Lesbos, Greece – Police beatings, tear gas, hunger and chaos. It sounds more like the repression of the Arab Spring than a registration centre for refugees. But at Camp Moria on the Greek island of Lesbos, this is the reality.
Until, that is, Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras showed up last Tuesday, by which time the scene had been transformed and thousands of people had disappeared.
Greece has long been on the front line of Europe’s refugee crisis with about 450,000 arriving this year. The vast majority are fleeing government persecution and advancing ISIL forces in Syria and Iraq.
They come to Lesbos from Turkey on what are called “death boats”, as the lack of legal channels has created an unregulated market for people smuggling, with drownings common because of overcrowding. The lucky ones are met on the beach by local and international volunteers; the rest by paramilitary coastguards and riot police.
Volunteers from the PIKPA camp distributed food at Camp Kara Tepe. One staff member of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) said he had 13 colleagues on the entire island. Syrian families huddled in scarce spots of shade and squalid conditions.
The situation at Camp Moria, however, was far worse.
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‘The hell hole’
Refugees described Moria as a “hell hole for non-Syrians”. It is Lesbos’ main camp where all arrivals must register. Police prohibit journalists from visiting without an escort, speaking to refugees, or photographing the facilities. Aid workers are outnumbered by riot police.
Many people slept exposed to the cold at night without tents, sleeping bags, or warm clothing. Volunteers save their blankets for children and those who arrive soaked in sea water.
The toilets consist of a few portable toilets and concrete rooms floored with swamps of human waste. Between two locked and fenced off “reception centres” bristling with razor wire, a steep slope leads to the office where everyone must register to proceed to Athens – or anywhere else.
Hundreds queued through blistering heat and cold of night while riot police loomed over the line. Women and children, the sick and injured were all subject to the same conditions.
The refugees are traumatised, hungry, thirsty, and exhausted. Waves of panic and frustration are commonplace. Refugees and volunteers widely report that the police, lacking any proper training, often respond with violence.
Two volunteers from the United Kingdom, Annie Risner and Ruby Prins, recalled how tensions escalated in the early hours last Tuesday, ahead of the prime minister’s visit.
“A diabetic man had collapsed for want of insulin. An Afghan woman recovering from heart surgery collapsed unconscious in the queue. The police wouldn’t help,” said Risner. “We called an ambulance, then the violence started.”
Prins said police were beating men and women alike. “When they throw the tear gas, people really start to panic because there are families in the line. Kids get crushed, joints get dislocated, and bones get broken in the stampede,” said Prins.
A statement from Greek police sent to Al Jazeera on Monday said an “urgent investigation” had been launched into last week’s reported violence.
The UN also condemned physical abuse of refugees.
“Any difficulties that may arise in relation to crowd management due to high numbers of new arrivals [do] not constitute an excuse for the use of violence or any kind,” said a UNHCR statement provided to Al Jazeera.
The following day brought something new to the island: the Greek Prime Minister Tsipras and Austrian Chancellor Werner Faymann. Their visit lasted a total of three hours.
According to local media, more than 45,000 people were removed from Lesbos over the two weeks before the visit. Journalist reported extra ships were brought in to take refugees off the island and block new boats from coming in.
However, UNHCR’s spokesman Ron Redmond said the allegations that efforts were made to try and conceal conditions at Camp Moria by removing thousands of refugees were “ridiculous”.
“There are daily departures of refugees and migrants from the islands, which in the last half of September averaged 4,600 per day, or a total of nearly 68,000. Average overall departures in the week prior to the VIP visit were actually the same or less than the previous fortnight’s average,” Redmond said.
A new Moria
Volunteers said they feared seeing the full extent of the crisis in Camp Moria might prompt Tsipras to shut the border and trap countless numbers in Turkey, so the authorities opted for an unorthodox approach.
“The authorities set up a fake camp, did a bit of gardening, and brought in a few Syrian families,” one volunteer said on condition of anonymity fearing reprisals. “There has been regular tear gassing and assaults by police. Shame on the Greek government, the UN and the organisations that allowed this to happen.”
Others repeated the same story: busses brought in to obscure the main camp and the filth hidden under fresh concrete with food and chairs put out. Meanwhile, the sick and injured from the previous night went unattended.
Redmond told Al Jazeera the busses were parked in the interests of the prime minister’s safety, and he defended the UN refugee agency’s humanitarian efforts on Lesbos.
“UNHCR has been very open about the poor reception conditions faced by new arrivals in Greece and has been working hard to support the government in improving those conditions,” Redmond said.
“We readily acknowledge there is still a long way to go and that refugees and migrants continue to suffer. But we are doing our best in a difficult situation that doesn’t need to be exaggerated – things are bad enough as it is.”
Tsipras’ visit to Moria Camp lasted 20 minutes: time for a selfie with UN staff and one quick peek behind the bus. Then he was gone – and that night, Moria descended again into chaos.
“We were being treated like animals,” said 19-year-old Ali who asked to be identified only by his first name. “We’ve had no shelter, no food, no answers – just beatings. We said we would walk out of the camp, 1,000 of us all together.”
Turning the tide
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Tsipras has called again on Europe to help resolve the humanitarian crisis, saying Greece has neither the financial resources nor moral obligation to face it alone.
But his calls for “greater collaboration with Turkey” caused alarm. It foreshadowed this week’s negotiations between Turkey and the EU, which proposes to pay President Recep Erdogan $1.1bn to expand the Turkish camps and shut the Greece-Turkey border in collaboration with Europe’s corporate border guard, Frontex.
Sana – a 29-year-old Kurdish teacher, who also gave only one name – told Al Jazeera the Turkish camps “were very bad”.
“They beat us and insult us … They won’t even give milk to the babies. They hate us,” she said.
Many here also expressed fears that Erdogan might quietly push thousands of refugees back into Syria and Iraq, trapped with ISIL behind them and the steel walls of Europe in front.
The EU has long been allocating billions for border control with precious little left to fund lifesaving humanitarian work in disaster zones, such as Lesbos.
Al Jazeera asked one Kurdish father if harsher security measures would dissuade him. “Forty-one members of my family are dead. My daughters, 10 and 12, were kidnapped and killed themselves rather than be sold as slaves,” he said with tears in his eyes.
“I have to get my wife and son out, do you understand? What do I have to fear from fences?”