In September, Moria refugee camp was burned to the ground by the very refugees it was supposed to house. Kevin O’Regan recently visited the camp and explores the system of fear, inadequacy, and deprivation of human rights that led to this violent outburst. He asks why it is that grassroots initiatives can meet the needs of refugees whereas government-run camps are woefully, perhaps wilfully, lacking
N estled among the olive groves, the Moria refugee camp is a walled monstrosity, a blight against the idyllic backdrop of the Greek island of Lesvos. From afar it appears quiet, docile. But this belies the anger and frustration of the thousands of residents there, detained as they fled war and persecution.
On September 19, fire gutted the Moria camp. As many as 4,000 residents fled into the night, leaving behind what little they had left after escaping their own countries.
But why did those living inside the camp set fire to their shelters, destroying sleeping spaces for some 800 people? Several news agencies reported that a rumour had circulated the camp that a mass-deportation operation was imminent, that they would be returned to Turkey.
Another theory lays the blame on an argument between ethnic groups as they disagreed on how best to protest their conditions. While either or both of these may well have been a catalyst to start the destructive blaze, there is little doubt that this was the peak of a long slow build-up of frustration in the camp, frustration at their living conditions and at the painfully long process of applying for asylum in Europe.
The current refugee crisis in Europe has dominated headlines since 2015, when over 1m refugees and migrants, mostly Syrian, fled to Europe to escape war and oppression at home.
So far in 2016, more than 340,000 people have reached European shores from Africa and the Middle East, with more than 4,200 people dying at sea in the attempt to cross. This is now the deadliest year on record in the Mediterranean.
Greece became a hotspot for refugee arrivals by sea in 2015, with 856,723 people making the dangerous crossing. In July 2015, Moria, a former military camp, began processing the thousands of refugees that were arriving daily on Lesvos.
These unanticipated numbers meant that the camp was able to provide accommodation to only a handful of people, and supplies and staff were limited. As winter drew in, NGOs and volunteers arrived to help ease the situation, providing accommodation, food, and much-needed medical aid.
One such example is Together For Better Days, a Greek-Swiss registered NGO that began working in November 2015, setting up a camp in the olive groves beside Moria.
The Olive Grove project, as it became known, was able to provide shelter, food and safety for up to 1,000 people, who were otherwise sleeping rough and burning rubbish to keep warm in the onset of winter.
Once registered in Moria, the new arrivals were able to buy a ticket to Athens and continue their journey onwards into Europe. While conditions on Lesvos and in Moria were far from ideal, they had a way forward and hope that they would soon reach their destination.
In March, the EU-Turkey deal came into effect, and the Balkan countries closed their borders with Greece, stranding thousands of migrants. Key points from the agreement meant that migrants arriving in Greece would be deported back to Turkey if their asylum claim was rejected.
Additionally, for every migrant taken back by Turkey, a Syrian refugee would be resettled in the EU, along with financial and political benefits for Turkey. This dubious deal was met with outcry from many humanitarian organisations, with Amnesty International’s John Dalhuisen describing it as “reckless and illegal” on the grounds that Turkey hadn’t the resources to deal with the influx of Syrian refugees, of which they have more than 2.7m.
What this meant for the situation on the ground was that the refugee crisis stagnated over the past few months. With the deal in place, the number of migrants making the journey to Greece has diminished, which was one of the outcomes that the EU was hoping for.
However, this has also resulted in many more people attempting the far more dangerous journey from North Africa to Italy instead and making for a far higher ratio of deaths to the number of people attempting the journey.
On October 3 and 4 alone, more than 10,000 people on 33 boats were rescued off the Libyan coast by the coastguard and by Italian and Irish navies. Fifty bodies were also recovered from the water.
For those still arriving in Greece by boat, the deal meant that they were arrested immediately on-shore, and taken directly to detention centres pending an examination of their case.
Moria became the main detention centre on Lesvos, and on March 20th 2016 the government closed the camp entirely to non-government organisations such as the UNHCR. The Greek military now runs the camp with help from volunteers, but organisations such as Oxfam and Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) withdrew from the camp, wanting to distance themselves from the EU-Turkey agreement.
“We made the extremely difficult decision to end our activities in Moria because continuing to work inside would make us complicit in a system we consider to be both unfair and inhumane,” said Marie Elisabeth Ingres, MSF head of mission in Greece.
“We will not allow our assistance to be instrumentalised for a mass expulsion operation and we refuse to be part of a system that has no regard for the humanitarian or protection needs of asylum seekers and migrants.”
Together For Better Days, which provided so much to the 200,000 people passing through Lesvos up until now, was also forced to disassociate from the new hostile situation at Moria.
“By February, access to Moria was dramatically censored and access was revoked prior to the EU-Turkey deal,” said Elena Moustaka and Andrew Foley of Together For Better Days. “Prior to this, it became apparent that the ministry was sceptical of our presence on the Olive Grove. Around March, the management of Moria decided to cut the Olive Grove’s water supply and refused to reconnect it, forcing us to negotiate a new connection from a neighbouring property.”
Similarly, across Greece, unofficial camps have been cleared and those living there have been moved to military and government-administered facilities.
“People on the islands are generally very frustrated as a result of the EU-Turkey deal whereby they are effectively detained on the island and cannot legally go to the mainland until they receive official permission to do so,” said Maria Hennessy, legal officer of the Irish Refugee Council. She travelled on a fact-finding mission to Greece in August, visiting both government and volunteer-run camps on the islands.
In this current state of limbo, with many migrants waiting since March with no contact regarding their asylum applications, boredom and frustration has set in.
Having to wait in discomfort and uncertainty has led to unrest in several of the camps across Greece. Incidents such as the recent fire and a series of riots in Moria made headlines across the world. However, the conditions these people are continuing to live in are rarely reported by mainstream media.
Ms Hennessy said of living conditions in Moria: “I was struck by the bleakness of the camp in terms of huge swathes of barbed wire around the perimeter of the camp and in particular the enclosed compound for unaccompanied children where they were effectively detained and separated from the rest of the camp by a chain-link fence. Families are often housed in these steel containers which only have air-conditioning in one of the rooms.”
In this stagnated situation, there have been many reports of Greek and Albanian organised crime gangs targeting those most vulnerable migrants, pushing drugs and recruiting men and women for prostitution.
These people, who spent their entire life savings on their journey to the EU, have ended up having to do anything for money as they find themselves stuck in Greece potentially for years, unable to work legally. Police protection seems insufficient, with reports of abuse and fights flaring up regularly.
There is another side to how refugees are being accommodated on Lesvos. The Lesvos Solidarity Camp near Mitilene, the main town on Lesvos, is the only volunteer-run camp on the island. This camp, otherwise known as Pikpa, takes in some of the most vulnerable cases. This includes children who have lost their families to war, new mothers, and people with disabilities.
Pikpa is an entirely different entity compared to Moria. Built on a former tourist campsite, the residents live in wooden cabins. While these are still crowded, they are protected from the worst of the elements.
They are also provided with sufficient supplies and the children are entertained and educated. However, each resident has spent time in Moria, as they are legally required to stay there for several weeks upon arrival.
One Pikpa resident, Hamzah, described Moria as being “like Guantanamo”.
“The situation there is very difficult,” he said. “Insufficient food and water. And the Greek police are no different to the Syrian police.”
Roda, who nearly drowned on her crossing to Lesvos and is currently living in Pikpa with her three children, one of whom has severe autism, described her experience in Moria: “It’s a hell. We stayed in a tent on pebbles... It’s the most difficult phase of our life that we passed through. Moria equals hell. And here, it’s definitely the best.”
Sajeda, a nine-year old girl from Syria was taken to Moria upon arrival on Lesvos said: “When we first got here to Greece... They gave us a small tent... Not even big enough for my little sister... Then we tried to find another tent, they said we had to pay for it. We suffered a lot, we suffered so much in Moria. People were hitting each other with knives and sticks. And only when we came here, we were able to be happy.”
Why is it that volunteer-run camps such as Pikpa and Together For Better Days can provide such safety and comfort to their arrivals while the government and military-administered camps are seemingly unable or unwilling to alleviate the extremely poor conditions that refugees and migrants are living in around Greece?
According to Ms Moustaka and Mr Foley of Together For Better Days, the ability of volunteer organisations to o perate independently and flexibly enables them to react quickly and innovatively to the situation on the ground. However, while the Greek government and the EU are more answerable to international law, one must ask why after so many months of unchanging poor conditions for these people, whether their vast resources are being deployed in the most effective way.
On a more sinister note, do they want to alleviate the situation for those stuck in limbo?
“Moria has been purposely condemned to portray the ‘shut down of European borders’ and hence it is maintained in severely and worrying poor standards in an attempt to send the message across that the islands are not a safe destination anymore, nor a transit port, but rather another lengthy and risky journey in quest of asylum and legal status,” said the Better Days team.
Whether this is true or not, the fact remains that the institutions of Europe and Greece are causing unnecessary suffering to a vulnerable population. While it is understandable that there are difficulties in replicating the Pikpa model on such a large scale, there is much to be learned from their approach of tackling each issue and treating each person in their care from the standpoint of respect for basic human dignity.
While a lack of consensus among member states and the rise of right-wing populism make a permanent solution to this crisis unlikely any time soon, a little compassion would go a long way.
To continue to ignore the conditions under which these people live is an undeniable affront to the basic tenets upon which the European Union was founded. By committing to working with and empowering Pikpa and other grassroots organisations, as well as dedicating themselves to learning from them, the European Union could easily alleviate massive suffering.
At a time when the European ideal is under siege, it is incumbent upon Europe to re-commit to its founding dogmas of a basic respect and dignity for all. Continuing to undermine its values in order to appease posturing populists will inevitably lead to the European Union compromising itself into oblivion.