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The hell of Lesvos: from emergency to emergency

Part 2 of a series written by Inês, our Advocacy Officer at Fenix, for Revista Visão. Through the stories of 7 people, Layla, Armand, Sophie, Joseph, Jean, Marie and Thérès, Inês illustrates the difficulties that migrants face in their journey to Europe and the challenging situation they deal with once they arrive.

The living conditions for refugees have not improved since the end of 2019 when Layla, Armand, Sophie, Joseph, Jean, Marie e Thérèse arrived at Moria camp, on Lesvos island, Greece. On the contrary, it is said that “Moria is hell”. There has been a rise in the number of people in the camp (between January and February 2020 there were around 20 thousand people living in the camp - but the infrastructure has not been amplified accordingly. There are no schools. There is no adequate protection for the cold winter days and the hot summer days. The sanitary provisions are insufficient, with sewage running in the open air in and around tents, creating an unbearable stench. Children play in the mud and accumulated garbage. The medical and nursing support capacity is very limited; they answer only to emergency situations. The psychological and psychiatric support, too, is extremely reduced, despite the increased number of requests for support from children and adults. The violent incidents are increasing inside the camp.

Throughout January 2020, Armand tried repeatedly to submit the documents which would prove his identity. Repeatedly his requests were denied. He requested to have his age assessed. . He was told that it is not possible. Layla, Armand, Sophie, Jean, Marie and Thérèse were repeatedly denied access to a medical assessment by the Greek medical authority responsible. For all of them, their mental health deteriorated, with Sophie’s situation becoming especially precarious. After being detained for three months for being a Togo national - the maximum time for detention -Joseph was then transferred to Moria camp. He was in a terrible psychological state since, inside of the prison, he had not received medical attention and he was again the target of physical and psychological violence.

The bad news was not just coming from inside the camp. The social and political environment on Lesvos island was becoming increasingly hostile to the presence of thousands of asylum seekers. In February 2020, the creation of a new camp for controlled and temporary accommodation of refugees was announced. This new structure was to be set up in the semi-mountainous area of Antissa. Protests from local authorities and people were immediately heard. The hope that asylum seekers and refugees would be completely evacuated from the island faded. Frustration was visible in many people. Opposition came both from those against the reception of asylum seekers and refugees and from those who supported the rapid transfer of the new arrivals given the already abysmal reception conditions.

At the end of February that year, Greek nationals on the island organised a general strike protesting the construction of the new, closed refugee camp in the north of Lesbos. All economic activity was disrupted. Clashes took place between police forces and the local population. At the same time, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, President of Turkey, ordered the unilateral opening of the border between Turkey and Greece, generating an influx of refugees and a situation of chaos on the Greek side. This decision was taken to pressure the European Union to not support the Russian military response to the Turkish invasion of the Idlib Province - a border region of Syria with a majority Kurdish population.

On 29 February 2020, Greece deployed police and military forces to the land and sea borders with Turkey to prevent more people from entering Greek and EU territory. Reports of violence against refugees, lack of assistance to the shipwrecked, illegal returns of people attempting to cross by sea (pushbacks) were even more frequent during this period. Additionally, on 2 March 2020, the centre right national government suspended the possibility for refugees to apply for asylum. A decision was only later revoked by national and international pressure.

For those living in the Moria camp, the situation was increasingly worrying. The escalating violent protests by islanders against the new camp and the arrival of more refugees, turned against asylum seekers and all those who worked in the camp or provided support to those living there. Several people were beaten, others had to hide for hours. Road links between the camp in Moria and the town of Mytilene, the capital of the island of Lesvos, were repeatedly cut off by violent protesters for days.

The fear that something more serious would happen in Moria was felt too by those living in the camp. The conditions were already inhumane and they got even worse. Layla and Sophie barely left the area of unaccompanied women. In the company of other young people fleeing the violence they had suffered in Afghanistan, Armand attempted to reach Mytilene, but was stopped halfway by a group of people shouting things they did not understand. To avoid assaults, they hid in a bush area. They had to stay there for several hours until they finally managed to return to the camp. Jean, Marie and Thérèse tried to stay as much as possible inside the tent that had been allocated to them, but fear was always present.

Almost halfway through March 2020, everything changed again: the new coronavirus arrived in Greece. In addition to the restrictions they already had to comply with, the residents of the Moria camp were forced to comply with additional limitations. From then on, only a small number of people could leave for very short periods of time. The problem was that, unlike the generality of the other residents of the island, the refugees could not comply with the sanitary measures determined by the authorities. How can someone comply with social distancing in an overcrowded and under infrastructured camp? How can you ask people to constantly wash their hands if for much of each day there was no access to drinking water? How can people be asked to wear masks at all times if they are not distributed? The dramatic worsening of the problems and constraints experienced in Moria exacerbated previously existing levels of tension and psychological problems.

Despite it being almost an almost impossible mission, self-organised groups of asylum seekers and refugees started trying to implement Covid-19 prevention measures inside the camp. They installed taps for handwashing, made handmade masks, disseminated information about the pandemic, organised queues with physical distancing, for example in the access area to the supermarket created for the sale of basic necessities.

In early June 2020, Greece began to open shops, cafes, restaurants and bars and to receive tourists from other European Union Member States and some non-EU countries. However, and despite the fact that there were no positive Covid-19 cases in Moria camp (as in other camps), they remained closed and with the same extreme restrictions. The double standard was obvious. It was not until 2 September 2020 that the first case of Covid-19 was identified in Moria camp. Despite this sanitary "success" in an increasingly dramatic context, everything can always get worse in the lives of these people. This is what I will tell you in the next chronicle.

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