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Lesvos Diary: Life in the refugee camps

Afghan refugees shelter from the sun under a canopy crowdfunded in Germany and erected by volunteers outside the Moria camp, Mytilene, August 21, 2015. (Asteris Masouras)
Afghan refugees shelter from the sun under a canopy crowdfunded in Germany and erected by volunteers outside the Moria camp, Mytilene, August 21, 2015. (Asteris Masouras)
Written by Asteris Masouras’s Asteris Masouras spent a week in Lesvos, the third largest Greek island, which is receiving the largest share of the refugee exodus from Turkey. Over 160,000 people, mostly from Syria and Afghanistan, have crossed over to Greece so far in 2015, with 33,000 of them having crossed the narrow 10km strait to reach Lesvos just in August so far. The island is overwhelmed by the numbers, but local social initiatives, with the support of volunteers and contributors from around the world, make up for the crippling deficiencies of the formal aid system to respond to people in need.

Refugees reaching Lesvos are eventually channeled to two camps outside the city of Mytilene. One of them, Kara Tepe, is a converted traffic park, chicken-fenced and split down the middle by the access road, housing primarily Syrians. The other refugee camp, Moria, is an EU-funded formal detention center, fenced with razor wire and guard posts, housing other nationalities. Refugees at both locations are overflowing capacity, languishing in deplorable conditions, made marginally bearable by the efforts of volunteers and a handful of NGOs.

Activists from the Village of All Together arrive in Kara Tepe in a staggered convoy, then unpack the materials needed to cook and serve food to hundreds of refugees. As the sun beats down mercilessly on the asphalt, Syrian refugees mill around, waiting for lunch to be served. The activists politely struggle to keep them from crowding at the table. Upon my remarking on the large number of people queuing for food, Konstantinos Polychronopoulos breaks out a big, warm grin.

“This is nothing; we fed 2,000 people yesterday.”

Seeing the cameras, a trio of youths approach and strike up conversation. Nahid, a young, bespectacled and soft spoken man offers to translate for the others. “What do you think of Mr. President Bashar al-Assad?” he says, signaling in a tone that one of his friends expects to hear praise. The friend is quick to laugh, appreciative of Greek women, and supportive of the Syrian president. He points to a muscled youth nearby, tattooed with daggers “This guy almost killed me,” he says. “Just kidding.” The dagger-tattooed youth is a shabiha, a member of the regime’s armed thugs, as Nahid confirms later. The last member of the trio is a Kurd from Kobane. He offers no details on his story, other than to repeatedly point out that a united Kurdistan is within grasp as a result of the current conflict.

Nahid – whose name we’ve changed to protect him from further persecution – tells me that he was a journalist in the northeastern Syrian city of Hasakah, which he fled after threats by ISIS over his critical Facebook posts. He tried to find work in Dubai, but he was told to fight for the rebels if he wanted a visa. Nahid complains about the unemployment and low wages in Turkey. He continues to post criticism on Facebook under his real name. All three want to seek asylum in Germany, without knowing exactly why. Smiling, Nahid poses for a photo, but I tell him that I won’t publish it so as not to endanger him. After the others join the queue, Nahid confides that he’s no regime supporter: “I am a moderate; I blame all sides for the war.”

Kara Tepe offers sparse amenities to the hundreds of refugees arriving every day. Segregated shower stalls and toilets were installed by the International Rescue Committee and Medecins Sans Frontiers, but British expat Eric Kempson, who periodically comes over to help clean the toilets, criticized hygiene conditions at the camp. In another visit a month later, he conducted a spot inspection of the toilets – now in dreadful condition – and commended the International Rescue Committee for keeping the part of the camp clean and orderly.

Today, the left side of the camp looks marginally cleaner than the right side. The only protection from the sun can be found at a small amphitheater, alternately used by police officers conducting registration – the entire reason refugees congregate here – and a Medecins Du Monde (MDM) contingent, performing routine medical screening. MDM also operates two more field units: one at the Moria camp and the other at the port of Mytilene. Refugees mill around the amphitheater, enjoying a respite from the sun while waiting for their checkup; a kid tethers to my phone’s data plan to check on his Facebook page.

Giorgos Bakas, the social worker who heads the MDM presence at the camp, is constantly busy, but agrees to talk to me at his office in Moria. We make a short stop at the Mytilene port, where the MDM mobile unit providing checkups and information is parked next to a registration booth. Dozens are crowding along a fenced, muddy strip, hoping to get their papers and catch a ship to Piraeus on the Greek mainland. Three children’s drawings depicting homes are taped up on the fence.

Moria is an oddity, a detention center where thousands are crowding to get in. Hosting non-Syrian refugees, for whom fast-track processing is not available, it has taken a more permanent aspect of a shanty town ringing the perimeter of a Gitmo-like facility, with razor wire fences and guard towers surrounding the containers housing the refugees inside. Unlike Kara Tepe, Moria has no amenities for those biding their time outside the camp. All manner of canopies  – from triangular field tents, to hiking domes, to silos and makeshift lean-tos – are pitched everywhere on the shoulder of the road. Dust rises with every movement, and waste water pools on the ground, only to seep downhill. Security issues also loom outside, as only a handful of police officers work at the facility and the road is ill-lit at night. The pent-up frustration of thousands waiting for an indeterminate time for their papers in deplorable conditions, with no amenities and care to keep them occupied, often results in scuffles.

As we arrive, a long lunch queue snakes down the road. Medecins Du Monde and other organizations operate from a row of air-conditioned containers atop the camp. The entrance is ringed by tents, and their occupants plead to make their way in whenever the chain-link fence swings open. MDM’s Giorgos Bakas tells me that his organization is operating at its limit, striving to at least provide the minimum of essential medical care and allow refugees to retain their dignity. But the island cannot handle over 1,500 new arrivals per day.  Better reception facilities are needed to manage the inflow and avert tensions, he says, and the EU has to respond appropriately.

Sebastian Reich comes by for a visit, surprised that he was allowed in, and we make our way down to a dilapidated building outside the facility, where dozens of people find shade under the awnings that he and the team from The Village Of All Together erected. Their next project, to begin the following morning, is to dig a proper drainage system, as the pools of waste water are a serious health risk. They’re also thinking of setting up a PA system, so people waiting to be called for their papers don’t miss their turn.

Solidarity activists and aid workers operate in overlapping parts of the refugee ecosystem, sometimes collaborating, often coexisting in mutual tolerance and occasional mistrust. Intergovernmental organizations and NGOs are constantly criticized by volunteers for their absence, or discrepancies between their communications and infrastructure work. For instance, Medecins du Monde also has a booth set up outside Moria, but activists say they’ve never seen it used.

Back in Mytilene, Sebastian tells me that he never expected to be participating in such a social solidarity project, or to see so many people live in such dreadful conditions. Winter is coming, arrivals will continue, and the waiting will be harsh for refugees – especially once the volunteers, tourists and media are gone.

Not long after my departure from the camps, refugee arrivals in Lesvos surpassed 33,000 people, overwhelming all capacity at the camps and the port. Α 47-year-old Somali woman died of a stroke in Moria on August 31, reportedly due to the harsh living conditions, and another bitten by a snake was taken to hospital. On September 4, clashes erupted in Mytilene when hundreds of Afghans tried to board a ship to Piraeus, and the Coast Guard fired stun grenades to push them back. On September 7, hundreds marched in downtown Mytilene, demanding to be allowed to leave. A marathon operation to fast-track 15,000 applications for travel permits, on September 8, temporarily cleared the bottleneck in Mytilene, and defused tensions.

About the author

Asteris Masouras

Asteris Masouras is an online journalist and human rights activist from Thessaloniki, Greece. He has been curating global breaking news on Twitter since 2007, where he follows stories ranging from the protests of social justice movements worldwide, to mainstream politics and conflicts around the globe, to revelations about the surveillance state and beyond. Asteris is also the Twitter editor for Global Voices Online, and a co-founder and editor of Global Voices in Greek.

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