By Smaro Pegiou
Last July, I had the opportunity to visit the Moria First Reception Centre (Moria camp) for asylum seekers. They are arriving in massive numbers by boat to Mytileni, the main port of the Greek island of Lesvos. Located in the northeastern Aegean Sea, Lesvos is very close to the Turkish coast, making it an attractive gateway for refugees looking for an entry point to Europe. As a researcher working on migration issues as part of my PhD at the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki, I went to Moria with fellow researchers to see the living conditions of asylum seekers inside and outside the camp. It was a brief but sobering glimpse at one corner of the ongoing international refugee crisis.
The people received at Moria camp have travelled across the Aegean to seek asylum and/or work in the European Union. Many of them are picked up by the FRONTEX co-ordinated operations of the Greek Coast Guard. Those who make it to the island are the lucky ones; more than 20,000 people have died in the Mediterranean on such journeys over the last 20 years (IOM estimates).
Local and international NGOs estimate that approximately 1,000 refugees arrive at Lesvos every day, most coming from Syria and Afghanistan. During my stay, I saw several FRONTEX boats intercept a dinghy carrying almost 100 refugees attempting the crossing. Several international organizations, including MSF, Doctors of the World and the UNHCR, told us that by the time of our visit, there were 4,000 people on the move on Lesvos, which has a stable population of more than 85,000. More asylum seekers were expected to come due to the ongoing conflict in Syria and the good weather conditions that make boat crossings easier. The massive, unprecedented influx of refugees along with the deteriorating economic situation of Greece puts pressure on small island communities such as Lesvos. It may be the country’s third-largest island, but it lacks the socioeconomic infrastructure to respond to the growing humanitarian needs.
After coming ashore on the north of the island, at the closest point to Turkey, the refugees have to walk around 40 km to reach Kara Tepe and Moria camp. A Greek anti-smuggling law makes it illegal to provide transport for refugees. I heard about the case of two local women who volunteered to transport some exhausted and dehydrated refugees, including some pregnant women and children. They were arrested just before our arrival and accused of “transfer of illegal foreign migrants.” Thankfully, both were acquitted by the Misdemeanors Court of Mytileni.
We were luckier – we arrived at the Moria First Reception Centre by bus. It was morning but the temperature was already 35° C, and every 20 minutes family groups or individuals arrived exhausted and dehydrated at the camp entrance. The Moria camp is housed in a former military base in the countryside approximately 1 km from the sea and 3 km from the town of Mytileni. Built with funding from the EU Returns Fund and the Greek government, the camp was intended to be a detention centre and started operations in September 2013. It actually never served as a detention center but only as a reception center.
When they reach Moria camp, asylum seekers are registered, processed and seen by doctors. They stay there from two days to a week and then they can catch a ferry to mainland Greece. From Moria they get a permit to stay for one month, during which they can submit a request for asylum. If they come from Syria, the duration of their stay permit lasts for six months. According to the organizations, women and children go through a faster procedure than the rest.
Our research team entered the camp with a big carton of medical supplies chosen from a list supplied in advance by Doctors of the World. We were a large group 40 people entering all at once. This made many of us uneasy, powerless as we were to have any significant impact on the lives of the asylum seekers.
Three organizations were working inside Moria camp during our visit. Doctors of the World provides medical coverage; METADRASI, a Greek NGO, provides certified interpreters, guardianship and escorts for unaccompanied minors; and UNHCR, which offers technical advice on questions of law, quality assurance, information analysis, project management and communication, as well as country of origin information to the Central Asylum Service of the Ministry of the Citizen Protection of the Hellenic Republic.
A fence separated the area where the detainees live and the area where we were allowed to enter. This was the place where the registrations take place and the NGOs are located. While we were talking to representatives from these organizations about the needs and the general situation inside the camp and on the island, detainees in the areas where they’re detained until their registration process is completed started demonstrating by making noise, banging plastic bottles on the walls. The NGO representatives mentioned that this is a daily demonstration where the detainees ask for faster procedures in order to leave. Some of them shouted ‘Thank you for coming here,’ perhaps hoping that we could help them get out of the camp faster. I only felt more powerless to make any real impact on their vulnerability. These people fled war and now were detained inside a restricted space, helpless. Giving medicine, toys and crayons for the kids, information and talking with them, transmitting the situation by making it viral through social media, being somehow in solidarity with their desperate situation… that is all we could do.
Later we visited the camp outside the camp, the makeshift area where many refugees stay until they are allowed to enter the facility to be registered. Many refugees were camped there in tents, with scarce or no access to water or sanitation. Whole families stay there under the sun, waiting to be registered. Some wait three days, some wait one or two weeks.
A truck selling watermelons, toilet paper, bottles of water, biscuits and other basic items came and went, its wares in high demand. Some Afghan boys came to see us. Moa, a PhD student who speaks Farsi, tried to communicate with them. Soon enough we started making jokes and speaking about football in English and Farsi-Dari. They said something in Dari and one of them ran quickly to the truck shop. He returned holding a watermelon. ‘You are our guests’ he said with a smile, offering us watermelon. For a while we shared relaxed companionship, eating watermelon together, laughing and trying to communicate. With the help of another researcher, I wrote down the names of some Greek NGOs that could help them once they reach Athens. Others exchanged Facebook contacts with the researchers.
Briefly, we were just people eating, laughing, communicating. The great human need of communication brings people from all over the world together, even in the most difficult and challenging circumstances.
The conditions at Moria camp make it clear that Greece lacks the infrastructure to manage this high influx of refugees. The reception centre and the asylum service are overwhelmed. There seems to be some kind of improvement in managing the procedures of registration, but all in all there has not been any serious political will to manage this human crisis.
It has been estimated that since the start of 2015 more than 25,000 people have arrived on the island. It is expected that this number will rise in the upcoming months. The locals and volunteers cannot be left alone to deal with this refugee and humanitarian crisis. At first, the commitment expressed by EU Member States to resettle 20,000 refugees to the EU seems like something to be welcomed. But in reality, it is nothing next to the 1,805,255 Syrian refugees stranded in Turkey, 1,172,753 in Lebanon, 629,128 in Jordan, 251,499 in Iraq and 132,375 in Egypt, according to UNHCR on the Syria Regional Refugee Response.
These people are paying thousands of euros to flee from their countries, passing through very dangerous routes, risking their lives. Europe, the United States, Canada, the Gulf countries, Australia, Brazil and other countries need to take more action. First, they should be sending processing teams to the main European entry points – like Lesvos – to register asylum seekers. Then we need to develop more legal and safe avenues for the refugees to come to Europe or elsewhere. We have to allow for more resettlement, more humanitarian mission opportunities, fair reunification programmes and more flexible visa policies. In short, we need a coherent reaction plan.
What I saw at Moria camp reinforced for me the belief that building fences and walls will not put an end to the massive influx of refugees or asylum seekers. It will only create more illegal and dangerous routes and increase the phenomena of smuggling and trafficking. More people will drown in their attempt to find a safe home for them and their children. What is needed more than ever is to understand that there is an unprecedented refugee humanitarian crisis and it is time for states to take on responsibility.