‘This is like a zoo and we’re like animals,’ says one refugee as others say a ‘mental war’ is being waged on them.
Moria, Lesbos Island, Greece – Jalal Ahmed al-Talaa rests on his haunches in front of his tattered tent in an olive grove next to the Moria refugee camp.
Rubbish, used toilet paper, urine-filled water bottles, dirty nappies and human faeces are scattered across the field.
Al-Talaa, a 30-year-old Syrian who arrived in Greece last month, is one of the hundreds of refugees and migrants who have moved to the olive grove because conditions inside the camp are cramped and decrepit.
He knew the journey from Syria would be arduous. After the government recently intensified its campaign to drive the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS) from his battle-ravaged hometown of Deir Az Zor, he decided to pack up and seek safety in Europe.
I knew the island was bad, but I didn't imagine it was this awful ... I didn't imagine you had to wait two hours to go to the toilet.
He paid smugglers and bribed fighters to cross checkpoints along the way. His wife gave birth to his now one-month-old son in an undersupplied clinic in rebel-controlled Idlib. They eventually reached Turkey and took a flimsy dinghy to Greece’s Lesbos Island.
Despite the dangers he knew they would face along the way, he hoped to bring his family to safety in Germany, where his brother found refuge two years ago.
What he did not expect was to end up sleeping outside with his wife and newborn son in the cold and rainy weather next to a camp plagued by illnesses, police mistreatment and violence between refugees.
“I knew the island was bad, but I didn’t imagine it was this awful,” he says. “I didn’t imagine you had to wait two hours to go to the toilet.”
Tents are spread across the olive grove. A group of children chase each other between the tarps and sheets strung up to divide families’ living areas, while others kick a football back and forth on the rocky terrain.
Across the street, young men use a single hose to wash themselves and their clothes as a strong wind blows through the area.
Like others stuck at Moria, al-Talaa spends his days sitting around his tent and waiting in lengthy queues for food and to see the camp’s medical staff.
“It’s very bad here,” he says, “and people with special cases, such as injuries or newborns, need to be allowed to move on to Athens.”
He adds: “Whenever you tell the doctor something is wrong, they only say you should drink more water.”
Following the March 2016 agreement to stem refugee flows between the European Union and Turkey, the Greek government confined refugees and migrants to the islands for the duration of their asylum process. Only asylum seekers with emergency cases can travel to the mainland.
That same month, countries across the Balkans sealed their borders, leaving more than 60,000 refugees and migrants stranded in Greece.
With cold and snowy weather approaching, rights groups and aid organisations have called on Greece to improve the plummeting living conditions in camps on several Greek islands, citing deaths in several camps last winter. At least three died in Moria alone, but residents claimed the number was higher.
Last week, the government moved hundreds of refugees to the mainland hoping to ease the pressure on the islands, where xenophobic and anti-refugee sentiment is growing.
“The conditions are certainly not suitable for winter in many of the hot spots [camps] that are dangerously overcrowded,” says Ashleigh Lovett, regional advocacy coordinator for the International Rescue Committee (IRC). “People don’t have access to basic services, toilets, showers and healthcare, which they need.”
She added: “I think there is a real risk that lives will be lost if people are not moved to the mainland.”
At the time of publication, Greece’s migration ministry did not respond to Al Jazeera’s request for a comment.
Moria, which was built to accommodate 2,000 people, now hosts upwards of 6,000 asylum seekers, according to the United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR).
“Right now, it is dangerous for children, families, and vulnerable people to stay in Moria,” says UNHCR spokesperson Boris Cheshirkov. “Conditions could still deteriorate if overcrowding persists and as colder weather sets in.
Home to 90,000 Greeks, Lesbos hosts an estimated 8,500 refugees and migrants, according to Mayor Spyros Galinos, who says “urgent action is needed” to relieve widespread suffering.
“The islands of North Aegean need to be immediately decongested from refugees, who need to be transferred to mainland Greece,” Galinos tells Al Jazeera.
Back in the field outside Moria, Abu Mohammed al-Qallab, a 41-year-old from Syria’s Deraa, gathers firewood for the evening.
Al-Qallab, a pro-opposition activist who says he was arrested and tortured by the Syrian government, explains that “it gets very cold here at night”.
The former high school teacher, who arrived in Lesbos a month ago, wears a sanitary mask because he recently came down with influenza.
He makes his way through the impromptu camp next to Moria, collecting large stones and pieces of wood to raise his tent and prevent rain from coming inside.
On the barbwire fence enclosing the camp, there are t-shirts, trousers and underwear out to dry.
“The food is awful here,” he says, “and we wait two hours [in the morning] for a piece of bread and an apple.”
Pausing to cough, he points in the direction of the camp. “This is a big prison.”
As al-Qallab speaks, a man passes by and says, in English: “Moria no good.”
Across town, in a building recently squatted by dozens of Afghan and Iranian refugees who left Moria, 16-year-old Ely Qias says she hoped to study when she reached Europe.
After enduring years of war in Afghanistan’s Helmand province, Ely, her mother and seven siblings travelled by foot from Afghanistan through the mountains of Iran to Turkey. They took an overcrowded boat to Lesbos just over two months ago.
Along with another family, they lived in a tent that housed 20 people inside Moria for two weeks before leaving the camp after violent clashes broke one evening.
“The toilets were very dirty, and the shower was worse,” she says. “Animals couldn’t use the shower there,” she says.
“Before people come to Moria, they aren’t ill, but everyone becomes sick once they are there … And at night, we were afraid to leave the tent because there were fights.”
Back in the olive grove, al-Talaa speaks over a chorus of thuds from hammers as men use wooden pallets and mangled scrap metal to build makeshift shelters.
His wife empties a bottle of water to wash clothes in an old bucket. She hangs t-shirts and jeans on a rope strung between two olive trees.
“There isn’t anyone here who didn’t go into debt to get here,” he says.
“Most of us already have relatives in Germany or elsewhere. Whenever you put everyone on the island and don’t let them leave, you create big problems … and there are going to be more problems.”