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‘I would be more happy in Moria than in this place’

After the notorious refugee camp on the island of Lesbos burnt down in September, a replacement has now been built. But with no shower facilities, clean toilets, water system, power or sufficient food, Moria 2.0 is even worse than its predecessor. BETHANY RIELLY reports

AS Yasser watched Moria collapse in an orange haze, he saw a flicker of hope in the flames.

After more than a year in the notorious refugee camp on Lesbos, he thought that now, surely, Europe would have to give them a dignified home. 

Four weeks on and the young refugee tells me he no longer puts hope in anyone but himself. 

Yasser and his family were among the 13,000 refugees made homeless when a series of fires destroyed Europe’s largest refugee camp on September 9.

In the week following the blaze, the Greek government sent units of riot police to contain the fleeing asylum-seekers on the road between Moria and the main town of Mytilene, forcing them to sleep out in the open with little food or water.

Despite the unbearable conditions, thousands protested, demanding to be taken away from the cruel limbo on the island and start new lives elsewhere.

But other plans were already being prepared for them in the form of a new camp.

Refusing to be trapped in another Moria, many resisted entering the site. But after days of police brutality and growing hunger, thirst and exhaustion, the dispirited asylum-seekers went quietly to the new camp, which has quickly become known as Moria 2.0

‘Worse than Moria’ 

The Greek government-run camp, built on the edge of the sea on a former military shooting ground, is everything Yasser had feared and worse.

“Right now we are in a place that is really worse than Moria,” he tells me. “I would be more happy in Moria than in this place … I couldn’t imagine that one day I would think like that.”

At first glance the camp, with its neat rows of pristine white tents overlooking the idyllic Aegean Sea, seems an improvement to the barbed-wire-topped shanty town that was Moria. But looks can often be deceiving. 

“There [were] no services, no water, there was just tents on the ground and lots of big machines for constructing and everywhere was really bad, windy and muddy,” Yasser says, describing the conditions when he arrived at the site three weeks ago with his parents and three younger siblings, aged 12, 11 and five. 

After a traumatic week sleeping in the Lidl parking lot, he found the camp failed to even bring respite from a painful night on the ground.

“They moved us to a tent … there was nothing on the ground to stop rain or whatever to just have some distance between ground and tent to not get wet.”

Yasser tells me that there are still no shower facilities, clean toilets, water system, power or sufficient food in the camp. Residents are forced to bathe in the sea, while elderly men, children and pregnant women sleep on the bare floor of their tents.

Strong gusts of wind sweep off the Aegean Sea battering the flimsy tents night and day. Yasser’s mother refuses to allow his younger siblings to play outside the tent because there isn’t enough water to keep them clean. 

“It’s a very bad place, it is not a good place for someone to live,” Issac, another resident of the camp tells me. “Everyone wants papers to leave this place.”

“This is where we bathe,” he tells me over video call, pointing to the choppy sea just an arm’s throw away. I see women washing their clothes in the salty waves. 

Human rights groups have condemned conditions at the new site, which they say not only fail to provide for people’s basic needs but also leave vulnerable groups exposed. 

Carmen Dupont of Lesbos Solidarity, an NGO founded by locals, tells me that there’s no protection at the site for single women.

“In the former Moria camp there was a place where all the single women were kept together in a different level,” she tells me.

“There were security issues but at least there was some kind of area for them. Right now, in the new camp, it’s all open tents and everything very closely put together. We hear from women that they’ve already been robbed twice, that they feel very insecure, very unsafe and very exposed.”

Children’s safety is also a major concern. Medecins Sans Frontieres field co-ordinator Marco Sandrone tells me: “The camp is near the sea with no illumination at night meaning that it’s extremely dangerous for the children [who] could get lost in the dark.” 

On top of this Covid-19 infections have also spread through the tightly packed population, with around 250 confirmed cases. Sandrone tells me that fortunately all the cases so far have been asymptomatic, but vulnerable populations in the camp are at huge risk.

Those with the virus are placed in a separate section behind barbed wire. 

It’s impossible to make this a dignified, bearable place for winter

Although the Greek government claims the camp is temporary, it’s looking likely that many of the residents will be held there during the winter months.

In a meeting of Greece’s ruling party New Democracy last week, Minister of Immigration and Asylum Notis Mitarakis announced plans to reduce the current population in the camp from 8,630 to 6,500 by the end of October. 

But it remains unclear for how long the remaining asylum-seekers will be kept at the site before being transferred to the mainland.

Plans are also under way to prepare the camp for winter, a task given by the Greek government to the United Nations refugee body UNHCR.

Responding to questions from the Morning Star about the plans, UNHCR said winter measures include laying gravel to protect tents from flooding, supplying tent insulation kits and putting pallets, plywood sheets and mats in the family tents. 

However the UN body said these were “short-term interventions” and it has cautioned the government against using the “emergency” site in the medium or long-term. 

Other groups warn that no measures could make the site safe, especially not for the winter months. 

Dupont tells me: “You can’t even start talking about winterisation in this place. It’s impossible to make this a dignified, bearable place for winter.”

The human rights activist, who has worked with refugees on Lesbos for five years, knows painfully well how deadly Lesbos winters can be for asylum-seekers. 

In 2017, when a harsh winter brought snow to the island, three people living in Moria camp died from the cold in the space of one week. Dupont was one of the people who had to take responsibility for their bodies. 

“I had to inform people that their father had died, that their brother had died, that nobody cared, that we had his dead body in the morgue and we were — as a group — sending the body to the family, we were doing everything we could to support.”

With the new camp even more exposed and made up solely of summer tents — in Moria there were containers called isoboxes which offered some protection from the elements — Dupont says the situation can only get worse. 

The threat of Covid-19 will also become more acute during the winter months, Sandrone tells me.

“We know winter will bring again harsh living conditions, flu will likely be spread between people living in tents and Covid is still very much around, so what is the plan of keeping thousands of people living in a camp during winter?”

The mental health of asylum-seekers over the next months is also on Sandrone’s mind.

“We know very well what is the mental impact for people living in these kinds of conditions which are damaging the wellbeing of children especially, taking them to a path of depression and anxiety, withdrawing from them their very basic instinct of playing, of eating, of sleeping.

“This is what is waiting for the children that are still currently in the camp.”

Dignified camps threatened with closure

Just when humanitarian actors on Lesbos thought the situation couldn’t get any worse, they were hit with more devastating news — an order by the government to shut down Pikpa camp and Kara Tepe.

There are three camps for refugees on Lesbos: the new Moria 2.0 run by the government and UNHCR; the local municipality-run Kara Tepe camp; and Pikpa, run by locals and volunteers. 

For five years, both Pikpa and Kara Tepe have sheltered the most vulnerable asylum-seekers escaping deplorable conditions in Moria. 

Founded in 2012 by local island residents, Pikpa provides a dignified and safe living space for around 100 asylum-seekers, among those victims of torture, people with chronic illnesses and pregnant women. 

Kara Tepe is home to around 1,000 asylum-seekers including single parents, people with disabilities and many families with health problems.

But last week, in the midst of the crisis, the Greek government announced the inexplicable decision to terminate both facilities, giving an order to Lesbos police to evict Pikpa by October 15. Kara Tepe will be closed by the end of the year. 

Dupont, who helps to run Pikpa camp, says they have been given no information about what the authorities plan to do with the residents, leading to fears they could be moved to the new camp. 

“For us it’s totally unacceptable for them to be taken to the new camp where … for nobody it’s  a place where you can stay, let alone if you have complicated medical conditions.”

A group of 140 human rights groups have called on the Greek government and local municipality to halt the closures, stressing that spaces which offer an alternative to the horrendous conditions in Moria 2.0 are needed now more than ever. 

So why is the Greek government pushing for the closure of all dignified spaces at a time when they are needed most? 

“It’s a political agenda that this government has made clear from the start,” Dupont replies, pointing to the right-wing New Democracy’s long-standing wish to replace open camps on the Greek islands with closed detention facilities. 

Ministers’ attitudes are “we want all these people arriving to the islands to be out of sight, out of mind, out of the way in a closed camp,” she explains, “which is also why dignified and alternative open shelters like ours and Kara Tepe have to go.” 

The Greek administration announced plans in February this year to close five of the largest open camps on the Aegean islands and replace them with closed controlled sites, raising alarm among human rights groups.

At the New Democracy meeting last week, ministers again reiterated plans to build a closed site on the island — seen by many as a way to escalate Greece and Europe’s policy of deterrence. 

‘No more Morias’

 

In the weeks after the fire, EU Commissioner for Home Affairs Ylva Johansson repeatedly declared: “There can be no more Morias.”

But many considered this promise broken as soon as it was uttered — not just by the construction of Moria 2.0 over in Lesbos but by the EU’s proposals for a new asylum system, announced on September 25.

The bloc’s long-delayed “pact on migration,” which Johansson helped to create, has been touted by Brussels as the solution to the current failed system of managing asylum-seekers.

Under the plans, which the EU hopes to finalise by July 2021, asylum-seekers arriving at Europe’s borders will go through a mandatory five-day screening designed to separate people into one of two tracks.

For those viewed as likely to receive asylum, a decision would be made on the EU country that would be responsible for their application. 

People viewed as unlikely to receive asylum — defined as those who come from a country with less than a 20 per cent acceptance rate — would be put into a “fast-track” border procedure.

The decision would be made within 12 weeks, and if rejected the person would be deported. 

But human rights groups claim these targets are not feasible as processing asylum claims is time-consuming and deportations are extremely difficult to carry out in practice.

This risks creating the same situation that exists now, with refugees trapped on the Greek islands for months and even years waiting for their claims to be processed. 

Dupont argues the pact is the antithesis of Johansson’s promise and a “copy and paste job” of the EU-Turkey deal signed in 2016 which led to severe overcrowding in Moria.

“The reality is that they launched this pilot five years ago with the EU-Turkey deal when they started to contain people in the camps on the Greek islands and people got stuck here,” she says. 

“This is the system we’ve seen, it’s a system that is designed to destroy people physically and mentally — this is what we always say here, this is not a system that is failing.

“It’s a system that is designed by the EU to do exactly that, they want to do this to people, they want to send this message of deterrence.”

In a month where one terrible event was followed by another, the pact was a further blow to those who held the vain hope Moria’s destruction might bring an end to the system that created it. 

‘Whenever you have hopes in others it won’t work’

Actors on the island say the only solution is the immediate evacuation of refugees who fled the fire, and an end to the European migration policies that trap people in inhumane conditions across the Greek islands.

MSF’s Sandrone tells me: “We still see that humanity is not being put in the centre but the political gains are still the priority. The old system needs to finally and seriously be reconsidered [with a view to] a more humane system.”

In the weeks after the fire, around 1,000 people have been transferred to the mainland, including unaccompanied minors, sick children and their immediate families. 

A group of 139 asylum-seekers also arrived in Germany last week as part of the country’s pledge to take in 400 children after the squalid camp was destroyed. 

But these small numbers are little consolation for the 8,630 people still living in the new Moria camp fearing the cold months ahead. 

For Yasser, his hopes have been crushed too many times to ever put his faith in Europe again. 

“What it tells me is only one thing: don’t have hope in others, have your hopes in yourself and work on yourself. Whenever you have hopes in others it won’t work. We were on the Moria camp, we had hope, and they threw tear gas at us. No other countries came to take us. 

“Moria camp burnt, we had a really big hope, [the] same hopes didn’t work. We were on the streets, we had the same expectations, but it didn’t work. And even right now I am here and nothing. 

“You have to fight for it, you can’t expect it any more. I don’t care about the other countries if they help any more.”

Bethany Rielly is a Morning Star reporter. You can find her on Twitter via @b_rielly.

You can call for radical change and an evacuation of the camps here change.org/p/eu-commission-fire-moria-camp-call-for-urgent-evacuation-and-radical-change and take action to save Pikpa and Kara Tepe here: amnesty.org/download/Documents/EUR2531602020ENGLISH.pdf.

Yasser is part of a citizen journalism project with Refocus Media Labs, check out their powerful coverage of the crisis here: refocusmedialabs.org/refocus.

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