A Postcard to happiness inside camp Moria
A postcard to happiness inside Moria
For all of it’s natural postcard beauty, the Greek island of Lesvos is the gateway to the fortress of Europe for many of those fleeing from the most atrocious crimes, including wars in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan; torture and sexual slavery in Libya; threats in countries like Pakistan and Somalia; oppression from regimes in Iran and Egypt, and genocide and crushing poverty from North Africa to Central Asia. According to the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), there are 65.6 million displaced people globally, the highest level since the end of World War II. This has led millions of refugees to Lesvos, Greece’s third biggest island, and has the distinction of being the largest of these ‘open air detention centers’ in the eastern Aegean. You can clearly see Turkey across the Aegean sea, from the East coast of the island and with its northernmost tip only 5 miles (8km) from the Turkish coast. At the height of the migration crisis in 2015, over one million migrants and refugees have survived the perilous journey in inadequate rubber dinghies — paying upwards of 1,000 euros from Turkey to Greece to arrive at its shores on a daily basis. It is also a graveyard for the thousands of corpses that have washed ashore on its beautiful coastline. And it’s hell for the thousands of women, men, and children who are trapped in horrific conditions, at risk of physical and psychological harm.
Their lives are on hold
The ‘hotspot’ camp Moria — is a former military compound built to accommodate a maximum of approximately 2,000 people. There are currently nearly 2.5 times that number — around 7,000 — Stretching along a hilltop with plenty of razor-wire topped fences & watchtowers, and the conditions are unfit for human habitation. It’s worth noting the residents are free to leave the camp and move about the island, but many are far too busy trying to stay healthy and alive to enjoy the sights and sounds of Lesvos. Upon their arrival to Moria, they are taken to a registration area, where they are photographed, fingerprinted and asked their country of origin. They then receive their identity cards, a medical evaluation and a date for an interview with the European Asylum Support Office or with the Greek Asylum Service. Many of the people arrive without papers, as refugees flee from fighting, they often have no time to grab documents. Even those that they can take with them are often lost along their journey, along with cell phones and passports — stolen by thieves or smugglers, snatched by border police, or lost at sea. Most of the camp is now comprised of sagging tents, a squat or if they’re lucky, rectangular boxes, with what looks like shipping containers holding as many as 20 people packed tightly together that’s meant for a maximum of four, with narrow muddy passageways between them. There are only 120 lavatories and 75 showers for the refugees to share — The United Nations said, that women and children are at a higher risk of sexual violence in the camp and called on the camp management to employ more police. It described the bathrooms there as “no-go zones” for women and children after dark if they are not accompanied. Even showering during the day can be quite dangerous. A few women I spoke with mentioned they have not bathed in two months from fear of being raped. The UN said the actual number of incidents of sexual violence was likely to be much higher because many survivors were too afraid to report assaults. A few meters beyond the confines of the steel gates, on a neighboring hill sits a separate makeshift camp called The Olive Grove, where hundreds of people, mainly young men & women, live without any security, electricity, adequate showers, or running water. Most of the tents are constructed out of salvaged wood, rusting metal rods and recycled tarp. The first thing you experience upon entering is an overwhelming stench of rotting garbage and urine, as there’s no trash or sewage system in place.
“A lot of bad things happened. That I cannot talk about. I will say, they said they would kill me, kill my father and my brother,” while escaping from ISIS in Iraq.
Moving beyond the Islands
It has been two years since the European Union sealed a deal with Turkey intending to stop illegal migration to Europe by closing the main route that a million refugees and migrants had used to cross the sea to Greece. Under the agreement, which has been criticized by humanitarian aid organizations, refugees and migrants who manage to cross the sea to Greece are trapped on the islands. They face being deported back to Turkey unless the Greek authorities determine that they should be granted asylum in Greece. Only the most vulnerable asylum seekers such as pregnant women, unaccompanied minors and victims of torture, or asylum seekers with close family members elsewhere in Europe are allowed to move to mainland Greece. Where they will be offered subsidized housing or, if that’s not available, to another refugee camp that’s better equipped than those on the islands. The number of refugees being sent back to Turkey, for instance, has dropped into the low dozens per month as asylum seekers appeal rejections and rights groups challenge the legality of the claims. In addition, the Greek policy has forced asylum-seekers who arrive in Greece to apply for protection there, and dictated that refugees couldn’t leave the island on which they arrived until their asylum request had been accepted. Most of the refugee’s are keen to go to Germany and other northern European countries, and tens of thousands are now stuck in Greece as their route north has been blocked. With the deal in place, the Greek islands have seen a reduction in arrivals by sea, but it hasn’t discouraged many more thousands from making the journey. In 2016 there were a total of 173,561 arrivals by sea with 434 people perishing along the route, compared with 2017, there were only 29,595 who made the crossing with 61 deaths. Since the start of January 2018, there’s been 11,133 arrivals and 35 deaths along the Eastern Mediterranean route.
“I’m still trapped on this island, it’s been almost two years. I don’t want to die here, but the only future is our independence, and they will not give it to us.” from a young woman who fled from Syria.
Signing off from inside Moria
Throughout the last three years of my life working in the humanitarian field, I have visited many refugee camps, but I have never seen people in such atrocious conditions as in Moria. What distressed me the most besides the conditions was the feeling of helplessness at not being able to do more for the women, men and children inside the camp. The majority of the children I met are very young and will have no chance of an education and hence no future if they are not helped beyond the confines of the barbed-wire fences. They will grow up in this environment, which pains me at the end of the day. It would be so easy to change this desperate situation. It would take the European governments to show the humanity they claim to represent and make sure people have access to a fair asylum process. I will continue to help in anyway I can and I hope to visit soon again to give them a voice and share their stories. For anyone contemplating humanitarian aid work, I cannot recommend it enough. It will change your life & challenge your comfort zone, and also give you the opportunity to travel the world and gain a humbling insight into peoples’ lives.