Reportage. The refugee camps in Greece are overflowing and cold. Greek police and soldiers are curtailing the rights of refugees and aid workers. ‘Being imprisoned for being a relief worker in a European country is one of the most insane things I have heard.’

How 20,000 refugees spent Christmas: packed in a prison camp on the edge of Europe

Turkey is on the horizon, across a narrow stretch of sea that inflatable rafts cross on a daily basis. But Europe remains a mirage for the passengers because those fleeing war and hunger are made prisoners at the Moria camp. 

On Christmas Eve, as the wind gusted and rain poured down in the dark of the night, the number of migrants on the island in the Aegean Sea reached 20,000. Around the original structure of the government-built migrant hotspot, tent camps have multiplied among the hills dotted with olive trees. The last of these camps was set up after autumn, with the thousands of new landings of individuals, families and unaccompanied minors. In the week between Dec. 9-15 alone, over 1,000 refugees were sighted along the coast of Skala Sikamineas and then rescued by LightHouse Relief and Refugee Rescue.

This is a humanitarian catastrophe stretching out through the calendar, always tying the governments in Athens or Brussels up in knots and scandalizing Pope Francis. As Christos Christou, the international director of Doctors Without Borders (which has a clinic outside the camp), recently said: “What I saw in the refugee camps on the Greek islands is comparable with what we see in war zones or areas hit by natural disasters. It is outrageous to see these conditions in Europe — a supposedly safe continent — and to know that they are the result of deliberate political choices.”

There is also active solidarity coming from Italy. From Jan. 3-8, the activists of the Lesvos Calling campaign will return to Lesbos after having collected clothing and medical supplies across the Italian northeast. Thanks to crowdfunding through the network of Banca Etica, they will be able to distribute kits with biodegradable sanitary pads, underwear and bed linen to women, who represent more than a third of the camp’s population.

From dawn to dusk, life in this invisible city is marked by queues: in front of the chemical toilets, at the “cage” where meals are distributed, at the medical clinic or at the compound where the Babel-like bureaucracy works, which is supposed to provide the people here with protection, legal papers and human rights. 

The municipality of Moria, with around 1,000 local residents, is itself surviving in this never-ending disaster. Mytilene, the capital of Lesbos, is about 10 kilometers away. The buses are full to overflowing with migrants, shuttling them back and forth as possibilities allow, while others have to make the journey on foot. The island (with 90,000 inhabitants) can no longer ignore—for better or for worse—those who are “invisible,” including the approximately 1,500 hosted at the Kara Tepe reception facility, set up and managed by the Municipality of Lesvos.

For the 20,000 “guests” at Moria, the immediate future looks even worse than the present. A few days ago, a revolt broke out inside the camp on the island of Samos, which was hosting 8,000 people, mostly Africans, in a facility with a capacity of just 650. The authorities’ intention to “decongest” the camps means transfers (perhaps even to Lesbos), deportations to barracks set up as detention centers, or even the outright expulsion of refugees. Lest we forget, “returning” them to Erdogan was already a solution envisaged by the European Union with the shameful agreement it signed with Turkey in 2016.

And it gets worse: from January, the new Greek law will also take effect. At the office of the Lesvos Legal Center, people are extremely worried about the wholesale curtailment of the rights of refugees, volunteers and NGOs. In Moria, we see unequivocal signals of what is to come. The police are demanding papers from journalists and photographers. Instead of the white insignia of NGO volunteers, we see security personnel set up in positions overlooking the main road. The Greek military is reinforcing its presence, and the Turkish “tourists” present at the scene are drawing up more and more detailed reports for Ankara.

Since Dec. 10, Salam Kamal Aldeen has been in prison: a Danish citizen and the founder of Team Humanity, an NGO that has been working since 2015 to rescue refugees who land and offer safe spaces for women and children. Aldeen had already been sentenced to 10 years in prison (along with three Spanish firefighters) for assisting refugees, and was finally acquitted in 2018. Now, he stands accused of representing “a danger to public safety,” as the authorities aim to deport him from Greece. “Being imprisoned for being a relief worker in a European country is one of the most insane things I have heard,” said Team Humanity President Helle Blak.

But injustice reigns supreme in the fields of Moria. A Kurdish man smokes in front of the container that has been his home for two years, while his wife and daughter are on another island. An elderly Palestinian woman from Gaza has resigned to suffering in Europe under the same conditions as the occupation of her homeland. A little Syrian boy dearly wishes he was not afraid of the dark, while the women at the camp hardly ever dare to walk around alone. A despondent Somali man shows everyone the open-air garbage dumps, while people are crossing the small river (with or without shoes), each carrying a six-pack of water bottles in hand. The Afghans can be recognized by their Dari dialect of Farsi, but sometimes they demonstrate a more elevated English than one could even imagine: they are quick to learn the language of survival.

Despite everything, there is no lack of opportunities for real encounters. The Mosaik Center, opened by the activists of Lesvos Solidarity, churns out bags, artisanal objects and artistic creations at its workshop, where people make crafts out of the life vests the migrants wore during the crossing. The Center also manages the Pikpa Camp, a busy self-organized reception center for volunteers and refugees.

The Nan is a restaurant with a staff of local volunteers and migrants. The Hope Project, a British organization, offers its headquarters as a “warehouse” where hundreds of people can find clothing and basic necessities every day. It also turns its space into an art workshop, where refugees are painting the story of their experiences on canvas. Other NGOs, large and small, are offering, at least in part, the things that the institutional management of the camp is unable to ensure: medical assistance, psychological help, legal assistance and schooling for minors.

But on Lesbos, even the Christmas atmosphere (in the Greek Orthodox local flavor) cannot overcome the disquieting shadow of a detention camp of the 21st century, holding “migrant people” who are left with nothing to celebrate.

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