The Moria refugee camp on the Greek island of Lesbos witnessed a violent clash between migrant groups, which on Friday led to the exodus of a large body of migrants from the camp. Gareth Dale reports on his recent visit.
On Friday, the day I visited Moria, Syrian Kurds were attacked. Ten or more individuals suffered serious injuries; many more were hurt. My mind now returns to the Syrian Kurds, a very young couple, with whom we shared a meal. Their baby’s eyes lit up when the food was placed before him. His parents seemed nervous, but relaxed and friendly – they let us help spoonfeed the famished bairn. I assumed their skittish air spoke of recent ordeals. They had arrived only a month or two ago – after carrying their two infants across mountains at night. But now I wonder: had they scented the impending conflict?
Let’s begin with the main camp, four miles outside Mytilene. It is extremely overcrowded. It was designed for two thousand. Some recent reports suggest it now holds 5,500. But we were in the camp’s HQ. The current figure is marked on a whiteboard: 7,300. I need not describe the conditions in this Mordor. They have been documented by a refugee, Amal, here, by Iliana Magra in the New York Times, by Yanis Varoufakis and George Tyrikos-Ergas, and by Helena Smith in The Guardian.
Having been on site only briefly, and without permission to wander beyond the central zone, I can’t give a fine-gauged account. But I was able to speak to a dozen refugees, as well as activists and NGO workers.
Moria’s inmates have the formal freedom to come and go. But with so little money, even catching a bus to town is unaffordable for most. And the camp itself has a prison feel. The perimeter, and the central zone, are girdled by razor wire. At least in the central zone, guards and police are everywhere – although reports from Friday suggest they did not intervene when the fight broke out. Understaffed, the UN employees who run the institution rely on ‘community leaders’, representing the around 28 nationalities present, to manage daily life. With this kindling, rumours of ‘ethnic favouritism’ can quickly flare.
Although unable to visit the living quarters on Moria, we were able to register their horrors indirectly, through a visit to refugees holed up in Mytilene town. These were the ’lucky‘ ones. Refugees with newborn babies are placed in flats of their own, a condition envied by all Morians. But if this is luxury, what must Moria be like? Here we found ourselves squeezed into a tiny flat. The floor hadn’t been renovated for centuries; the hall outside was specked with splatted roaches. Two small bedrooms, one bathroom, and one kitchen somehow contained three men, three women and two babies. ‘Contained’ is the operative word. “We feel we are in prison,” one of the men tells us. Their dole is meagre, and for each baby a mere €20 extra per month. It all goes quickly on milk, bottled water, and nappies, even before clothes and toys (of which I saw none). TV or books are unattainable luxuries. A kindly neighbour “lets us use their WiFi, but only at specified times each day.” With phones as the only devices, sustained reading is a struggle. “And we can’t even spend time at the beach – there is a charge for the deck chairs.”
Later my guide informs me that, at least until recently, at one beach “near the port the refugees weren’t allowed to enter, so there was a segregation.” What thoughts must go through one’s mind when, after a perilous journey in an overcrowded dinghy, after struggling through the waves and shingle, one stumbles ashore on the beach—only to be banned from it? The refugees, my guide continues, “ended up mostly under the statue of liberty” (!). An aspect of their situation is segregation—through isolation in camps, as well as explicit rules of the Jim Crow variety and what Andrew Kahrl calls a “selective enforcement of minor ordinances”—and also its antidote, the coming together, in projects and play, of refugees with local citizens and local and international volunteers.
Our hosts smile, and the smiles are warm, but behind them lurk cavernous spaces of boredom and depression. And the ‘stress’ and the scars of suffering, even trauma. We are here briefly and we do not pry or probe, but one of our hosts relates the causes of his journey, of beatings by security forces at demonstrations in their homeland, and our comrade guide later adds details: of scar-covered torsos, and of rapes – in her homeland and on the journey through Turkey. A trip to (Catholic) church each Sunday comes with no price tag and brings some balm – but no alms. In any case, it is not charity they seek. “We want to work! I am an electrician. She is a nurse. We want to work, to contribute!” But without refugee status these aspirations fall into the void, while the small minority who have been granted official recognition face their own set of problems: leaving Lesbos is far from easy, and unemployment here is high. Many a local is struggling to make ends meet.
Our third port of call is the One Happy Family (OHF) community centre, a kilometre from the Moria camp. Here at last we find well-funded pastures. OHF is no panacea. In a sense it is Moria’s neoliberal pendant: while UN funds are squeezed, the super-rich exercise their philanthropic impulses, and paper over the uglier cracks in the overall, UN-funded system. That said, at OHF the label ‘humanitarian’ at least does not appear as mockery. For here, unlike in Moria, refugee self-organisation is allowed free rein. Morians can walk down here to find some relative peace, and space. They have established clubs and amenities. A doctor – he has refugee status but his medical qualifications are not recognised in Greece – is employed to cook. Good food is served up, each day. We are shown around: a well-tended garden, a communal dining area, a café, a makeshift cinema, a martial arts club, a yoga centre, a gym, and so on. This is a tiny oasis within an abysmal and shameful desert, and some of the faces seem hopeless or tired. But many do not. Here, in conditions of collective self-organisation, cross-community contacts can grow. Exactly the same ‘ethnicities’ are present as on Moria yet we can safely predict: no violent conflicts will happen here.
Finally, back in Mytilene, we meet the activists. They are immersed in a searching discussion of what activism means in Lesbos today. Most are volunteering; many are employed by NGOs. (“We have to pay the rent!”) In which case, they ask, what distinguishes their role as activists? The answer: “we push for civil disobedience where necessary.” Plus of course they seek out avenues of politicisation. (E.g. building protests against the recent pogroms by racists against refugees.) Above all, they push against, and refuse to accept, the political ropes that are trapping so many people – refugees above all, but locals too – in this dungeon of poverty and despair.
Across the Aegean, only 5 or 6 miles to the East, the Turkish hills stretch into the distance. On the sea we notice no boats. A few are still coming each week, but for the EU the ‘refugee crisis’ is largely over. It was ‘solved’ in the shabby deal with Turkey, which blocked routes for Europe-bound refugees. As Dimitris Christopoulos, head of the International Federation for Human Rights, has argued, the message sent out by the deal contaminated everyone it touched: “It contaminates us because we accustom ourselves to legitimizing xenophobia. It’s an inhumane message for the refugees and migrants who find themselves living in a buffer zone. It’s extremely problematic for the social cohesion of the buffer zone itself, which is Greece and Turkey. It’s damaging for Turkey because it buys European silence (for its leaders) as Turkey makes its authoritarian shift.”
The deal is enforced by Athens, by the EU, and by NATO. Mytilene harbour, once the preserve of yachts and fishing vessels, is now a portrait of the ‘securitisation’ of migration. As I left, an armed British ’Border Force‘ vessel hove into view.
The author is grateful to his Afghan, Syrian, Iranian, Cameroonian, Congolese and Ugandan interviewees, as well as his guides: Michalis Poulimas, Maria Markantonatou, Rania Tzoraki and Maria Lagou.