The refugees and migrants who survived the fire at the Moria camp in Lesbos find themselves in an even worse predicament as authorities repeat the same dire mistakes.
Thursday 8 October 2020
Safia R (not her real name), 17, from Afghanistan, was afraid: afraid for her future, her physical integrity, her ailing mother and her 12-year-old brother. After living on the streets and in the nearby forests following the devastating fire at the Moria refugee camp in Lesbos, her family was forced to enter Kara Tepe, the replacement camp hastily constructed overnight on a former military shooting range still riddled with bullets.
“On 9 September, at around two in the morning, I was woken up by the screaming of my neighbours,” Safia recounted, her voice trembling. “They were banging on our container and screaming that a severe fire had broken out. They said we should just drop everything and run.”
It was traumatic for her to recall how the Moria camp, the symbol of Europe's thoroughly dehumanising (anti-)refugee and (anti-)migrant policies, was reduced to an ash heap.
“So we just got up and ran, heading for the highest ground in the camp. Flames were raging everywhere we looked, and people were scrambling for their lives,” the articulate and bright young woman continued. “Right then, I really believed we were all going to die. Oh God, I was so scared… All I managed to grab before I ran was my mobile phone and the charger. Everything else was lost in the fire.”
Losing her father at an early age made her all the more exposed and vulnerable to the horrendous conditions on Lesbos. “I am one of those Afghans who's never set foot in Afghanistan,” she went on in her excellent English, partly picked up at the local language institute and partly on the internet. »My parents were refugees from Mazar-e-Sharif. I was brought up in Iran. Losing my father so soon was the worst possible blow for all of us. My mother and I used to agonise over setting off for Europe or not. But in the end, we realised we simply had no other choice. There was no future at all for us in Iran.”
Before she got coerced into moving into the new camp, Safia spent 10 days sleeping rough, with only what passing strangers gave her for sustenance. These, she winced, were the worst days of her life. The experience was even more frightening than the savage four months she spent in the murky side streets of Istanbul and Izmir, waiting for her passage to Greece.
Yes, there was the proverbial kindness of strangers in the wake of the Moria fire. But there was also humiliation, harassment and bitter invective. Toward the end of her ordeal, Safia was reduced to a quivering wreck.
Moving into the new camp, which could easily be dubbed Moria 2.0, didn't do much for her mental state.
Her new reality is quite simply overwhelming. Tents without even remotely adequate flooring, a single meal each day and a dire shortage of drinkable water. In the entire camp, there are only 35 chemical toilets for 12,000 people and a few appallingly filthy shower stalls. Then there is the lack of medicine and medical staff and the pitifully inadequate quarantine measures for the almost 300 refugees already infected with the coronavirus. Hundreds of children and teenagers in Moria are without their parents. The horrible overcrowding is stirring up ethnic hostilities. All the war trauma and PTSD leads to countless acts of petty cruelty. Racism. Despair. Mounting police violence. The understandable rage of the local population.
The list goes on and on.
Given the conditions in Moria, it was only a matter of time before things came to a head – before the whole thing went up in flames. Yet it now seems clear the Greek authorities have learned nothing from the debacle.
The conditions at Kara Tepe are direct proof that the authorities learnt nothing from the mistakes of the past. The surreal squalor of Moria 2.0 is the final confirmation that the authorities in Athens are deliberately failing to invest into improving the living conditions for migrants, despite the European funds collected specifically for that purpose.
There is a twisted logic to the Greek authorities' actions. After all, improved infrastructure could greatly contribute to Greece being rebranded as a ‘safe country' in the eyes of the other EU members. And this could trigger the so-called Dublin II Regulation, which has been described as exceedingly unfair to the southern EU states – and rightly so. The northern states would then be legally able to send their asylum seekers back to the state of their first asylum application. And due to basic geography, the vast majority of them had first set foot on European soil in Greece or Italy.
The Greek authorities are, thus, doing everything in their power not to be deemed a safe country. And Safia, her mother and brother and everyone else in the camp, are paying the price.
No more music
“When the flames started to settle, I ran to our container,” Safia explained, now on the verge of tears. “There was nothing left… Nothing. Even my most treasured possession, a pair of guitars I've managed to hold on to – both were lost to the fire.”
She went on to share that she was a self-taught musician. In addition to the guitar, Safia also played the piano and used to regularly post her recordings on the internet. “Without my guitars and my singing, I simply do not feel alive.”
When one of the humanitarian volunteers helping the refugees learned of her loss, he gave her his own guitar. There is only one thing, she says, which could bring her even greater joy. And that is for her family's asylum request to be granted, so they could finally resume their journey to Germany.
This is something she daydreams about. Every day, every hour, all the time. She is also working hard to learn the German language over the internet.
Five years after the historically unique but temporary refugee corridor through the Balkans toward Northern Europe was closed down, Germany is still considered to be the promised land for the vast majority of the refugees and migrants here. Roughly 70% of those currently stranded on Lesbos arrived here from Afghanistan.
“A month and a half ago, we were summoned for an asylum interview,” Safia recalled. “During the whole year we spent waiting for it, most of the other single Afghan women with children were allowed to leave the island. I don't know why they made us wait so long. Anyway, the interview was perfectly pleasant – they were actually quite nice to us. They promised we would get their reply in two weeks' time. But once again, nothing happened. And then the fire broke out.”
Safia shivered again, only to clear her throat and resume: “My greatest fear is that the calamity has sort of reset the entire process. And that we will have to remain here, in hell for a good long while. I can't tell you how sad it makes me, watching my sick and exhausted mother and all the other broken-down people here trying to make it through another day.”
It wasn't hard to understand the naked fear on Safia's face. The first major downpour was certain to demonstrate just how pitifully misguided the choice of location for the new camp was. Its ramshackle ramparts seemed vulnerable even to the wind.
Kara Tepe was being set up on the land of a well-known local member of the ruling New Democracy party. Ever since its opening, the entrance to the camp had been a very crowded place. Adding to the crowds was the commendably high number of humanitarian workers alighting here daily from all over the world to help reduce the inmates' plight.
The humanitarians were quick to inform me that they are increasingly being targeted for attacks. Not only by the extreme right-wingers from the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn party, but also by locals who had previously shown tolerance and understanding towards the refugees.
The locals were now truly starting to lose their temper, especially in the wake of the increased tensions with Turkey, which sent several thousand refugees and migrants over to Greece at the start of March. The people of Lesbos realised all too damn well that they – along with the local populations of Samos, Chios, Kos and Leros – had been sacrificed by Athens and Brussels on the altar of shameless political and economic opportunism.
It has to be said: the people of Lesbos have managed to hold out for an admirably long time. But now their empathy seemed to be running on fumes. And little wonder. Tourism, their main source of sustenance, was now officially dead. The agency buses have been replaced by police barriers, and the well-heeled travellers by desperate traumatised people on the run.
Possibly the greatest tragedy of all is how misguidedly the locals have started picking the targets for their justified rage. Once again, the most vulnerable and exposed are bearing the brunt of it. Humanitarian workers are also being increasingly punished for the cardinal sin of working around the clock to save lives, both at sea and on solid ground.
But the blame for sacrificing the island is of course not theirs. The main culprits why, in the words of brilliant British journalist Andrew Connelly, Lesbos has been turned into ‘a penal colony', can be found in the governing chambers all over Europe.
The EU in its entirety has decided to look away. Granted, there is much talk about ‘a refugee crisis', but at least in the bloc, there is no such thing. And there never was – not even in 2015 and 2016, when the European border was crossed by over a million of those fleeing war, abject poverty and the ever more devastating consequences of climate change.
Please allow me to repeat this crucial if direly under-reported point: there is and never has been no such thing as a refugee crisis in the EU. The 500-million-strong union has so far accepted fewer Syrian refugees than crisis-riddled Lebanon, with a population of just 5 million.
Nowhere to turn
As I entered the perimeter, the exhausted refugees and migrants were forming a long line in front of the new camp to wait for registration and a quick COVID-19 test. The choice they were facing was between moving to Kara Tepe or hunger and deportation. At first, while they still had some strength, many tried to resist. But then hunger and thirst broke their resolve, so they took their place in line.
Naturally enough, the Greek authorities are trying to frame the quick relocation to the new camp as a great success story. In this, they are greatly helped by the soft rhetoric of the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), which is ignoring the dire conditions of the refugees in the new makeshift camp which are not very different to those that prevailed in the smouldering heap that was once Moria.
As the new authoritarianism spreads like wildfire all over the globe, both the international conventions and the international structures tasked with upholding them are crumbling fast. And the abject dehumanisation on Lesbos continues unpunished. The banality of evil is gaining momentum and the rights of asylum-seekers are by now nothing more than a threadbare joke.
“For ten days, we slept out in the open. Though we hardly slept… We were hungry. The children got very ill. They cried and cried all through the night. They need medical help, but there are so many of us, and most of us need help. I don't know what to do, where to turn,” said a Hazara mother of four waiting to gain admission to the new camp.
The woman refused to give me her name. But at least she was willing to talk to me. Most of her fellow sufferers did not do so. Covered with face masks, figure after passing figure declined to speak, using apologetic gestures to convey their utter exhaustion.
The ruins of civilisation
Like a David Lynch scene, the remains of the Moria camp are huge and frightening, dealing a rough blow to the senses. The smell of burning is exceptionally strong and soon sort of etches into the skin. In spite of the sun's blaze and the blue of the Aegean sky above, the site seems strangely drained of colour, except for black, white and grey.
Burnt-out containers. The smouldering remains of what used to be a cot. A thoroughly blackened teapot. One half of a sooty teddy-bear. A shoe. Lots and lots and lots of charred metal. A number of olive trees braving this apocalyptic landscape like spent matches about to crumble. A clump of possibly still live electrical wiring. Fresh human excrement. Discarded face masks, a half-melted mobile phone, a trampled baby pacifier. A portable stove, a shard from what used to be a plate, heaps of refuse and blackened clothes. And among them rummages a playful and frighteningly trusting puppy with eyes of two different colours. Life had not yet kicked him in the teeth.
A number of local labourers were carrying off large chunks of metal and heaving them onto a truck. The process of recycling the former site into Moria 2.0 was already in full swing. A lone policeman was assigned to keeping vigil over the ash and dust. He seemed blissfully unconcerned by a pair of local teenagers combing through the site.
“Next week I'm going to have to close the place down. The fire put me out of business,” grimaced the owner of a local bar, who used to do quite well for herself before the fire.
The place itself was left untouched by the flames. Yet this made its red, blue and yellow plastic chairs and the advertisements for a famous Italian coffee brand seem only more surreal amid the cinders.
This was less David Lynch and more like Douglas Adams's The Restaurant at the End of the Universe.
Out of the Taliban frying pan, into the Moria fire
“Yesterday, my wife and me moved into the new camp. We got our quick COVID tests and then we got registered. Both of us are on our final legs: the lack of sleep is killing us. We want to go somewhere else – anywhere – just as long as we can go right now. But we're stuck here,” winced Asif, 36, standing by the reeking exit of Moria 1.0. “Almost everything we had was burned in the fire. I suppose we're glad to have survived. But the problem is that we now have to live.”
Asif is from the Afghan city of Helmand, a notorious Taliban stronghold. After we exchanged a few memories from some of the Afghan war's bloodiest battle-fronts, he opened up.
“Two days before the fire, my wife and me, we finally got the asylum interview,” he said. “We told the Greek officials that we were fleeing for our lives. We said we were quite prepared to remain here in Greece. We kept promising that we really were fleeing horrible bloodshed, and that we weren't out to steal anyone's job. And then, after spending a year in Moria, we almost died in the fire. It was unbelievable. It was like nothing I had ever seen.”
Asif shook his head as he pushed a shopping trolley filled with sooty junk from the old camp to the new one. He was exhausted and might have been suffering from the initial stages of sunstroke. For the high UN and EU officials' information, this is what ‘relocation' really looks like on the island of Lesbos.
“The conditions in the new camp are even worse than in Moria,” Asif sighed and halted his progress, leaning onto his trolley to gather strength. “Perhaps the worst thing is the filth. We've been reduced to washing in the sea, but even the sea is now dirty. The people are so angry. Lots of fights break out during the night. I'm afraid we are about to see a lot more violence.”
On the concrete wall by the road to Kara Tepe graffiti reading ‘Welcome to Europe‘ has been supplemented with the appropriate qualifier ‘Human Rights Graveyard‘.