Another tragedy involving migrants took place on Saturday in the Aegean Sea, with the sinking of a boat that caused the death of at least 12 migrants, including some children. There were 21 survivors, rescued by the Greek Coast Guard, which stated that the rescue operations were continuing southeast of the Greek island of Paxi, but that there were still many missing with very little hope of being found alive.
There must have been at least 50 migrants on the boat, some of whom seem to have been from Afghanistan. According to the UNHCR, the UN refugee agency, 74,500 migrants passed from Turkey to Greece in 2019, and many ended up on the Greek islands, especially here in Lesvos.
Now, Lesbos has become a jungle, much like Calais. Humanity is cast adrift here, whether at sea or on the island. It’s a true hell on earth, 2,000 kilometers away from Brussels. “We have no water, no electricity. ‘Moria problem!’” say the children in the enormous refugee camp on the Greek island across the sea from Turkey, who have been leading the protests in the past few days while the adults were fetching wood from the olive trees, to ensure, at least, that their families would have the bare minimum of heat and light during the long nights.
The activists from the Italian northeast and the volunteers from Lesvos Calling (including Stefano Ferro, city councilor of Padua from the Civic Coalition) have returned to Moria, demonstrating their continuing solidarity, shown also in the form of vans loaded with basic necessities. The women and girls were given “kits” with biodegradable sanitary pads, detergent and underwear: the grassroots funding campaign in support of this initiative, run by Banca Etica, has raised over €4,000.
The situation in Moria is continuing to deteriorate, day after day. The new law passed by the Athens government has come into force. Particularly around dawn, we see once again the Greek police hunting for people without documents or those whose request for asylum has been rejected (often without them knowing it).
The prison-cell-like containers within the “red zone”—protected by walls and barbed wire—seem more overcrowded than ever. And there are rumors going around about a suicide and about episodes of self-harm among those who are facing repatriation or, even worse, deportation to Turkey.
“Compared to the mega-tent city at Idomeni in 2016, conditions in the Aegean islands have become worse and worse,” says Marco Sirotti of Melting Pot Europe. “It’s impossible not to notice how many drugs are circulating in the camp, in addition to the psychoactive drugs prescribed by the doctors in the institutionally controlled area. At the border between Greece and Macedonia, the migrants used to be stuck on the railway tracks, closed in by a manned border; but in Moria, they can only look forward to isolation in a sort of detention camp in which people wait for years to know their fate—a fate to which Europe is indifferent.”
Over the last few weeks, tensions have risen further. Behind the “markets” of this foreign city, a few kilometers from Mytilene, the capital of the island, lies the organized crime racket that controls not only the sale of pallets, but also child prostitution. While NGOs from halfway around the world are striving to keep people alive in this gigantic humanitarian catastrophe, the “official” meals are being distributed in what are undoubtedly cages, pure and simple, and the most basic medical care is lacking, especially for newborns.
“The Jungle is for animals, not for humans,” we hear over and over from the inhabitants of the Moria camp.
In their end-of-year report, Aegean Boat Report (founded in the summer of 2015 by the Norwegian Tommy Olsen) counted a total of 26,974 arrivals to Lesbos in 2019, aboard 726 boats. In 2018, there were 14,969 migrants who landed, coming in 371 inflatable rafts and small vessels. In accordance with Turkey’s agreement with the EU, in 2019 the Turkish Coast Guard blocked another 3,140 migrants in the Aegean Sea at the beginning of their crossing, who were attempting the crossing on 973 boats. In total, there are 21,000 migrants currently in the Moria camp, all of whom have been asking—many for over two years—for the right to enter Europe.
What we see on the coast at Skala Sikamineas speaks volumes: plastic bottles, remains of inflatable boats, toys, clothing, life jackets. Every day, the sea delivers more pieces of the puzzle made up of the stories, lives and identities of those who have braved the waves in the home stretch of their long escape.
On the top of the mountain, a former abandoned dairy farm has been transformed into a reception center: protected areas, a small clinic, a warehouse for clothing. Over the past few days, the Lighthouse Relief association has been able to work together with the Italian delegation to restore the warehouse to working order, which had been the target of a series of incidents of vandalism.
The December bulletin published by Lighthouse Relief (which works to ensure rescue and assistance during the approach of rubber boats along the north coast of Lesbos) spoke of 2,034 new arrivals, of whom 525 children and 210 unaccompanied minors.
We even find a former Iranian soldier in Moria. He deserted after fighting ISIS troops. He shows us the scar from a stab wound in his belly. Having overcome a thousand obstacles—the interminable odyssey common to those fleeing the Middle East—he’s now struggling to understand his new life in this remote corner of Europe. Most crucially, he has to hide, to become even more invisible than the other “invisibles” in the camp, which has grown out of all proportion since autumn.
A clear majority of the migrants on Greek soil reflect the different ethnic groups of Afghanistan. The latest arrivals have “colonized” an entire hill of olive trees, where mountains of rubbish are accumulating—an element present throughout the entire Moria camp. Paradoxically, it is precisely the Afghans who are at highest risk of being repatriated to what is now being called a “safe country.” Some families are housed in UNHCR containers, but many men and boys are forced into tents, as the winter weather is getting worse.
Kurds, Syrians and Iraqis are all trying to build their respective communities. There are plenty of Africans as well, who also gather together in prayer, but at times get involved in isolated brawls. They are united by the experience of having to face the queues in front of the compound where the Kafkaesque bureaucracy operates, processing the asylum applications, more and more often without having access to effective legal assistance (particularly in the case of the single allowed appeal).
“We continue to work with the migrants, including in assemblies and in places where they are the real protagonists: courses of all kinds, creative workshops, catering, spaces of inclusion,” says a young Turkish woman who chose to live in Lesbos, “Mosaik, Doctors Without Borders or the Hope Project all prove it. The migrants here are not just invisible individuals who have accepted their tragic fate and are waiting for help from Westerners. Between Christmas and New Year, there was no lack of festive moments, with free common meals offered by the Greeks.”
The activists and volunteers from the Italian northeast are planning to return to Moria soon. In February, they will also be present along the Balkan route of this exodus to Europe of Biblical proportions.
Subscribe To Our Newsletter
Your weekly briefing of progressive news.