help them.”

“It was a massive undertaking…So we stopped doing the hot meals after the people was more than 300 refugees.”

“I remember… once we were about three or four [volunteers]to feed one thousand. The meals were not enough. So I started making sandwiches at the back of a car. We gave sandwiches, we gave cans- and all this stuff. And at the end, we had about six people to feed. We gave everything to these people. These six people standing there. So we ordered pizza for them!”

2016 and 2018

The ‘Hotspot’


Funded by the EU, island’s Reception & Identification Centre (the hotspot) on the outskirts of Pyli became operational on the 1st April 2016 with 51 people. Three months later, the occupancy rates at the RIC had exceeded its official capacity of 814 and jumped to 1531 by the 5th September. Over capacity resulted in the abandoned buildings adjacent to the official site being commandeered by the RIC’s inhabitants, in addition to the presence of UNHCR tents. This was locally known as the Annex- an unofficial overflow camp that was home to 320 people. At first the Annex was unsupported, until three Kos Solidarity volunteers known as the Nisyros 3 stepped in to provided daily support to this self-organising group. For identification purposes and to aid the distribution of food and items such as shoes, each tent was issued with a number and each building space a name such as the ‘Disco-Bar’ and the ‘Astrotrio’.

Site analysis and of a personal collection of photographs which recorded this situation revealed the creativity and resilience of its occupants to resolve unmet needs not being fulfilled by INGOs. The digging of culverts to divert rain water away from flooding their tents. This self-sufficiency also extended to the cooking of meals. With small teams self-organising the preparation and cooking of rice and chicken for groups. The adaption of UNHCR fleece blankets to hide anti-migrant graffiti written on the walls, their use as a privacy screen within rooms or to enclose external door or window openings. Materials found on site were also repurposed by its occupants into new functional products. One such discovery was the use of electrical wire to create an improvised washing line to dry their clothes. Not all their immediate needs were resolved. The charging of mobile phones was a daily occurrence and a significant problem as everybody owned a device but with limited access to recharging stations. This resulted in lengthy queues forming within the RIC to recharge their phones and power banks. It was also necessary for owners to supervise their charging phone to deter its theft. However, a local alternative soon emerged. Seizing the opportunity, locals in Pyli began to offer to recharge their devices for a small fee.

By early 2017 the Annex site had closed and remained dormant until 2019 when a resurgence in numbers jumped to <4000. This resulted in the creation of improvised shelters both inside the Annex and also with the RIC itself. Conditions captured by Refugee Support Aegean. Current occupancy data can be accessed at

“We had a small group here in Nisyros… and we started to help Kos-Solidarity. Then, there were no boats anymore but there was a camp- The Annex. And I wanted to go to see the situation with the refugees.” 

“I was going everyday… I lived at the Annex!

Everything was unofficial there…They preferred to live in the [abandoned]buildings.But not because there was not enough tents; on the contrary, people from the hotspot were coming down…They had a kind of space. So they could decide who sleeps with who, to put friends together. So they had choices! Different to the hotspot where they had no choices or nothing.”

Kos Solidarity Logo created by Ippokratis Chalas
© Sotiris Palaskas

© Refugee Support Aegean 2019
© Refugee Support Aegean 2019

”They took me up there [the Reception & Identification Centre] and based upon what I saw, it was a very sterile place. There was no personality, very institutionalised in terms of grey boxes. I think it’s a specially designed to provoke depression or to lose your hope… I don’t know what sick mind designed this horrible thing.”

2016 to 2020

The Archaeology of the Refugee


Helen C. Evans, curator at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York (2014) states that, ‘the preservation of what remained’ is an act of not forgetting and also remembering. Spectral objects are socially important as they become a catalyst for remembering to those with direct involvement and serve as a memory of the event to society as a whole.

With tourism being critical to the local economy, physical evidence of this unprecedented event has subsequently vanished from the island with each trip. The research has subsequently preserved a total of 61 objects that thematic span and connect narratives of improvisation and volunteerism. Each object has been catalogued and analysed in accordance with the Cataloguing Object Organisation (COO) Standard used globally by curators and museums. A comprehensive data record has been created for each object in th archive. This comprises of three elements: the work record, the geographic place record and a credit description. A work record captures object data such as title, creator display, creation date, materials and technique, dimensions and description notes. A geographic record describes it hierarchical positioning and its precise discovery location using the global mapping tool What 3 Words. The final component is a credit description for exhibition purposes. This object archive is unique. Acting as material witnesses this archive records and contributes to the island’s rich cultural history.

Object-Based Interviews

Woodward (2016) suggests that object interviews as a material method connects us with not only the artefact, but also with ourselves, our relationships and our history. Acting as material witnesses these artefacts were used to structured object-based interviews and a focus group with former Kos-Solidarity volunteers. Gell (1998) identifies that objects are not passive but have effects.

Specific objects were used as a route to understand in greater the operational challenges they faced. A total of 16 objects were selected for their geographic and contextual significance: the beach, the warehouse, Captain Elias Hotel and the camps. These objects included: a KS arm band, an improvised chart used to size donated trousers, a child’s flip-flop, a life-jacket whistle and a plastic fork. Their oral testimonies were captured, transcribed and thematically analysed using the Listening Guide methodology (Brown & Gilligan, 1992). This process consists of four separate readings: 1) the plot- what stories are participants sharing? 2) self-voice (what is the focus?) 3) what are the relationships? and 4) what the relationships with social/ political structures? Reading 2 led the to production of i-poems where a participant’s first person statements are extracted along with the accompanying verb for context. Analysis of these i-poems retrospectively revealed their individual concerns and preoccupations at the time. A prevalence of ‘I don’t know and I don’t think’ in one account reflects a state of flux and the uncertainty and urgency of the situation that they face. In a second, the frequency and emphasise of ‘I need’ expresses the depth personal immersion, and symbolically, a frustration at the absence and speed of an official response. In a third, the repetition of ‘I remember’ is both reflective and distant; a memory being recalled and a story being told. This raises an important literary question for us all. What is the moral meaning of this real-life fable?

“We had to distribute with every meal a fork. We needed hundreds and thousands of forks everyday! So we had, you know, we wanted, we had to ensure we can find forks. We bought all the forks from all the stores! Even cups, even some aluminium take-away containers for the meals. We had to buy hundreds and thousands of them.”

For the great doesn’t happen through impulse alone, and is a succession of little things that are brought together.” 

Vincent van Gogh 1882

2015 to 2016

LifeHacket Trio


Responding to the request of KS volunteer Louise Wallwein, and a need to support the onward journey of refugees to the mainland and beyond, this iterative project explored the repurposing of abandoned life jackets into three practical products: a bag, a pillow and a belt.

Our evaluation of discarded life jackets revealed their inadequacies. Almost all life jackets examined were found to be fake. Manufactured using sub-standard materials where foam inserts offered no buoyancy. Their life-saving capability was superficial and no better than the improvised buoyancy aids used by refugees such as tyre inner tubes, inflatable arm bands and rings. Inconsistent manufacturing quality prevented the identification and use of stitching reference points to guide a process of deconstruction and reconstruction. To overcome this difficulty, a series of ABS templates were created and laser-cut to restore manufacturing accuracy and production efficiency. Throughout this process, design propositions were iteratively reviewed by KS volunteers and refugees.

On the 18th March 2016, this initiative was suspended due to the commencement and enforcement of the EU-Turkey refugee agreement.

2018 to 2020

UNHCR Blanket+++


“Sometimes they were walking with the blankets in the city. So they were like ghosts…”

The UNHCR grey thermal fleece blanket has been impervious to design innovation for over fifty years. The blanket is a Core Relief Item (CRI) with 9 million+ distributed each year. The primary purpose of the blanket is to provide effective protection against the loss of body temperature. However, our study found it no longer satisfies contemporary user-centric needs of refugees. We discovered there improvised use by refugees. When worn as a shawl, people intuitively pull the blanket’s edges together and clasp them to provide effective insulation. However, many ordinary tasks require the use of both hands. So, how do you hold and eat your meal or embrace the hands of your children while walking? These basic human-centred design considerations have been neglected. The primary objective of this project was to reimagine the UNHCR blanket for the 21st century by augmenting and humanising its design to make everyday activities a little more bearable for the millions of refugees who receive a blanket each year. A super-frugal approach was taken with the simple addition of three buttons to improve its usability and functionality. Not all great ideas need to be new. Creative thinking can improve well-established products that we all take for granted.

2016 to 2020

Dissemination of Research Outputs

The research, its object archive and its design outputs have been shared both Nationally and Internationally. This includes: 2020 AHRC What Design Does…showcase (Kos: Material Witnesses); 2020 The Geneva Health Forum, Geneva (UNHCR Blanket+++); 2019 AHRC Design Research for Change Exhibition, London (Kos: Material Witnesses); 2019 Innovate UK GCRF Competition Briefing: Health & Wellbeing, Edinburgh (Kos: Material Witnesses); 2018 WHO Global Forum on Medical Devices, Geneva (UNHCR Blanket+++); 2017 PUSH Festival, Manchester: Louise Wallwein MBE performance of the The Island, The Sea, The Volunteer and The Refugee (Object Archive).

The Kos Archive is curated by Prof. David Swann & Sotitris Palaskas. Thank you to the KS volunteers who contributed their time and support. For further information: