Violence and disease in overcrowded Greek camp for migrants

Former military base on Lesbos now home to more than 8,000 who crossed from Turkey

A Syrian refugee boy stands in front of his family tent at a makeshift camp for refugees and migrants next to the Moria camp on  Lesbos. Photograph: Alkis Konstantinidis/Reuters

A Syrian refugee boy stands in front of his family tent at a makeshift camp for refugees and migrants next to the Moria camp on Lesbos. Photograph: Alkis Konstantinidis/Reuters

 

Nestled among the hills on the eastern coast of the island of Lesbos lies a small, sleepy Greek village with cobblestoned streets called Moria. Travel another 2km north and you encounter a makeshift town surrounded by barbed wire and concrete walls which also goes by the name of Moria.

This former military base, which was designated one of the European Union hotspots for migrants in 2015, is currently home to more than 8,300 people who have made the notorious crossing from Turkey seeking safety and stability in Europe. Instead, they are faced with violence and disease in an overcrowded camp which last week was described as “unsuitable and dangerous for public health”.

The men, women and children caught up inside the Moria camp believed Europe would offer hope of a new life. Now they are sending texts to family and friends back home with one simple message – “Do not come to Europe.”

“Syrian guys who wanted to come to Europe will now say don’t come over here, you will humiliate yourself,” says Mohhanad, a Syrian refugee who volunteers on Lesbos, speaking by phone. “Would you sell your house and put yourself in danger to come here? For what? To lose everything so you can live in Moria and then be sent back to Turkey?”

“Mohhanad” – not his real name as he wished to protect his identity – says that conditions in camp are “difficult to describe” but that Moria is “definitely not a safe place to be”. During the hot summer months tents become infested with insects, spiders and snakes while in the winter there is no protection from the cold.

“There are fights but what else would you expect? They’re suffering and the whole future for their kids is totally destroyed. They fled war and now have to live in a place like Moria. They’re sleeping in tents in the mud. Every day is worse than the day before, I don’t see how this can change.”

Last week the governor of the north Aegean region of Greece, Christiana Kalogirou, announced the Moria camp would be closed unless the “uncontrollable amounts of waste”, broken sewage pipes and overflowing rubbish bins were dealt with. Kalogirou issued a 30-day deadline for the migration minister and camp director to clean up conditions in the camp, where inspectors say there is a high risk of disease transmission due to overcrowding, stagnant water and flies.

‘Boiling point’

In late August the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) warned that the situation in the Moria camp had reached “boiling point” and called on the Greek authorities to accelerate procedures to “decongest the island as soon as possible”. UNHCR also expressed particular concern about the “woefully inadequate sanitary facilities, fighting among frustrated communities, rising levels of sexual harassment and assaults and the increasing need for medical and psychosocial care”.

Reports last Friday suggested that thousands of migrants may soon be moved from Greek island camps to make space if there is an exodus of civilians from Syria’s Idlib province during any assault by government forces. Talks on the issue are expected to take place this week.

A total of 21,326 people have arrived in Greece so far this year with at least half ending up on Lesbos. An estimated 1,642 people have died or gone missing during the sea crossing to Europe in that time. In total, 79,108 people have made the perilous journey to Europe in 2018.

Dr Declan Barry, an Irish doctor working with Médecins Sans Frontières, says the Greek policy of cramming more than 8,000 people into a camp originally built to accommodate just 3,000 is having a “catastrophic” effect on people’s health. Having previously worked during the Ebola crisis as well as in Syria and Afghanistan, Barry describes the conditions in Moria as “the most profound suffering I’ve ever seen”.

More than 8,000 refugees live in the Moria camp on Lesbos, which was built to accommodate just 3,000. Photograph: Nicolas Economou/NurPhoto via Getty Images
More than 8,000 refugees live in the Moria camp on Lesbos, which was built to accommodate just 3,000. Photograph: Nicolas Economou/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Despite the huge emotional stress and physical exhaustion of crossing the Aegean Sea from Turkey to Greece, most asylum seekers are generally in good health when they arrive on Lesbos, Barry told The Irish Times. However, their condition rapidly deteriorates as soon as they are placed inside the camp.

“These are people who arrive as survivors of war, torture and rape but then they’re turned back into victims again. These are reactive conditions to the situations they’re in. It pushes people’s mental health to the extreme and they don’t have the resilience or support to deal with it.”

Sexual violence is a rapidly growing problem both inside and outside the camp although many women do not feel comfortable speaking to doctors about the abuse they experience, he adds. “There’s a lot of cultural barriers as to why a person won’t tell us what’s happened. Many Afghan women are reluctant to admit they have been raped repeatedly. Women also won’t seek help because they don’t want to leave their children alone in Moria.”

Harassment

Sonia Andreu, who works with the Swiss-run Bashira outreach centre for women in Lesbos, says women who live in the main mixed-gender section of Moria are experiencing harassment on a daily basis. An average of 400 women visit the Bashira centre each week looking for safety and legal advice, she says. Most of the women are from Afghanistan but the centre also works with Iraqi Kurds and Syrians as well as women from Cameroon, Uganda and Nigeria.

While some women live in the protected female section of the camp, most women with families are crammed into the main campsite. “It means women who are experiencing sexual violence have to live with the perpetrators, there’s nowhere else for them to go,” says Andreu.

Women who give birth to babies in the local hospital are sent back to the camp within three days of childbirth, she says. “There’s a high possibility of catching an infection. You cannot have babies living in these tents. The dirt, the smell, the heat, the snakes, the spiders – I’ve seen videos with spiders bigger than my hand in tents with babies.”

Andreu says numbers in the camp are rapidly increasing despite promises by the Greek government to decongest the camp and move people to the mainland. Giannis Balpakakis, head of the Lesbos Reception and Identification Centre which manages the Moria camp, says extra tents have been used to deal with overcrowding and that there is a separate area to house more vulnerable residents.

“As for health and safety concerns, we take all the necessary measures with the doctors and police,” he told The Irish Times.

However, Barry, who has been working on Lesbos since November 2016, says the camp is clearly failing to comply with health and safety standards laid out by the EU. “There is a responsibility and duty to make sure these people are held in dignified and protected camps with access to healthcare and due process for their asylum claims. None of that is being provided. The policy of containment is catastrophic to people’s health.” – Additional reporting: Reuters

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