Refugees languish in camps on Lesvos as conditions deteriorate

In the waiting line. Knut Bry, Author provided

While the refugee crisis in the Mediterranean seems calmer than this time last year, the policy and political crisis it’s created in Europe remains largely unresolved – and thousands of people are caught in the middle.

Some 57,000 refugees remain trapped in Greece, waiting for asylum claims to be processed. Several thousand live in camps on the small island of Lesvos in the Aegean Sea, which for many fleeing the Middle East has become a gateway to Europe.

Fewer refugees are arriving there since the EU struck a deal with Turkey to stem the flow of refugees via the Aegean, but the slow implementation of the Relocation Scheme and the low number of departures to other EU member states has dragged waiting times out from an anticipated eight weeks to six months or more.

As one Syrian refugee I met told me: “We are in purgatory here.”

Moria is an identification and registration centre with adjoining camp, a forbidding place surrounded by barbed wire and patrolling security guards. It’s the first place refugees are taken on arrival in Lesvos, and is where they’re assessed to see if they’re entitled to protection under international asylum laws.

There aren’t any official figures, but there may be as many as 4,000 refugees in Moria camp. It has operated as a detention centre, and people couldn’t leave it; now, largely due to pressure from NGOs, they can leave the camp, but not the town of Mytilini.

On my most recent fieldwork trip in early June, it became clear that conditions in Moria and in Kara Tepe are getting worse. Basic needs are not being met. Rubbish, poor sanitation and food, and protracted waiting, make conditions unbearable.

As a young Syrian told us:

When we arrived in Moria they gave us a visa for six months and directed us to the European Asylum Support Office relocation scheme, but we are now stuck here … we should not have registered – just smuggled ourselves onto the boat [to Athens] and taken our chances.

In recent weeks, violent outbreaks between security guards and refugees have broken out over camp conditions and poor treatment. Tear gas was used during protests over a child being hit by a guard. I am regularly sent videos of protests and fights inside Moria via WhatsApp and am asked to post these to let the world know about the deteriorating conditions in the camp. This kind of “digital witnessing” is common among refugees using smartphones.

But the long, uncertain wait leads to frustration. Fights are also breaking out among refugees. The tensions will only rise in the heat of the summer.

Trust and community

Pikpa Camp is entirely different. It offers shelter to around 80 of the most vulnerable refugees (about 20 of them children) with medical issues. Run entirely by volunteers, it depends on donations. It is an open camp, and people can come and go as they please – but some people never go out. One group of women are too afraid to ever leave their tent.

Loud and clear. Knut Bry, Author provided

Pikpa provides psychological support for those suffering trauma or the after effects of rape or torture. They also help people with their papers and the complex process of seeking asylum.

Occupying the site of a former children’s summer camp, Pipka is a pleasant environment. There is a strong sense of trust and community. Most people have a role. We met one young Kurdish Syrian man who was the camp cook, barber, poet and singer.

But even in these relatively hospitable conditions, many living at Pikpa are inevitably depressed or traumatised. They have lost loved ones, and families are dispersed.

One young unaccompanied minor was entrusted to another family by his mother, only to be abandoned. His mother paid a lot of money so he could escape after his two brothers were killed; she remains in Aleppo with his younger sister and disabled brother. He’s depressed and scared, and feels he has let his mother down.

Finding another way

While women and children (especially unaccompanied and separated children) make up a growing percentage of refugees on the island, many physically fit young men grow impatient with the wait.

Every day, as the boats in the harbour in Mytilini prepare to leave for Athens, scores of young men keep watch and wait for an opportunity to stow away to get to Athens and then on to Germany or Norway or Canada (no-one mentions France or the UK).

A mural in Lesvos. Knut Bry, Author provided

A young Pakistani man told us that he hid in a container six times and was arrested every time. With a laugh, he said he would keep trying. Some try and fail every day, but they have more hope than those stuck in the camps.

Many locals fear that thousands of refugees will remain in limbo in Lesvos indefinitely, and that the world is simply looking the other way.

It remains to be seen whether visa-free EU travel for Turkish citizens will take effect as it’s meant to in July. If it doesn’t, the deal could break down, and Lesvos will see new arrivals on its shores and once again the camps will fill up fast. And if it does go ahead, then the deal, which has highly dubious legal and ethical foundations, will succeed in shunting the EU’s refugee crisis to Turkey. Either way, the problem will not be solved.

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