As the European Union works to address the enduring migrant crisis it faces, displaced people living in Greece are losing hope in their prospects of gaining asylum elsewhere. As of February 2020, tens of thousands of people are living in abhorrent conditions at Greek refugee camps. And with asylum requests taking as little as a few weeks to longer than a year in many cases, migrants are increasingly turning to protests to demand drastic change.
The ‘European migrant crisis’ informally began in 2015, when the Syrian civil war forced millions of Syrian citizens to seek asylum in neighboring countries and regions. This crisis was compounded by political unrest in other Middle East and North African countries, including, but not limited to, Iraq, Iran, Eritrea, and Afghanistan. Thousands of Syrian migrants crossed the Mediterrenean Sea in an attempt to seek asylum in European countries such as Turkey and Greece – the most accessible locations in Europe by boat. In 2015, Greece saw an estimated 850,000 migrant arrivals by sea.
While many of these displaced people have requested and been granted asylum in EU member states such as Belgium or Germany, tens of thousands of people are still awaiting their asylum decisions on the Greek island of Lesvos. The island is essentially a holding zone and a gateway into the EU for migrants. Since the EU struck a deal with Turkey in 2016 to reduce their migrant intake, the number of asylum requests in Lesvos has tripled to over 17,000 in 2018.
In Lesvos, migrants are placed into ‘refugee camps,’ where they are offered the basic necessities – food, water, and shelter – while their asylum requests are processed. Unfortunately, the flow of migrants into Lesvos has proven unmanageable for Greece and the EU, and horrific living conditions have resulted at some of these camps.
The prime example is the Moria camp in Lesvos, a space designed to hold roughly 3,000 people that is now holding over 20,000 — a sharp increase from nearly 10,000 people in October of 2019. The conditions at Moria are so dire that many occupants insist that “death is better…” At Moria, migrants live in tents, wait in lines for hours to eat processed foods, and wait idly. Residents routinely die due to violence, extreme weather, malnutrition, depression, and poor health care.
In September of 2019, after a fire broke out at the Moria camp that killed a migrant woman and her child, protests erupted. Residents of Moria demanded better living conditions and more efficient asylum processing. The EU responded to these rising tensions by relocating hundreds of Moria occupants to mainland Greece.
In the months that followed, the population at Moria camp continued to grow and reached over 20,000 in early 2020. In February 2020, protests again erupted as migrants demanded change. Many migrants decided to take their protests from the secluded Moria camp to Mytilene, the capital of Lesvos, where they would receive more media exposure. At the capital, protestors were met with tear gas and riot police, further exacerbating tensions on the island between the migrants, Greek locals, and government officials.
The UN High Commissioner for Refugees suggests that the EU should once again relocate refugees to mainland Greece in order to ease tensions. Yet, it is unclear what long-term solution these political bodies will employ as the Moria camp now approaches ten times its suggested capacity.
For more details on the conditions at the Moria camp in Lesvos, Greece, click here.