LESBOS, GREECE – Roohina sits in a room the size of a minivan with her daughter, Hosna, who is one and a half years old. Only the room isn’t so much a room as an indoor tent: The back wall is the only actual wall in their new home in the Moria refugee camp on the island. Blankets create a division between their space and the space where other families live in in the container housing. Another blanket functions as a door.
Roohina, who had a job at a U.N. agency in Kabul, has been living in Moria with Hosna and her husband, who she did not name and was not there at the time, for six days. The family decided to leave after his place of employment, Roshan, a telecommunication company, was among the businesses hit with a massive suicide attack in the capital’s diplomatic district in May. The attack was one of the deadliest in Kabul in years.
“My daughter went to daycare there – she’d be going to school. Where can I put her in school here?” Roohina wondered, looking back at Hosna, who listlessly slumped against the only solid wall in the far corner of her new home.
“We had good jobs there, but no safety. So however long it takes, we have to stay here. We have no choice,” she said.
Their small blanket room is one tiny spot in the cramped world of the Moria camp.
There are a number of camps on the island, but this is the largest. A military compound with the capacity of 2,300, Moria now holds over 5,000 people who have made it across from Turkey hoping for refugee status – and, in many cases, ultimately, citizenship – in the European Union.
“Is this the protection Europe is offering?”
But the European Union’s policy of containment has made life a hellish limbo for those in Moria and other camps. Most of the camp is now comprised of container-homes, with what looks like shipping containers holding as many as 20 people each. The bathrooms are few and far in between, with women frequently wearing diapers to avoid walking to the toilets alone at night. And blanket walls will provide no security to Roohina and her baby girl, as the pressure and psychological distress of living under these circumstances build into flashes of violence that manifest in daily fights and assaults.
On March 12, a mentally ill 19-year old boy was raped, and his attackers branded his neck with a tattoo (details are not available as an investigation might be launched). The next day, two teenagers tried to commit suicide, one of them for the third time. And two days after that, there was an incident that resulted in the deployment of teargas, with Doctors Without Borders (known by the French acronym of MSF) treating children as young as 2 years old for symptoms.
Luca Fontana, an MSF field coordinator on Lesbos sent a written statement to ThinkProgress on Friday that amounted to an SOS. “We are unable to cover the mental health needs of this population – the only thing that can change this is by people’s containment ending,” he wrote. “Is this the protection Europe is offering?”
The hell of indefinite uncertainty
The puddles of mud and rain wash into each other on the camp, creating a mess between the summer tents and containers housing several families each from various countries – from Pakistan to Cameroon. Clothes are pinned to ropes zigzagging the corridors of ramshackle shelters, with children running between tents and containers and adults largely sitting around, waiting.
Oh, the endless waiting. And uncertainty.
Until they get their official identification papers and their restriction on movement is removed, refugees are essentially trapped on Moria. What used to be a transit point back in 2015 is now a large holding cell, with some stuck there as long as two years.
Some 650 people are on a waiting list to be moved to the mainland from Moria, but the chances of anyone being transferred to the mainland at this time are slim. An inter-agency memo from the U.N.’s refugee agency obtained by ThinkProgress indicates that “no transfers are going to be organized for the next period” and “actors were asked to inform people at the sites accordingly and ask for their patience.”
Still, people are arriving regularly. In 2017, nearly 30,000 arrived in Greece from Turkey — nothing near the 173,561 that arrived in 2016, but far from insignificant when once considers the size of the camps on the island. About 400 people arrived at Moria alone in the first week of March.
The Ministry of Migration decides who gets credentials to visit Moria, and while ThinkProgress did in fact get such access on a pretty short timeline, the 45-minute visit is monitored and limited. The restrictions also apply to rights groups, including Human Rights Watch, which has documented its limited access to the camp.
Photos are officially not allowed, but the reason why depends on who you ask. If you ask your Ministry of Migration minder, it’s to protect the residents of the camps, especially the minors. If you ask the soldiers and police patrolling outside the camp, it’s because the camp is actually a military compound and so it’s a “security matter” — they also don’t want the faces of police and soldiers and police guarding the grounds. Even the spillover camp dubbed “The Olive Grove,” where hundreds Moria residents have chosen to move to out of desperation, is policed by soldiers and police officers who stop anyone they see taking photos.
It’s important to note that Moria itself is not a prison, though it does hold a detention center for those who are awaiting deportation. Residents are free to leave the camp and move about the island, but many are too busy trying to stay healthy and alive to enjoy the sights.
Negar, 36, and her son Arteen, 7, have been in Moria for four months. They fled Iran after a sexual assault destroyed her marriage, putting her in a situation where telling the police would result in so much shame that she knew she’d kill herself.
But life in Moria has been hard, with the food making Arteen repeatedly sick and Negar saying she’s not getting the mental health care she needs.
“Back in Iran, I thought about killing myself once a day. Here, I think about killing myself 100 times a day,” she whispers, out of Arteen’s earshot. “I feel totally hopeless…Can’t anyone help us?”
Amanda Godballe, who oversees MSF’s medical activities for the Moria camp, said the constant waiting and uncertainty is a big reason why people’s mental health is deteriorating.
“When you arrive, you might have experienced a lot of traumas, but somehow, if you’re still moving forward, you might find ways to cope with whatever you’ve experienced because you believe that there’s something better that’s waiting for you,” she said. “But when you arrive to Lesbos and to Moria, you end up being stuck here…the thing is, no one knows when your case will be settled, and during that period, you have no freedom — you have nowhere to go, nothing to do.”
Containers and tents hold some 5,000 people hoping to apply for refugee status in Europe. And the conditions are squalid. (CREDIT: D. Parvaz/ThinkProgress)
“The need for mental health support is massive. We see patients with severe mental health symptoms: PTSD, anxiety, severe depression, suicidal thoughts, suicide attempts,” she said.
Godballe said the standard of living in Moria was worse than the camps she’d seen in Afghanistan, chiefly because, “We’re in Europe, and therefore I would expect that people wouldn’t have to live in summer tents, for instance.”
MSF started a mental health clinic in Mytilini (the city where Moria is located) in October, and by November, there was a waiting list of 500. An MSF report from October indicates that the mental health of those in the Greek camps is worse than those who fled Mosul in Iraq.
“We have experience of working in some of the world’s most acute conflict zones and yet we have rarely seen this level of suffering,” said Fontana.
Here, there’s one shower per nearly 300 people. The UNHCR standard is 1 shower per 50 people, and even in some crowded camps, like in northern Iraq, there is 1 shower per 100 people. There is one toilet per 100 people and around 10 translators to serve over 5,000 people. The diseases that rip through the place — most recently, scabies and measles — leave MSF staff bewildered. In fact, most can’t believe their services are required in Europe.
“MSF isn’t even supposed to be here,” said Fontana who is more accustomed to dealing with, say, an Ebola outbreak in Guinea. “Why are we doing emergency measles vaccines here? We’re in Europe,” he said.
Fontana is exasperated that in a wealthy continent, thousands of people are being penned in a situation that compromises their mental and physical well being for reasons that have nothing to do with resources or space.
“Do I risk a bomb under my house, with my whole family inside, or do I risk being stuck in Moria?”
There are other organizations that are involved in trying to improve life for the asylum seekers — from the Red Cross to small local organizations that get involved in running smaller camps. The residents of the camps, themselves do what they can to improve their situation, including assigning representatives from various countries and ethnic groups among them to attend regular community leader meetings in Moria. But no one from the European Asylum Services goes to these meetings, said Fontana.
So even as those on the ground — including camp managers, who do attend the meetings — might be doing what they can, there is a sense that the larger European community is content to let the situation continue.
Fontana sees the E.U. policy as one that attempts to discourage migration by lessening the appeal of “the pull factor,” but, he said, this in no way addresses “the push factor.”
“It’s war, it’s displacement, it’s torture,” he said. “That’s why they put themselves at risk. That’s the thinking of someone who is running, ‘Do I risk a bomb under my house, with my whole family inside, or do I risk being stuck in Moria?’”
The crisis that shouldn’t be
Eugenio Ambrosi, International Organization for Migration’s Regional Director for the European Union, told ThinkProgress that the issue is not a matter of funding (although there has been much head-scratching about how the millions of dollars given to the European Commission and distributed to front line countries like Greece are being spent).
“The point is that certain issues cannot be solved just by throwing money at it, because it doesn’t matter how much money you put into the reception center…any system will have a certain capacity, and as soon as that capacity is overtaken by the number of arrivals, you will start having a problem,” he said.
As more people arrive, the reception centers have to adapt and expand, and that takes time. The pace of adapting and expanding, argues Ambrosi, can’t match the pace of arrivals — especially when it is Greece and Italy bearing the weight of the arrivals in Europe.
If there was a system that automatically redistributed arrivals throughout the the E.U., then Ambrosi said that we “wouldn’t be seeing the number of people in camps in Greece, in Italy and to some extent, in Spain…Because the whole union would have responded in solidarity to what was happening at its borders.”
But most states are more concerned with securing Europe’s external borders and keeping people out, leaving states like Italy and Greece, which are on the front line due to their geography, under pressure to keep people contained.
Ambrosi does not like calling the current situation in the EU a “crisis” because from where he stands, this should be manageable.
“If you look at the number of people who have arrived on, average, since 2014, including 2015, when there was the big surge, through Turkey and the western Balkans, when we reached a total of roughly 1 million people that have arrived in Europe before the closure of that route, you are still talking… 0 something percent of the overall E.U. population of over half a billion people,” he said.
Although alarmists routinely say that Europe is being “flooded” by refugees, the numbers, compared to the population of the continent, are tiny. The number of refugees arriving in Europe — and certainly Greece — are far below the numbers arriving elsewhere in the world. Turkey, Pakistan, and Lebanon are hosting nearly 4.5 million refugees. Bangladesh is host to over 600,000 Rohingya fleeing brutal crackdowns in Myanmar.
Under the Dublin rule in E.U. law, a refugee’s first country of arrival is where they should register and remain. But in 2015, the European Union created a two year mandatory relocation scheme for people who were registered as asylum seekers in Greece. Roughly 22,000 people have been relocated from Greece this year. But the deal is coming to an end.
Ambrosi said the IOM — which has been coordinating relocation flights — is pushing for the scheme to continue. The UNHCR has also issued a statement calling for the relocation scheme to continue, saying that it “helped ease the humanitarian situation in Greece, relieved some pressure from Italy, and improved the lives of many seeking protection.”
The scheme was controversial when it first went into effect, and as of now, Brussels will not extend the plan. Ambrosi fears that if the number of arrivals in 2018 match that of 2017 — and it looks like they will — the E.U. will double down on a cycle of deportations and voluntary returns that will only exacerbate the problem in the long run.
Sixteen-year-olds Yunis, from Aleppo, Syria, and Abdulrahman, from Baghdad, have each been at Moria for several months. Yunis, there with three of his siblings, longs to go to Germany, where he has family, and Abdulrahman said he’d pretty much go anywhere, but, he said, “I love America. I am waiting for America to love Arabs.” (CREDIT: D. Parvaz/ThinkProgress)
“I fear that the first response by the E.U. member states will be to increase returns of all types, voluntary and non-voluntary, and I think that’s a risky approach,” said Ambrosi.
“Because these people, almost all of them, have left very difficult situations in their countries of origin…and those conditions are still there so if you just return people without taking proper consideration of what they find once they’re back, you’re just putting them back in the same situation they fled. And so you don’t really solve the problem,” he said.
There’s a lack of clarity on the number of people deported from Greece.
There were roughly 3,000 voluntary returns from Greece in 2017 (mostly to countries of origin, such as Pakistan or Afghanistan), but there have been deportations as well. A press officer for Frontex, the European border agency, told ThinkProgress over email that Frontex assisted in a total of 14,189 deportations from the E.U. last year, deporting 196 from Greece to their own countries, and 687 to Turkey. The agency spokesman clarified that this number of deportations doesn’t include ones carried out without support from Frontex, so the deportation numbers are probably higher.
According to UNHCR data, as of February, 1,554 people have been returned from Greece to Turkey, since the E.U.-Turkey deal was struck in 2016. Of those, 31 percent cited “no will to apply for asylum” as reason for returning, 10 percent withdrew their claims and 36 percent had their asylum claims rejected.
In January of 2017, Fabrice Leggeri, the head of Frontex, lambasted Greece for managing to deport only 42 percent of those whose asylum applications were rejected. According to reports, he’d expected 500 people to be deported from Greece to Turkey on a daily basis.
Eva Cossé, Greece researcher at HRW, said she has access to the detention center within Moria but not regular access to Moria itself. She has been allowed in Moria, but is watched so closely by the handlers that she could “feel the breath” of her handlers on her ears.
But the detention center, where those awaiting deportation await, is itself a major area of concern for HRW. Cossé said the detention facilities are being expanded in anticipation of Greece stepping up its efforts to deport more people.
“Now, the conditions aren’t good,” she said, “but the main problem we find is the lack of information and the unfairness, especially for Syrian asylum seekers, who are being deported under the [Turkey] deal and who are being detained there.”
“This is completely negating the Refugee Convention, and has mostly been applied to Syrian male asylum seekers — single men,” said Cossé, adding that these men have fled “horrible abuses — war, prosecution, torture.” Essentially, under this E.U.-Turkey deal, Greece does not need to ask asylum seekers if they feel safe being sent back to Syria — instead, they ask them if they feel safe in Turkey.
“For many of them, this doesn’t make any sense,” said Cossé, because most of these men only spent a few days in Turkey before jumping in a boat for Greece. And after all of that, they have to face detention while they challenge that asylum decision, in a “pre-removal” center, such as the one on Moria, or at a police station, depending on where they are.
“They came to the European Union seeking protection. But instead of protection, they face these horrible conditions in the camp, and then unfair asylum procedures,” she said.
Those on the island consider those who get to the mainland to be the lucky ones. Little do they know about the struggles awaiting refugees there.
This is the first part of a series of reported pieces on life as a refugee in Greece.