Last month, health and safety personnel on the Greek island of Lesbos inspected the Moria refugee camp to find a river of human sewage coursing through the tents.
After the inspection, the local authorities of the North Aegean regional government issued a statement calling upon the Greek Ministry of Migration Policy to either address the numerous health and safety issues they found, or close down the camp.
They gave a 30-day ultimatum, saying: “Once it expires, we will ban its operation over even just one of the aforementioned problems.”
The deadline is this week, and it is clear that the regional government is unable to keep their threat to either clean or close the camp. Thousands of refugees remain trapped there in fetid conditions, without permission to travel onwards to mainland Greece. To address the overcrowding, Greek migration authorities have transferred 1,500 people to the mainland since the inspection. But another 1,961 refugees arrived in Lesbos during the month of September alone. Many were told that the camp no longer had tents, and spent several nights sleeping in an adjacent olive grove, which is starting to become a de facto refugee camp of its own.
“The biggest problem in Moria is the huge number of people. We have to wait hours for food and days, or months, for appointments,” says Nasser, a 27-year-old from Damascus who has been stuck in the camp for more than a year. Even though Nasser, who declined to give his last name for safety reasons, was recently approved to travel to Athens, he cannot leave the island until he receives his monthly allowance from the United Nations Refugee Agency, or UNHCR, which is delayed due to the sheer mass of people waiting for everything from asylum interviews and doctor appointments to food and shelter in Moria.
“It seems like the Greek government is trying to move people out of the camp before the winter, but it isn’t working,” he continued. “If 500 are allowed to leave one day, another 500 come the next day.”
When I traveled to Lesbos to investigate the deteriorating security situation inside Moria for The Intercept in early June, the population was approaching 7,000. Now it is almost 9,000, and growing. Recent reports found that there are 84 people for every shower, and 72 for every toilet — a sanitation crisis that has led to the notorious river of sewage. Anyone hoping to eat has to wait anywhere from five to 12 hours in line to be served a single meal. People are sleeping 150 to a tent in bunk beds that have been likened to a concentration camp. Some cynically believe that the Greek authorities are deliberately neglecting the camp to discourage more refugees from making the journey.
“The government and the European Union are letting people suffer to discourage against any ‘pull factor,’ as they say, and keep others from trying to reach Europe.”
“The government and the European Union are letting people suffer to discourage against any ‘pull factor,’ as they say, and keep others from trying to reach Europe, across Greece’s borders,” said Human Rights Watch Greece researcher Todor Gardos.
If this is the case, it is not working. During the month of September, a total of 103 boats arrived to the Greek islands, carrying 3,920 refugees. While these numbers have dropped significantly since the height of migration across the Aegean Sea in the fall of 2015, which saw more than 200,000 refugees landing on the islands in a given month, it still raises questions about the long-term viability of the camps, and where people will go if and when they are destroyed.
“These camps were never meant to be a permanent solution,” Gardos said. Moria, the largest of the island camps, was built to hold a maximum of 3,100 people as a temporary shelter. “The current situation is a failure of the Greek government, and I don’t think that we can absolve them of their responsibility.”
Representatives from UNHCR insist that they are upholding their end of last month’s promise to ease overcrowding in the camp by helping the government facilitate asylum-seekers to travel to the Greek mainland.
“We are doing our best to move people out of the camp and improve conditions as quickly as possible,” UNHCR spokesperson Theodore Alexcellis told The Intercept, mentioning both the agency’s efforts to relocate refugees, and a government project underway to improve sewage treatment in the camp. “Hopefully we will not have to resort to drastic measures, like closing the camp,” he said.
But transferring people to the mainland is not as simple as giving them a ferry ticket. First, they must be granted approval to seek asylum in Greece, a process that can take months. Next, the Greek authorities need to ensure that there is enough space to accommodate them in mainland camps, a disorganized process that is already creating a bottleneck of refugees who need to travel within a limited time frame.
Since the Macedonian government closed its border with Greece in 2016, what was once the portal to Europe has gone from being a transit zone to a last stop. As more and more refugees are stuck in Greece, sentiments against them have worsened across the country. Many refuse to hire or rent apartments to refugees, causing high rates of unemployment and homelessness on the mainland. Far-right parties, like the Golden Dawn, have capitalized on the crisis to catapult themselves from a fringe movement to a political force.
It is harder to even ask for asylum in Greece. Refugees who cross the land border from Turkey are increasingly being violently turned away before they can so much as take a few steps on Greek soil, much less ask for protection.
Meanwhile, a total of 20,000 refugees are still stuck on the islands. In Moria, post-traumatic stress that many carry from their home countries combined with the psychological torture of being at the mercy of Greek authorities has created a terrifying cocktail of psychosis and depression. Fights break out over trivial tensions, like the theft of a phone charger or someone looking at someone else’s wife the wrong way. Women are afraid of using the toilets and showers, lest they are sexually assaulted or raped. As The Intercept reported this summer, there have been mob attacks on Kurdish refugees by cliques of Islamic hard-liners.
Last week, a teenager attempted to hang himself from a pole — part of a growing number of suicide attempts by children.
“We do not know how long we are going to be here, and it’s making us crazy.”
“Many of these children come from countries that are at war, where they have experienced extreme levels of violence and trauma,” said Dr. Declan Barry, a medical coordinator in Greece with Doctors Without Borders. His organization has been monitoring the rising numbers of children and teenagers self-harming and attempting suicide in Moria. “Rather than receiving care and protection in Europe, they are instead subjected to ongoing fear, stress, and violence, including sexual violence.”
While most refugees arrive with trauma, many still feel euphoric that they have survived the journey and finally reached European soil. However, the realities of living in Moria, delays in the asylum process, and the lack of reliable information cause their mental health to deteriorate quickly. With no end in sight, and the best-case scenario being transferred to another camp, many are losing hope.
“I thought we were going to be in a camp for a few days, and then move on. I had no idea it was going to be like this,” says Sara, a 23-year-old Iraqi refugee that I met in Lesbos. “We do not know how long we are going to be here, and it’s making us crazy.”
Even if Greek authorities and UNHCR were able to transfer everyone out of Moria camp by this week, or the end of the year, the humanitarian crisis is far from over. There is a small chance that Greece and other EU states will step up and grant more people asylum, ending the policy of indefinite detention. However, it is far more likely that refugees will reach the mainland only to realize that the same miserable conditions of Moria and the island camps are still there, only this time in a new location.