“Now that I have told my story, I have one request: please help us. Show the world what's going on in Moria. We are human beings. We deserve to be treated that way.”
These are the words of Quentin (whose name has been changed to protect his identity), a 31-year-old man from the Ivory Coast who now lives in Moria camp on the Greek island of Lesvos, writes Oxfam chief executive Jim Clarken
Quentin is almost blind in his left eye and has serious problems with his kidney and knee. The doctor gave him a paper saying that the authorities must allow him to go to Athens for medical treatment – that was five months ago and Quentin is still waiting for his transfer to be arranged.
And Quentin is not the only one vulnerable and abandoned. Oxfam has been working in Lesvos since 2015 and our recent report highlights how Greece and its EU partners are failing to protect those seeking safety and dignity in Europe. People living on the Greek islands endure dangerous and inadequate conditions while the system to identify those most vulnerable has broken down due to chronic understaffing and flawed processes.
Moria had been described as “hell”, a place where pregnant women and mothers with new-born babies attempt to survive winter in makeshift tents without heating, while children who arrived on their own are placed in detention after being wrongly registered as adults.
One woman told us how she knew women who had given birth by Caesarean section and been returned to the camp after only four days – they had to recover from major surgery and care for their new-born in cold, dirty and life-threatening conditions.
Life for people in the camp is unimaginably difficult at the best of times. This Christmas, Moria was at more than double its official capacity of 3,100 places, with just under 5,000 migrants living inside the camp and another 2,000 living in an informal camp next to Moria, known as the Olive Grove.
In the Olive Grove, people have limited access to running water, toilets and electricity and the ground is littered with rubbish, attracting rats and stray dogs. Many people living in both Moria and the Olive Grove have told us that they do not feel safe and for the countless people who have experienced sexual abuse and other traumas, this causes further fear and fuels mental health problems.
For much of the last year there has been just one government-appointed doctor in Lesvos who was responsible for screening as many as 2,000 people arriving each month. In November, there was no doctor at all so there were no medical screenings happening to identify those most in need of care.
But winter compounds all of these challenges making life even more unbearable.
Recent months have brought heavy rain to Lesvos turning the camp that thousands call home into a muddy bog. The temperature is expected to drop below freezing in the next week and it could snow.
People in Moria and the Olive Grove are housed in a combination of small camping tents and larger family tents as well as in more permanent structures such as containers and large tent-like structures that can house more than 100 people each. Others have to live in makeshift shelters. Only a few tents have heating and there is no hot water in Moria camp – parents must wash even their new-borns outside in the cold.
The situation is particularly horrifying for the people who live in the Olive Grove. Their tents are pitched on a sandy hill and muddy streams of water run through the camp whenever it rains, frequently flooding the floors of tents and drenching the few belongings people have.
For some people, open fires are the only way to keep warm and the burning of plastic bags and bottles creates a hazardous, acrid atmosphere.
For the most vulnerable - unaccompanied children, women who are pregnant or with young babies, people with disabilities and survivors of trauma, among others – such cruel living conditions make them even more desperate and at risk.
We are particularly concerned about a worrying trend of authorities detaining teenagers and survivors of torture after failing to recognise them as vulnerable. Legal and social workers told Oxfam they frequently came across detainees who should not have been locked up because of their age or because of poor physical or mental health. Once in detention, it is even more difficult for them to get the medical or psychological help they need.
In one case, a 28-year-old asylum seeker from Cameroon was locked up for five months based on his nationality, despite having serious mental health issues. No one checked his physical and mental health before he was detained and it took a month for him to see a psychologist.
Oxfam is calling for the Greek government and EU member states to deploy more expert staff, including doctors and psychologists and to fix the screening system on the Greek islands. When people arrive in Greece and seek asylum, they must undergo a vulnerability assessment, that includes an assessment by a medical specialist and, if needed, by a psychologist. This is vital to ensure that vulnerable people are quickly identified and given the support they need.
We are also asking that more people seeking asylum should be transferred to mainland Greece on a regular basis – particularly the vulnerable.
Everyone has the right to seek asylum – we are calling on EU member states to share responsibility for receiving asylum seekers with Greece and believe Ireland has a role to play in this.
We recognise that Ireland has already welcomed 1,022 asylum seekers and refugees from Greece through the EU’s relocation programme. However, more people continue to arrive in Greece while thousands languish in inadequate and treacherous conditions, and globally the number of displaced people continues to rise. Ireland can and should do more to uphold the commitment made in 2015 to welcome 4,000 people by the end of 2017 through the Irish Refugee Protection Programme.
By fairly sharing responsibility with Greece and other European countries on the borders, Ireland can help to ensure that asylum seekers, especially those most in need, can live in safety and with dignity while their applications are considered.
Ireland should also work to ensure that people seeking protection can do so safely so that they do not risk perilous journeys to Europe in the first place. This could be through expanding opportunities for refugee family reunification, enabling refugees in Ireland to reunite with their dependent loved ones.
We must remember that the vast majority of the world’s 68.8 million people forced to flee have been welcomed by some of the world’s poorest countries. All EU members can and should do more.
Jim Clarken is Oxfam Ireland’s Chief Executive.
Oxfam has been working in Lesvos since 2015 to ensure that people seeking asylum are protected.