Living conditions worsen for asylum seekers on the Greek Island of Lesbos

Moria, Europe’s largest refugee camp located on Lesbos Island, Greece, was destroyed by a fire on September 9. As a result, nearly 13,000 have lost their shelters and access to basic services.  The lack of immediate government support and failed relocation of its asylum seekers has forced displaced refugees to sleep on roads, parking lots, and in any open fields they could find. While there were no reported deaths, the fire that began in three different places across the camp destroyed a quarter of the camp. Luckily, a medical center and a few tents remain untouched.

Despite a few arrests made by the Greek police, there has been no consensus on what caused the fire, with authorities on the island and camp residents initially accusing each other for starting it. The police accused suspects of arson and claimed the blaze began when asylum seekers demonstrated against the strict COVID-19 quarantine measures applied since March 1 that prevent anyone from entering or exiting the camp. These measures came after the Greek government became concerned about increases in COVID cases despite only reporting 35 positive out of the 2000 tests since March 1. However, due to unsanitary and crowded conditions in Moria and neighboring camps, Greek authorities were strict in their quarantine to prevent more wide-spread infection. 

Reports a few days after the fire indicated that demonstrations began after the only ATM in Moria was shut down as part of the COVID measures. As the only banking facility available,  panicked asylum seekers fearful of losing access to their most basic necessities such as food, diapers, and soap formed crowded lines to withdraw money. Inconsistent access to  food supplies has been another issue of concern with COVID measures, as individuals have to stand in line for hours to receive a family’s food rations.  The quality of food in the camp is so poor that a nutritionist informed the Washington Post “that the meals appear to fall below minimum calorie requirements.” To make things worse, meals are distributed in plastic packaging, resulting in “mountains of garbage among the tents”.

The devastating fires compounded the already significant problems residents of Moria and the island of Lesbos face, such as dealing with an unresponsive government, degrading living conditions, and strict confinement for over 6 months.  However, experts have denounced this form of mass quarantine as dangerous and advised that it be avoided at all costs. Due to the lack of proper hygiene and social distancing in camps, asylum seekers are at an increased risk of becoming ill. Unfortunately, many  also lack sufficient access to healthcare, putting them in a very vulnerable position.  Reuters has reported that Greek authorities have lost track of the 35 camp residents who tested positive for the virus, only further complicating fears of COVID on the island.  

The burning of Moria had caused an expansion of the Kere Tepe camp, where tents and plastic sheets have been used to accommodate refugees. While Kara Tepe was originally meant to house only 1300 in 2015, it has taken additional 5,000 since the fire. As a result of it being overpopulated, basic services such as toiletries and showers have been strained. There are reports that asylum seekers are experiencing the need to  “go to the toilet on the floor”, often in front of others’ tents. Refugee residents have also been seen bathing and washing their clothes in the sea near Kara Tepe. While Moria camp only had 35 reported cases, there have been 243 cases reported out of the 2,000 tests taken in the expanded Kara Tepe since the fires. 

Long before the fires, Moria was known as a place for asylum seekers and immigrants fleeing hardships. Built in 2015 and designed for a  maximum capacity of 3,100, Moria’s current population of 13,000 has turned the camp into a shantytown, and more than 40% of its residents are under the age of 18. BBC reported Moria as  “the worst refugee camp on earth for having limited access to sanitation, water and healthcare services

The refugee population in Moria camp has only increased in recent years despite a 2016 migration agreement between the EU and Turkey designed to limit the flow of asylum seekers into mainland Europe.  Prior to the agreement, asylum seekers could pass through the Greek islands on their way to claim asylum to any EU mainland country of their choosing. After the agreement, any migrant in Moria who does not undergo the formal asylum application process, which requires registration in Turkey, would be returned to Turkey and placed at the end of the application line. An already slow process, Amnesty International found that the agreement was signed and  “the Greek Government introduced changes to its asylum procedures” where many asylum applicants “began to be rejected at first instance under a fast-track procedure… on the assumption that Turkey is a safe country for asylum-seekers and refugees.”

These changes came under former prime minister Antonis Samaras who called for the crackdown to prevent what he called an “invasion by illegals… colonizing Greece.” Current President Kyriakos Mitsotakis has promised Greeks that he would toughen asylum rules and protections against abuse of the asylum system.  He does, however, aim to improve living conditions in camps for asylum seekers while simultaneously adopting a more strident approach to immigration, especially in the face of far-right Greek political parties such as Golden Dawn and Greek Solution, which are notorious for xenophobic rhetoric and targeting immigrants.

Recommended Reading

For full report on conditions of Refugees in Moria, click here.

To better understand what caused the protests, click here.

For report on how refugees are coping with Kara Tepe, click here

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