“I sleep during the day, and at night I’m lying in front of the door of our ‘home’ to protect my family,” Yama tells us. He is an Afghan who fled the Taliban, and who now lives with his family in one of the thousands of tents set up outside the Moria camp, in the area called “the olive grove,” or, more appropriately, “the jungle.” He doesn’t sleep at night because he’s afraid that someone might go into his tent and hurt his family. Yama is one of around 3,000 refugees forced to live out in the hills, among the olive trees.
The official refugee camp at Moria is overcrowded. It was supposed to accommodate 3,000 people, but now there are four times as many here, living in containers that house up to four families each. All those who don’t have a place in the camp are living out in the “forest,” without any kind of protection or security. Their access to health and sanitation is so poor that the situation is dramatic. The services provided are inadequate for the number of people, which is increasing day by day.
“You need to queue up for everything,” a woman tells us. “To go to the bathroom, to take a shower or to get your food ration. You join the line at 1 p.m., and maybe at 4 p.m. you can go ‘home’ with a little rice, some tomatoes and, if all goes well, chicken for the whole family. Sometimes it happens that after an hour of standing in line, they tell you it’s all gone.”
Most of the refugees come from Afghanistan, fleeing from persecution by the Taliban, from Syria, running from ISIS violence, or from Iraq, Iran, and some from Somalia and the Congo. People have to wait for up to three years to get an answer to their request for asylum, which they present on arrival at Moria. In the meantime, the refugees are “stuck” on the island. The March 2016 agreement between the EU and Turkey provides for the mandatory repatriation of all “irregular” migrants that enter Greece from Turkey, which also applies if their asylum application is rejected or if it is not presented in the first place, in which case they are considered “economic” migrants. Turkey, with its terrestrial and naval blockade, is committed to stopping the direct migration flows to Europe.
The newly formed conservative Greek government, led by New Democracy, has said it wants to simplify the existing legislation on asylum. This will probably mean the abolition of the appeal procedure, which is currently available to an asylum seeker whose claim is rejected, and which is mandatory under European and international humanitarian law. Those arriving in the islands are basically in detention, because the government does not allow them to leave.
Some tell us that the only way to get to Athens is by illegally climbing aboard one of the ferries leaving from Lesbos. Then, they go on towards Germany via the Balkan route, paying about 4,000 euros each to the traffickers.
Those most vulnerable are the ones suffering the most from the inhuman conditions in which they are living, and are the first victims of this condition of insecurity. In the “Jungle,” alcohol and drug abuse ends up generating fights and daily violence. Just a few weeks ago, a boy was killed. Some tell us about full-fledged criminal “gangs” which are committing thefts and going into tents at night. There have also been cases of sexual violence, mainly targeting single women, and instances of child abuse have been recorded as well. There are around a thousand unaccompanied minors at Moria. “A ‘safe zone’ was set up in the camp, but adults can still go in and the children can go out,” Marco Sandrone, the head of Doctors Without Borders in Lesbos, tells us.
“More and more children don’t play anymore, they have nightmares and are afraid to leave the tents, and they begin to withdraw from life,” says Katryn Brubakk, head of DWB’s activities to promote mental health in Lesbos. “Some of them stop speaking altogether. With the increasing overcrowding, violence and lack of security at the camp, the children’s situation is deteriorating day by day. To avoid permanent trauma, these children should be moved immediately.”
In July and August alone, 73 children were transferred to the care of the mental health team of the pediatric clinic run by DWB, outside the camp: three had attempted suicide, and 17 had harmed themselves. Ten of them were under 6 years old, the youngest aged just 2. For the needs of the 12,000 people at Moria, the Greek government has decided to send only two doctors to handle the situation. The director of the Moria camp, Giannis Balpakakis, recently resigned due to the dramatic overcrowding and poor sanitary and health conditions in which the migrants are being kept. “I’m going away with my head held high,” he says, adding that “I did what needed to be done under difficult circumstances.”
There are around 24,000 refugees, men, women and children, trapped in the Greek islands. The Greek government recently transferred nearly 1,500 vulnerable people off Lesbos, but another 2,500 remain there. “This is not a new emergency: the serious overcrowding of the hotspots is a crisis caused by policies, which has been affecting thousands of men, women and children every day for years. We have seen this in the past, and we keep seeing it today,” says Tommaso Santo, the head of the Doctors Without Borders mission in Lesbos.
In the meantime, the landings continue. Migrants are arriving especially in the north of the island, where the Greek shore is closest to Turkey, in the Skala Sykamineas area. Around 40,000 refugees are arriving in the Greek islands per year. Last week, the Refugee Rescue NGO, which performs rescues at sea, rescued 500 people who arrived on seven boats in a single night. “The month of September was one of the most difficult that our organization has ever had,” says its spokesman, Roman Kutzovitz. So far, according to the Aegean Board Report, a Norwegian NGO that provides reports on the refugee crisis in the Aegean Sea around 15,000 people arrived on Lesbos this year, with more than 3,000 just in September.
The increase in departures from Turkey, and the subsequent explosive situation for Lesbos and the Greek islands, is the result of Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s longstanding blackmail—now out in the open—against Greece and Europe, with the aim to renegotiate the 2016 agreements and get even more financial support for Turkey. “Otherwise,” as he said in September, “we will have to open the gates.”