Tue, Dec 26, 2017 - Page 9 News List

‘This isn’t Europe’: life in one of Greece’s worst refugee camps

Patience is running out on Lesbos, where thousands live in the packed Moria camp, but the government is finally taking action

By Helena Smith  /  The Guardian

Illustration: Yusha

High in the hills of the Greek island of Lesbos, in a former military camp filled with containers and tents housing refugees and asylum seekers, the onset of winter has elicited particular dread.

In the countdown to its official arrival, protests have become louder both inside and outside the facility, whose wall is graffitied with the menacing message: “Welcome to Moria prison.”

For the men, women and children forced to call Moria their home, the refugee camp is a daily battle for survival in conditions so desperate that even Greek Minister of Immigration Policy Yiannis Mouzalas has said they could be life-threatening.

For human rights groups, who have long sounded the alarm, the vastly overcrowded camp is a tragedy waiting to happen and an embarrassment for Europe.

Now, as the rains begin to fall, authorities in Athens are taking action, pledging to transfer 5,000 asylum seekers to the mainland.

For the first time in more than a year, Moria’s population has dipped beneath 6,000, it was announced last week.

The camp, originally built as a temporary measure at the height of the refugee crisis in 2015, was designed to accommodate 2,000. Most of its occupants live in flimsy tents whose only preparation for winter has involved using wooden pallets to elevate tarpaulins above the mud.

At all hours the air is pungent with thick, acrid smoke — the result of plastic bottles being burned by detainees to keep warm in the absence of readily available wood.

Mounds of litter lie along pathways of slush and excrement, the latter spillover from lavatories unable to cope with a population that for the past 18 months has been three times more than the camp’s capacity.

“Moria [is] very bad,” said Saleh al-Hussein, a Syrian refugee, adding that it took days before a doctor could properly attend to a wound on the head of his baby son, Mohammed. “There are holes in our tent. This isn’t Europe.”

After last year’s accord between the EU and Turkey — a landmark agreement intended to curb the number of people attempting to make the perilous journey to Europe — an estimated 15,000 migrants and refugees came to live on Greece’s eastern Aegean islands, the vast majority marooned by the complexities of an overwhelmed asylum service that condemns them to remain there until requests are processed.

Lesbos is not alone. Similar settlements exist on Chios, Leros, Samos and Kos, all within sight of smuggler networks on Turkey’s western coast.

However, none is worse than Moria.

Lesbos Mayor Spyros Galinos has for months been issuing increasingly panic-stricken appeals for the camp to be decongested.

Officially, inmates are free to come and go.

Unofficially, Galinos said, it is a “national disgrace,” a giant detention center where drug dealing, alcohol abuse and prostitution are rampant, and clashes between rival ethnic groups rife.

“I’ve run out of ways of describing conditions that are beyond deplorable,” he said. “I recently compared what they are doing here to Guantanamo, but of course I’ve never been to Guantanamo. Perhaps a concentration camp would be better.”

Those considered “vulnerable,” including pregnant women and unaccompanied minors, are among those being moved to the mainland as the operation to relieve pressure on islands steps up.

Greece’s leftist-led government had previously resisted such transfers, fearing they could encourage traffickers.

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