Francis implores EU leaders to come to the aid of refugees in symbolic visit to Greek island at the centre of crisis.
Lesbos, Greece – The stale stench of burning rubbish hung in the air outside the Moria detention centre a day after some of the worst rioting seen on the island where refugees are held.
Thick black smoke billowed out from the facility on Tuesday after a fight between some of the unaccompanied children escalated into anarchy and the police violently intervened.
“The fight started after the police beat one of the children. Then many people started throwing stones, the police shot tear gas to us, and some occupied the loudspeaker and started chanting ‘freedom’,” Khaled, a Syrian student detainee, told Al Jazeera, giving just one name.
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Under the terms of the European Union-Turkey agreement, most refugees arriving on the Greek islands are sent to the detention centre on Moria, where they can apply for asylum in Greece.
The unsuccessful ones are deported to Turkey where they face an unknown fate, including possible detention and deportation back to their own country, including Iraq and Afghanistan.
There are an estimated 140 unaccompanied children imprisoned inside Moria, many held for months, and NGO workers reported some had been treated in hospital after Tuesday’s riots.
“They always fight, some of them are very disturbed and they become violent,” said an NGO member who works with unaccompanied children. He spoke anonymously because he wasn’t authorised to talk to the press.
“The police came in and beat some of them. We told them all to stop, but then the tear gas came so we evacuated.”
Giorgos Kyritsis, government spokesman for the Greek refugee crisis, announced that after some “turmoil”, the situation “was normalised”.
In the absence of any police, refugees manned the gate on Tuesday and allowed Al Jazeera access inside. Families could be seen running back to their squalid tents in fear of tear gas canister explosions, and roaming gangs armed with metal rods starting inter-ethnic battles.
“We have come from war to be jailed like animals. Why? This is an island, we cannot escape,” said Ali, an Afghan detainee.
Emmanouil Chatzichalkis, a lawyer from Lesbos, acted as a negotiator between the refugees and police.
“The refugees request only to have better living conditions. There is raw sewage flowing into people’s tents, food supplies are very low and there is an urgent need for improved healthcare,” Chatzichalkis said.
“I met a woman inside with cancer. Also, they desperately need access to free legal aid to understand their rights.”
On Wednesday at noon, 12 Syrians were flown to Adana in southern Turkey on a Frontex-charted flight from Lesbos. All had allegedly returned voluntarily, yet many Syrians fear being sent back.
Khaled predicts more unrest in the days to come.
“Two weeks ago a member of a Syrian family tried to commit suicide after he was denied asylum in Greece. There will be more riots. If we have no freedom, what else can we do?”
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