The Shameful Living Conditions of the Aegean Refugees

Written by Ben Willy

For three months of 2018, I was privileged to have the opportunity to work in one of the refugee camps on the Aegean Island of Lesvos, Greece, a name that has become synonymous with the European refugee ‘crisis’. Media interest in topics pertaining to the forcibly displaced exploded in 2015, when the devastating humanitarian effects of conflicts such as the Syrian Civil War were suddenly forced upon the European conscience in the form of the largest number of displaced people seen on the continent since the Second World War. However, while the numbers making the perilous crossing between Turkey and the Aegean Islands has plummeted, along with the corresponding media coverage, conditions in camps on the islands for those who continue to be forced to flee their homes remain utterly deplorable. This needs to change.

The most infamous camp on Lesvos and arguably across the European continent is Moria. A former military base, the population of the camp has peaked as high as 9,000 inhabitants [1]; it was built to accommodate less than a third of that number. Overcrowding has forced an informal expansion called the ‘Olive Grove’, a chaotic network of tents where residents burn plastic bottles inside to keep warm in the winter. A queue for a meal can take up to three hours, and at night some women claim to wear adult diapers to avoid the risk of sexual assault when going to the toilet in the dark. A mental health crisis in the camp is disproportionately affecting children: a study conducted by Médecins Sans Frontières between February and June of 2018 found that nearly a quarter of observed children had self-harmed, attempted suicide or experienced suicidal thoughts [2].

This graffiti is on the south east corner of the main camp complex, and is one of the first things a newcomer is likely to notice.

This graffiti is on the south east corner of the main camp complex, and is one of the first things a newcomer is likely to notice.

Naturally, the conditions of the camp are reflected in the testimonies of those I spoke to who are forced to call Moria their home. Such accounts included: “This food…look at it…dogs wouldn’t be made to eat this” and “Every day I go to pray. I know God has abandoned me, but it is my only hope”. A man in a wheelchair grinned at me, pulled down his collar and revealed a scar the size of a cigarette lighter; “Shot by the Taliban…that is why he cannot walk” his friend translated for me, before gesturing to the steep incline on which Moria is built. Perhaps the most devastating account was from a fellow volunteer who recalled when she met a man who had melted a plastic bag on to his fingertips to prevent being registered when he landed in Greece. 

Because of the legislation demanding that arrivals to Lesvos must wait for there for the duration of the asylum process, the issues facing refugees are thus twofold: unacceptable living conditions, and no way to escape them through legal channels. According to aid workers I spoke to, the conditions of camps in the Aegean are intentionally kept in this state to act as a deterrent to future arrivals. Moral questions aside, this is simply not working – refugees still have access to communication channels back home which will make those planning on attempting the dangerous sea crossing aware of what will be waiting for them should they navigate past the Turkish coastguard and land safely. Thus, there is really no justification to keep people living like this. 

Travelling the vast distances to reach Europe – whether from Syria, Afghanistan or the DRC – is a decision that is only made when all other options are unavailable. Those forced to flee their homes from conflict and persecution deserve the sanctuary and safety they were seeking when they first embarked on their journeys. Europe prides itself on being built on democracy, freedom from persecution and dignity for all: the denial of these basic rights to those who need them the most should be seen as an outrage by any proud European. 

Many consider the situation on islands such as Lesvos to be symptomatic of the EU-Turkey deal of 2016, essentially a policy of external bordering of the European continent which prevents those seeking refuge from leaving the island while their asylum claims are processed. It is not the purpose of this brief article to analyse the deal, but a good summary can be found here. But before attempting to blame who is responsible, awareness of these conditions must first be raised, which is what this piece is attempting to do. The dangerous, unsanitary and undignified environment refugees find themselves in when they arrive on islands such as Lesvos is the true European refugee ‘crisis’. 

Furthermore, the problems for refugees on Lesvos are not limited to the enforced living conditions. Protracted detention - and therefore a constant presence of refugees - serves as highly combustible fuel for the vehemently extremist fury of the Greek far-right, such as the ultranationalist political movement Golden Dawn. This manifested itself in the most brutal violence that I have ever personally experienced on the night of 22 April 2018. Having been identified as a ‘collaborator’ with the refugees on the island, I was informed by a member of the public that morning (there is no way to know if they were affiliated with this political movement or not) that I had brought the “human shit to Greece…next time I see you I’ll drown you in the sea with all your fucking Muslim friends”.

Following this altercation I spent many hours talking to demonstrators from Moria who were staging an ‘Occupy’ style protest in Mytilene town square in protest at the living conditions in the camp. The demonstrators, and all those with them, were savagely attacked by hundreds of ultranationalists, along with chants of “Burn them alive” and “Throw them in the sea”. A from Al Jazeera (2018) offers a detailed description of the night’s [3].

Ultranationalists fill a bin with kerosene, light it and push it at demonstrating refugees and aid workers. Numerous witnesses claimed the police helped attackers pile flammable material into the bins (unverified).

Ultranationalists fill a bin with kerosene, light it and push it at demonstrating refugees and aid workers. Numerous witnesses claimed the police helped attackers pile flammable material into the bins (unverified).

Glass bottles, bricks, fireworks and kerosene were amongst the weapons and missiles thrown indiscriminately at those caught up on the square. While remaining uninjured myself, one fellow volunteer took a chunk of rock to the face, and another a brick to the chest. I witnessed a glass bottle shatter when it made contact with a demonstrator’s head, and I helped evacuate a café that had been set up as a makeshift medical centre for the wounded while a crowd of attackers attempted to corner us. Eventually we spent the night locked in a restaurant, lying on the floor in the dark in total silence to avoid being found. All the while I was reflecting on the irony that both the perpetrators and those on the receiving end of the violence wanted the same thing – for refugees to be able to leave the island. 

Despite their hardships both past and present, refugees on Lesvos remain the most unequivocally resilient men, women and children I have ever encountered – as one told me, the word refugee is “just a status…it does not define me”. But this does not mean that the conditions that result in so much immense physical and mental suffering can be tolerated. If current restrictive policies are obliged to continue, then those responsible must invest in providing the displaced on the island with an environment that affords them the dignity, comfort and compassion they deserve. Until then, the culprits for implementing these living conditions will remain the shame of Europe for generations.    

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Raised in England, I studied Geography at Durham University, UK, before an MSc in Development Studies at Wageningen University, Netherlands. This created a passion for refugee causes, resulting in MSc fieldwork on Lesvos alongside working at Pikpa camp, a project supporting about 120 of the most vulnerable refugees on the island. Currently I work for UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency. All pictures are my own. All opinions are my own and should not be interpreted in any way as reflective of any organisation I am or have been affiliated with.

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