By Erika Frydenlund and Luz Diaz
Lesbos, Greece has been in the global news stream regularly since the 2015 refugee crisis when the island was inundated with boats upon boats of people crossing the Mediterranean from Turkey to seek a better, safer life in Europe. Before the EU-Turkey Statement in March 2016, the refugees landed on Lesbos and proceeded to mainland Greece for distribution throughout the European Union. After the agreement, refugees now have “geographical restrictions” that keep them on the island while their claims are processed. Where the Greek islands once served as transit points, they have now become backlogged detention centers, or “hot spots.”
The Moria “hot spot” has notoriety in the international media for its overcrowding, sanitation problems, poor preparation for winter conditions, and high suicide rates. Humanitarian organizations do what they can to provide safety, dignity, and support to the thousands of forced migrants stuck there waiting for a ruling on their asylum claims, but the vastness of the problem overwhelms such efforts. An internet search of “Moria Greece” provides a deluge of horrific accounts and images of the “hot spot.”
But, there are two Morias: the hot spot built around a former military installation to detain forced migrants and the farming village where people have lived for generations. Their lives and town have been overshadowed by the humanitarian disaster contained just a short walk away. However, Moria is a traditional Greek village with a handful of shops, restaurants, and cafes that subsists mainly on cultivating the olives for Lesbos’ famous olive oils. The village is also home to a fantastic example of a Roman aqueduct that used to transport water to the island’s capital, Mytilene.
This isn’t newsworthy, and perhaps the many, many humanitarian aid workers on the island don’t care. There’s a great animosity between locals and NGOs for a variety of complex social and economic reasons. But, the village’s existence and identity are actually very important to the refugee crisis. We attended a meeting in early May in Moria village designed to bring citizens of Lesbos together with NGOs to “bridge divides.” In this meeting, the leader of Moria village spoke to the group expressing his concerns about the strain of the hot spot on their village life. This isn’t about xenophobia. His concerns were largely practical.
It is well known that Moria Hot Spot has far outgrown the infrastructure’s capacity to sustain life (i.e. the sewage system is completely maxed out). By shared proximity of services, this means that Moria village is also experiencing sanitation problems, with sewage backups and the increased flies and mosquitos that come with that. Locals reported skin infections from swimming in the sea from what they suspect is sewage draining into the Mediterranean from the camp overflow, but no scientists have come to confirm the water quality or had warned them of the possible effects. And, importantly, they are concerned that the village of Moria is conflated with the hot spot of Moria, leaving people to think that they live in a terrible place—perhaps even associating them with the terrible conditions of the detention center.
Despite the xenophobic overtones of the news media coverage where Lesbos’ citizens have staged protests and strikes against forced migration (and also increased VAT taxes, which the news often neglects to mention), interviews we were conducting among the island’s citizens reveal very little personal resentment against refugees and migrants. On an individual level, they respect the human right to seek a better life. They detest the inhumane conditions in which people are forced to live in the hot spot. From a life quality and survival perspective, however, they feel neglected and trampled by the presence of so many forced migrants and NGO workers.
Something as simple as a shared name—Moria village and Moria hot spot—has social repercussions. As the residents of Moria village read the news, they see only terrible things associated with their home. They are left to deal with their own sewage problems and abandon their traditional summer visits to the sea. Their claims of chickens and goats going missing en masse go unaddressed. You might think that these are small sacrifices to make when there is so much suffering only a few hundred meters away. But it’s not. Small sacrifices and small concessions over long periods of time breed xenophobia and resentment. Most of the residents of Moria hot spot do eventually transit off the island. The vast majority of aid workers have not and will not take up permanent residence in Lesbos. The residents of Moria, and communities across the Greek islands, however, are there to stay.
One NGO that we know of, a local organization called the Starfish Foundation based in Molyvos, has tried to assist the village of Moria with their limited funds by providing cleaning supplies and trashcans to help contain the infrastructure problems. The problems of the village, however, are largely overlooked and, when acknowledged, sidelined as not as worthy of investment. After all, if there is so much human suffering just a short walk away, can’t the residents just appreciate that they still have their families, food, and shelter? The social discontent in Moria is a microcosm of the discontent in communities across Lesbos, and we would suspect across the Greek islands and maybe in host communities around the world. If we cannot look to the host communities with compassion for the problems that they are facing, we cannot effectively address the enduring impact of long-term refugee hosting.
Erika Frydenlund is a Research Assistant Professor at the Virginia Modeling, Analysis and Simulation Center at Old Dominion University in the USA. Her research focuses on using computer simulations to understand complex questions about migration and mobility, with particular interest in protracted refugee situations. She traveled to Lesvos in May to meet with representatives from INGOs, the municipality, and local NGOs, as well as with locals who responded to the refugee crisis in Greece.
Luz Diaz is a graduate student in the International Studies program at Old Dominion University. Her master’s thesis research involves interviews with citizens of Lesvos, Greece to understand how the refugee crisis has impacted the local community on the island. She recently traveled to Lesvos to interview locals, NGO workers, and refugees to conduct fieldwork. She aspires to pursue humanitarian work upon graduation.