Lesbos, Greece – Black nets have been laid below the branches of the olive trees on the Greek island of Lesbos, waiting for the season’s fruit to fall.
The spaces between the squat trees fill with tightly packed tents of different colours and sizes as you drive towards Moria refugee camp. They stretch into the distance, extending up the side of a hill. Washing lines, weighed down by towels and children’s clothes, are strung between boughs.
The official Moria camp, a former military base, has a capacity of roughly 2,150. With more than 17,800 refugees now on Lesbos, according to the UN’s refugee agency, there are now thousands of people eking out shelter in this olive grove – known as “the jungle” by many of its residents.
After years of falling numbers following the infamous 2016 EU-Turkey deal, boat arrivals have significantly increased since this summer. Approximately 37,000 are now on the Greek islands, mostly in facilities with an official combined capacity of roughly 4,500.
Yet Moria’s days are supposedly numbered. Last week, the new centre-right Greek government announced its plan to overhaul the camp system. In an effort to “decongest” the islands, the severely overcrowded camps on Lesbos, Chios and Samos will be shut down and replaced with “closed” facilities that have been compared to detention centres. About 20,000 refugees are to be relocated to the mainland by early next year.
“It’s not humanity,” said Zekria Farzad, a 40-year-old journalist and father of five from Afghanistan, who arrived in Lesbos earlier this year. Farzad described the proposed facilities – where people will be kept for identification, relocation and deportation – as “prisons”.
‘Doesn’t make sense’
While aid organisations and human rights advocates have long called for mainland transfers, the new proposals have been said to contravene basic human rights.
“This doesn’t make sense to me,” said a Moria resident, who asked to remain anonymous while they awaited their asylum decision. “Who are you putting there? People who have fled war and deprivation. Victims of torture, terrorism, poverty, corruption and shipwrecks. People who are stressed and depressed. We left home to seek justice and peace.”
Not all are convinced the impending closure is realistic. “I read about it, but I didn’t think it was true,” said Zeinab Nourzehi, 26, from Afghanistan. “We see people moving to the mainland, but in these [recent] days, many, many people came here – more than ever.”
Stepped-up transfers to the mainland are not keeping pace with arrivals, mostly from Afghanistan and Syria, and over a third of them children.
So far in November, at time of writing, there have been 3,649 arrivals on Lesbos and 2,130 transferred to the mainland. In October, the numbers were 3,425 and 1,668 respectively. This comes in the context of Moria already being overcrowded due to asylum request backlogs and Greece’s policy of “containment” leaving many waiting on the islands.
Right now for residents such as Zeinab, however, it is difficult to see past the daily struggle of living in the camp. Zeinab is seven-months pregnant, and since arriving in October she has lived in a small tent with her husband.
They do not even have wooden pallets to raise them off the wet, freezing ground, she said, only donated sleeping bags and a blanket. Her sleep is always broken and what scarce food is available makes her sick. Zeinab’s husband, ill since arriving, accompanies her on the 15-minute walk to the toilet queues so she does not slip in the mud, or befall a worse fate. Another resident told this reporter they had wet themselves on numerous occasions waiting in long queues for the toilets.
“You can’t imagine how terrible it is at night,” said Zeinab, holding her bump.
‘Life here is hell’
Despite NGOs’ efforts to patch gaps, basic services are well beyond capacity.
Deadly fires and violence have become part of life here. Women have reported wearing diapers to avoid the dangerous journey to the bathrooms at night. Medical and psychological support is critically lacking. This month Doctors without Borders reported a nine-month-old-baby had died in the camp from severe dehydration.
“Life here is hell,” said Zekria. Although his family, more fortunate than most, have now moved into “container flats”,’ he returns every day to the school he created in the camp. “Children are not safe in Moria,” he said, happy to be able to offer them a brief space for peace and learning.
NGOs are increasingly concerned about the urgent lack of protection for unaccompanied and separated children, some as young as 10. There are more than 1,200 on the island, and with “safe zones” and protected areas already full, the majority are ostensibly accommodated in a large tent for new arrivals in Moria, alongside adults. In reality, hundreds are preferring to leave the tent to sleep either in “the jungle” or homeless in the city centre, leaving them extremely vulnerable to harm.
And while Moria camp has often attracted media attention, conditions for those on other islands such as Samos are reportedly worse.
Where are the human rights? Where is the European Union? Why they don't know about these human crisis that we have in Moria?
While Zekria is shocked at the new proposals, the absence of the abstract values he had expected had already been made concrete to him in the mud and violence amid families sleeping under tarpaulins in the cold.
“Where are the human rights?” he said. “Where is the European Union? Why they don’t know about these human crisis that we have in Moria?”
At the Doctors Without Borders (MSF) pediatric clinic outside Moria, mental health activity manager Angela Modarelli sees how each day spent in Moria is another chance for a child to be traumatised. “This is the most horrific injustice I have experienced until now,” she says. The words “emergency” and “children” seem to have lost their weight, she adds.
Last month, Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis urged EU member states to share responsibility for accommodating refugees.
Yet, the latest announcement comes in line with a hardening policy stance towards refugees in Greece, often celebrated for its show of refugee solidarity since 2015. A highly criticised new law that restricts access to safeguards for those seeking asylum was passed at the beginning of the month.
Zekria has seen many rejections given out in the camp recently – including to him and his family.
A newly arrived three-month pregnant woman and her husband use blocks of wood to hammer a piece of tarpaulin into the ground. Three pairs of children’s shoes sit outside the door of the small tent.
As the camp braces for winter and a new season of arrivals on the island, NGOs organise a hand-out of 16,000 jackets, mindful that the cold has already been deadly in Moria. This weekend an unusually warm November gave way to heavy storms. A few miles up the road, Christmas decorations are placed outside restaurants in the picturesque town of Mytilini.
Zeinab’s baby is due in January. “It’s really hard for me, because I am not one person: I have responsibility for two,” she says. She hopes the authorities will make good on their talk of finding her accommodation. But every time she sees a woman carrying a baby in “the jungle”, she feels fear.
“Everyone is coming and saying ‘sorry … I’m so sorry’,” she says. “I am really tired of this word.”