January 31, 2018
by Maria Chalaux, Humanitarian Lead, Oxfam Intermón
Throughout my life, and because of my work, I have seen many refugee camps, but I have never seen people in such woeful conditions as in Lesbos.
I visited the Moria refugee camp on a recent winter morning. What I saw was shocking: how can we allow such a place to exist within our borders? Around 5,000 people, including many children, living in a place with a capacity of just over 1,500. Europe should be ashamed!
Throughout my life, because of my work, I have seen many refugee camps: I have been in the Central African Republic, in Angola, in Chad, in Burkina Faso, in Sri Lanka after the tsunami, in Haiti after the earthquake. But I had never seen people in such dismal conditions. And it’s cold. Very cold.
The people who arrived months ago were lucky enough to be housed in containers, but with overcrowding, 20 people have been living together in spaces meant for a maximum of four. We poke our heads inside of one of them, inhabited by a group of “men who travel alone”.
Not enough space, and not enough protection
“This is the central point of the camp,” says Jalil, from Iraq, who has been in the camp for a year now.* The commotion is overwhelming, children running around and playing in the mountains of garbage that pile up all over the camp. There are tents everywhere, in what used to be the streets of the countryside. It is hard to find an empty space of more than one square meter.
The makeshift tents are also the homes to the people who have arrived in recent months, mostly women and children. Some time ago authorities in Lesvos still tried to ensure vulnerable people and single women and children were protected and accommodated in another, better prepared, camp, according to agreed protection criteria. But currently the criterion that prevails is the simple order of arrival, violating the basic standard of giving special attention to those who are more vulnerable.
We walked along innumerable tents and saw women inside them killing time, with blank stares, unable to offer us a smile, some with a cell phone in their hands, others trying to soothe a baby. Jalil tells me that they are given one blanket each (I can see them, they are very thin). “It is totally insufficient with the intense cold of these last few days,” he says.
People maintain dignity at their own peril
I try to move on quickly, hiding the urge to cry out of impotence. We see the bathrooms and the showers: they have not been cleaned for many days, and the cold, the dirt and the smells mean people are reluctant to use them, although some women are washing their clothes. I then understood why women spent 30 minutes in the showers in Oxfam’s women’s center in the city of Mytilene with their little ones. Many have to go two or three weeks without washing, and when they come here this space gives them a little dignity.
The “crime” of nationality
Jalil points to the detention center, the area most feared by newcomers. Here those who are less lucky are held without being able to leave, for committing the “crime” of belonging to one of the 28 nationalities considered to have no reason to ask for asylum, but who have migrated in search of a life in dignity.
We cannot enter this area, and I do not want to imagine the living conditions in there.
Jalil tells us that he was there, and his face changes when he tells of the horrors in the closed camp. “According to the law they can only detain us for 20 days, I was there for 2 months,” he says. “And I was only allowed to go out to the bathroom, the rest of the day I was locked in a container, it was a nightmare.”
When will the waiting end?
Jalil has been in Moria for more than a year. He waits with resignation for a resolution of his asylum application that has not arrived yet. He has hope, he says. There is no other alternative.
While Europe looks impassively on the misfortune of these people, concerned only for its own interests, I have never felt so ashamed to be European myself. We are facing a great political crisis, with a group of states that want to contain the arrival of human beings to their territory, at any cost.
The treatment on the Greek islands of people seeking refuge and asylum is inhuman. And the only reason for it is to demonstrate that the deal between the European Union and Turkey works, in the hope to dissuade all those who hope to seek refuge in our continent.
It would be so easy to change this desperate situation. All it would take is for European governments to show the humanity they claim to represent and make sure people have access to a fair asylum process, and that they are treated in a dignified way when they are on Europe’s shores.
*Name has been changedOxfam International EU Advocacy