Refugees forced to uproot again as Greece closes ‘safe’ camp
Crowds moved from Kara Tepe, an environment with childcare and regular food aid, to Mavrovouni, where rape has been reported.
Mytilene, Lesbos – Anis Alizai arrived in Lesbos with her parents and four siblings in December 2018.
After sleeping rough for seven months in the olive groves around Moria camp, the Greek island’s main reception centre at the time, the Afghan refugee family were granted a coveted modular housing unit at Kara Tepe, a municipal camp seen as an example of humanity and solidarity since it was created in 2016.
Anis, now 17, dreams of studying mathematics at the University of Patras, one of Greece’s most competitive technical universities, and she is determined to succeed.
“I went to the vocational high school for my foundation year. They told me I was very good at maths, and I said I would try for the general high school the next year,” she told Al Jazeera.
“They said it was much more difficult there, and I said, ‘I don’t mind’.”
Anis succeeded in a Greek high school. She sat an exam for the First Experimental High School of Mytilene, the island’s top school which admits just 13 students a year and prepares them rigorously for university entrance exams.
With just a year of Greek schooling, Anis got 80 percent on the exam, and along with an Iranian refugee, won seats in the class.
If all had gone well, Anis would be sitting her university entrance exams in the summer of 2022.
But now that future is up in the air, because the government abruptly shut down Kara Tepe camp this month, and moved most of its 1,000 residents to a tent city down the road called Mavrovouni.
Rights groups have described Kara Tepe as “safe” and decried its closure.
One of the ingredients to Anis’s success was her stable environment.
At Kara Tepe, her younger siblings could attend daycare and language classes offered by aid groups.
The camp itself, a promontory jutting out top sea, felt more like a village community than a refugee camp.
It was gated and families felt safe to leave their children to run around unsupervised.
Even though the Alizais have not yet been granted asylum, they survived on food and medicine provided by the municipality and volunteers.
Mavrovouni is a different story.
“A tent that doesn’t have a door you can close isn’t safe,” said Anis.
“You could go from [Kara Tepe] to public schools in town … in the new camp I don’t know if we’ll be able to attend school.”
Greece opened up its public schools to asylum seekers in September 2016, but not on the islands.
That is because they were considered halfway houses where new arrivals would either be granted international protection or be deported back to Turkey.
The process was supposed to take weeks, but in many cases, like the Alizais’, has taken almost two years.
Anis’s ability to attend high school was an exception, and one that may not continue once her family is put back in the general refugee population.
Mavrovouni was hastily built on an artillery range after Moria burned down last September, police say due to arson.
“It’s not clean, the accommodations aren’t properly waterproofed, they’re not on flat ground,” said Imogen, a volunteer with an aid group that works in Mavrovouni. “There are no mattresses, it’s not a suitable place for people to stay.”
Raed Alobeid, a Syrian community leader, told Al Jazeera: “We are waiting our fate and we are waiting how to die.
“It’s better to transfer [people] from this jail to the mainland. It is like a jail. I do not say this. All the people say this. You’re allowed out two, maximum three hours and then you must return.”
‘You feel too scared to go out of your tent’
Thousands of refugees have been transferred to the mainland this year, as the government attempted to ease overcrowding to try and quell unrest among refugees and political problems among Greek voters.
Some 7,500 asylum seekers remain at Mavrovouni, down from twice that number when Moria was burned.
But according to Karolien Janssens, a doctor with Doctors Without Borders (Medecins Sans Frontieres, or MSF), the government has not solved the challenges of overcrowding.
“Today in our clinic we had a pregnant woman who has moved [from Kara Tepe], who is totally freaking out. She and her family are now in a huge tent full of single men, with her four little children. So it’s totally out of place. It’s totally absurd.”
This morning at 5am, when it was still dark & while it was raining, 50 vulnerable refugees were moved by the Greek police from Kara Tepe 1 to a new tent in the hellish Moria 2.0. 1/3 pic.twitter.com/Ykb5BoJ380
— MSF Sea (@MSF_Sea) April 24, 2021
Janssens says some of MSF’s female patients have reported being raped at the new camp, despite government assurances that it is safe.
“In the nighttime, you feel too scared to go out of your tent, certainly if you’re a woman you cannot go to the toilet. You stop drinking at two in the afternoon to avoid going to the toilet. If you have to go, you pee in a bottle,” she said.
For children and young people like Anis and her siblings, there is significant risk in moving.
“There’s a child who was already in our treatment for mental health problems and he’s been having very severe panic attacks, fainting episodes, symptoms we had stabilised him on. These are all coming back because as a child, already before being moved, he knew he was going back,” said Janssens.
Glimmers of hope
Lesbos’s mayor promised to close Kara Tepe when he was elected in 2019, and the government promised to decongest the islands of the east Aegean.
The Kara Tepe promontory will most likely revert to being a driving practice ground.
There is a glimmer of hope for Anis.
She and her family may end up being shipped to the mainland instead of Mavrovouni – the hope of most refugees on Lesbos.
“All the people are angry they are very upset about asylum. Some have been waiting a year, a year and a half,” said Alobeid, the Syrian community leader. “What we need from the European countries is help the people, help the children here inside this camp.”
The European Union has pledged 267 million euros to build a new generation of better-quality camps on Greece’s five east Aegean islands with refugee reception centres.
And Greece has now sped up the adjudication of new asylum cases to about two months, the government says.
But none of this addresses the problems of older residents such as the Alizais, whose cases have, if anything, suffered delays because resources were diverted to new cases.
Anis remains resilient.
“I don’t know if we will be allowed to stay in Greece,” she said. “But I learned in mathematics that to every problem, there is a solution.”