‘There is war everywhere. Why would we start a fire here?’

Amid inhuman conditions, refugees in Moria, an overcrowded Greek camp, are angered by claims they started deadly fire.

For years, rights groups have been raising the alarm over conditions at Moria which seriously risk the refugees' health [Anna Pantelia/MSF]

Lesbos, Greece – Moria, the notorious, labyrinthian, refugee camp housing 13,000 people on the Greek island of Lesbos, was never designed to hold more than 3,000.

A former military base, it opened as a registration centre in 2015 and now, the ever-growing settlement – just two years ago about 6,000 people lived there – is home to mostly Syrians, Afghans and Iraqis, including unaccompanied children.

It has spilled into the surrounding olive groves. On the orchard land, there are multi-coloured tents and tarpaulins, connected by washing lines, laden with clothes.

Moria proper is marked by high fences and reams of coiled barbed wire.

To some here, living in a tent would be a luxury. They settle instead for tarpaulins tied together to form the walls of their homes, each emblazoned with various NGO logos.

Both the olive groves and Moria are severely overcrowded. 

After Lesbos was hit by torrential storms a few nights ago, thousands of people, including vulnerable children, suffered another sleepless night in Olive Grove next to Moria camp, as they huddled together in flimsy tents [Anna Pantelia/MSF] 

It is Saturday. The strong sun has warmed the air but many residents are reeling from an overnight downpour which washed away their possessions and homes – another reminder of the fragility of their lives in Lesbos.

A week ago, on Sunday, a fire ravaged living containers in the camp, officially killing one woman, who has been named in the media as Faride Tajik, a 49-year-old mother.

Some initial reports blamed refugees, who were allegedly protesting over the camp’s squalid conditions, for starting the fire, and said a baby had also died. The refugees, according to those accounts, prevented firefighters from putting out the blaze as they clashed with police.

But several refugees Al Jazeera interviewed said information in those accounts was false.

Some witnesses said more than one person had died, as others explained how refugees were the first people on the scene, trying to stop the fire from spreading.

Others claimed there were clashes, but this episode came later after refugees had attempted to save peoples’ lives – police reportedly fired tear gas even as the blaze was being put out.

Moria was never meant to host more than 3,000 people. There are currrently at least 13,000 mostly Syrians, Afghans and Iraqis living there [Anna Pantelia/MSF]

Abdul, an Afghan, showed Al Jazeera a video on his mobile phone from that day. It shows a woman, who he identifies as Tajik, appearing briefly at the window of her container a couple of times as smoke billows out. 

“Everybody saw how she died and how she burned,” he said, adding that he believes Tajik could have been saved had the authorities acted more swiftly. 

His wife, 30-year-old Taara, sits on a piece of cardboard at the entrance of their tent as her baby son happily plays peekaboo.

She is angered by reports which suggested the fire was started by an Afghan refugee and that camp residents attacked firefighters.

“Everyone knows the situation of our country,” she says emphatically. “There is war everywhere. Why would we start a fire here? Why would we burn ourselves?” 

She is also at a loss at the amount of rubbish now in the camp –  large piles of trash have accumulated along the edges of the olive grove. Taara believes the authorities are allowing rubbish to mount as a form of punishment due to their peaceful protest.

“We protested after the fire,” she says, “and since then they haven’t come to pick up the rubbish.”

Garbage at Moria, a persistent issue at the overcrowded camp, is mounting [Katy Fallon/Al Jazeera]

For years, rights groups have been raising the alarm over conditions which seriously risk the refugees’ health. As well as the rubbish, there is little access to washing facilities or medical services, lengthy queues for basic food and no heating system in the winter; in previous years, refugees have reportedly died during the coldest months.

Doctors who have visited or worked at the camp cite a high rate of mental trauma among residents, with self-harm and suicide attempts, and there have been reports of sexual abuse.

Dadvar, also an Afghan, said that he recently waited nine hours in line with his children from 6am to 3pm at the shower facilities, which then closed without any of them being able to wash.

“We didn’t want a fancy life in Europe, we just came here to be safe,” he says.

Far up on the hillside, the camp continues to grow with new arrivals every day. 

Mohammed, a Syrian, arrived four days ago and is in the middle of constructing his tent for his wife and two young children, including a four-month-old baby. 

He looks around at the crowds. 

“I didn’t expect it to be like this,” he says. “I thought Europe was beautiful but this is hell.” 

He tries to smile but there are tears in his eyes.

There are several hundred unaccompanied children living in Moria [Anna Pantelia/MSF]

Following the fire, Marco Sandrone, field co-ordinator for MSF on Lesbos, told Al Jazeera that he was particularly worried about children’s health.

“We are seeing more and more children especially after the incident of last Sunday. They are assessed by our psychologists and they come with serious traumas.”

Looking forward, the group wants the most vulnerable people moved off the islands. 

“There are children who have stopped playing, who have stopped eating, they don’t sleep, there are self-harm attempts and even suicide attempts. All of this is warning us that there is no clear strategy on how to stop the overcrowding in Moria camp.

“We are calling for the authorities to take responsibility, not just the Greek authorities but the European politicians as well. This is not an emergency that started a month ago. This is a cyclical and recurrent crisis and it is the direct result of the European policy, that they are detaining people in these islands without services in order to deter other migrants to reach Europe.”

We're now in a situation where we don't know what the next tragedy in Moria will be, but we know tragedy is inevitable.

by Alex Green, Help Refugees spokesperson

In March 2016, the EU and Turkey signed a deal to stop the refugee flow to Greece, which meant that the Greek islands now act as holding areas – asylum seekers are not allowed to leave until their requests are processed. This partly explains why Moria’s population has swelled well beyond its limit.

Alex Green, a spokesperson from Help Refugees, told Al Jazeera: “We’re now in a situation where we don’t know what the next tragedy in Moria will be, but we know tragedy is inevitable.”

The continued overcrowding comes against a backdrop of Greece’s changing political landscape.

The recently elected New Democracy, a right-wing party, has promised to “simplify” the asylum process, create closed reception and identification centres for refugees on the Greek islands, and return 10,000 people to Turkey by the end of 2020 – measures which have concerned rights groups.

Under the new government, the Ministry of Migration was taken over by the Ministry of Citizen Protection.

But Dr. Konstantinos Tsitselikis, an associate professor in human rights at the University of Macedonia in Thessaloniki, told Al Jazeera that he doubted the new government would be able to live up to its hard line on immigration reform.

Very little of what they say is doable for practical, legal and political reasons. Returns to Turkey cannot be higher in numbers unless they change basics of human rights in the law.

“To make the time of asylum process 90 days sounds unfeasible also. They would need staff to work day and night and to have interpreters, who are very difficult to get.”

 A former military base, Moria opened as a registration centre for asylum seekers in 2015 but has now expanded well beyond its limit  [Anna Pantelia/MSF] 

At time of publishing, Al Jazeera had not received a response from the Ministry of Citizen Protection.

As the spotlight falls on Lesbos once again, as journalists and TV cameras circle the camp, the community tries to carry on: tents are rebuilt, olives are harvested and clothes are washed as best they can be. Volunteers hand out tarpaulins to new arrivals about to spend their first night on the hard ground of the olive grove.

Abdul, the young father from Afghanistan, tells Al Jazeera that he simply wants a future for his children. 

As he says this, he takes a small lizard away from his youngest child. He picks the creature up and releases it by the camp walls, which have freshly painted blue graffiti on them: They killed our dreams.

Source: Al Jazeera