Moria is the name of a traditional village, 5km north of Mytilini town – capital of the island of Lesvos. Here you can visit the best-preserved Roman Aqueduct in Greece, built with local gray marble.
Next to the village of Moria, the EU built during 2013-14 a structure planned to be a “closed” camp (therefore it looked like a high security prison) for newcomers.
In 2015, still brand-new, “Moria” became the registration center during the months when the Balkan route was open. Since March 2016 (when the EU deal with Turkey was concluded), Moria became an “open” camp, with the capacity to shelter 2500 people. In reality the camp has been hosting 5000 or even more in bad conditions. While the main gate was controlled, the surrounding fence had already several holes, opened by migrants, providing uncontrolled access to people but also to drug dealers or criminals.
While indeed the situation was horrible, for years photos of the walls and the fence of Moria camp made people and the media compare Moria with “Guantanamo” despite freedom of entry and exit.
How did “Moria” become a synonym to the horrible management of the refugee crisis in Europe?
How did dozens of thousands of refugees fit in a camp of 2500 people capacity?
Next to the official camp, some, Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) have rented the surrounding olive groves and have offered shelter and facilities to thousands of migrants. Until early 2016 the so-called “Afghani hill” was a good solution for people staying for a short time, just for registration purposes. But then, after the EU deal with Turkey was concluded, migrants ware obliged to stay on the island for more than 2 years. The hills became a permanent, overloaded, unofficial camp.
Why don’t they build a bigger camp?
Same as all over the world, there are many ways to see a refugee: From pure racism to open-borders. Same on Lesvos. Not surprisingly, both sides agree on one point: there is no reason to keep migrants on the island; either because of xenophobia or because of humanitarian philo-xenia. As a result, all local governors have been elected by promising “no refugees at all”.
This was the reason why, last February, locals rejected the plan of the Greek Government to build a new camp of 5000 people far from Mytilini town. Special Police Forces, sent from Athens, have been “defeated” by the “brave” locals. As a side effect of this “battle” and in total contrast to Lesvos the welcoming island of 2015, in February 2020, members of extreme far-right organisations (including a few imported German AfD members) created large tensions also destroying cars belonging to volunteering organisations.
What do migrants think about Moria?
We all know, but we often forget, that the feeling of good living-standards as well as the feeling of freedom is not the same for all citizens around the globe.
Every time a journalist asks a migrant the answer is the same: “Moria is a prison”. But the feeling of prison is not because of the look of the buildings or the bad conditions. It is because migrants are not allowed to go further in Europe. This answer will not change by staying in a new “luxury camp”, still for two years or even more.
Zaki is an Afghani migrant working at the Votsala hotel. On a summer evening, we were driving in front of the camp. Hundreds of young men were playing football on the street. One football field after the other. Goals marked with stones. Wonderful atmosphere! Daphne asked Zaki: “Do you also play football on the streets in Afghanistan?”
- “No, in my country it is not safe to play on the streets. We live inside our houses and house yards. Here we have freedom and we able to play on the street!”
Note also that it was not uncommon for refugees given asylum to prefer to stay in Moria or come back after tough experiences migrants face in Athens. If migrants had no family or friends to join, Moria hills felt more familiar than a square in Grecee’s capital.
Fire at Moria camp September 2020
The situation in Moria camp was terrible and often reported as a bomb ready to explode (see our previous post). The occasion to burn it came when several refugees have been tested positive for coronavirus and refused to stay in quarantine. It is true that it was the beginning of the second wave in Greece and infected migrants took this isolation as a “personal” punishment, while fearing that the local authorities want to put them in prison or deport them back to their countries. It also seems that the authorities tried to organize this in a “military” way without many explanations and psychological support.
After the fire, 10.000 people were living on the street and the nearby hills. Nobody wanted to host them, as they have been considered as potential positive Covid-19 cases. Without being tested, this was now an additional reason for them being unable to leave the island.
What happened to all the people living on the streets?
The police immediately blocked the roads and isolated the district between Moria and Mytilini town. The central government asked the local municipalities (West & East Lesbos) to indicate places on the island in order to temporarily shelter the 10 thousands of migrants living under the olive trees. But locals, same as migrants, saw the fire as an opportunity to escape the island. They have rejected all suggestions.
In the middle of that isolated district there is a big property belonging to the Ministry of Defense. Using helicopters, the central government started to bring army-tents and install them in this property. Why helicopters? Because the locals wouldn’t allow such transport by land!
Surprisingly, the central government managed to relocate all migrants from the olive groves to this new camp. The convincing argument was that “nobody will leave the island without being tested for covid-19“. Policewomen from Athens dressed as nurses made the tests and talked to the people in a nice way about the benefits of entering into the camp. Although the situation seemed explosive, relocation in the new camp was relatively successful.
What about the new camp after Moria, called “Kara-Tepe 2” ?
A “temporary” camp was constructed in 5 days. (Amazing how efficient Greek State can be, ...sometimes!) It is located closer to Mytilini town than Moria and looks like an army camp. Same as the moon, the new “temporary” camp has two sides: Here is the dark side! The place is very exposed to the wind, and after every hard rain several tents have been floating on muddy waters after the first Autumn rain.
For months there was no real electricity support and no heating system.
No Bathrooms for almost one year are still not complete. Until the end of November 2020 men were washing themselves at the beach using seawater. For ladies, sanitation was a challenge!
Here is the “bright” side:
It is not a “closed” camp: people are free to go out (they get a numbered card at exit and need to be back at a certain evening time) and the new camp is located near Mytilini town and very close to the big supermarkets.
Refugees hope to go away from Lesvos and indeed 2500 have already left in a legitimate way till Christmas 2020. Then more and more in 2021.
Many NGOs have been assisting inside the “temporary” camp improving migrants’ living and health conditions. Doctors and nurses from all over the world have settled clinics inside the “temporary” camp and have been testing the migrants also for other diseases like Hepatitis etc. 8.000 Covid-19 rapid tests took place during the first days upon “entering” the camp, resulting in 280 Covid-19 cases. Afterwards, regular testing has been taking place inside the camp and the situation remains under control.
The refugees look like they are living slightly better than in Moria, maybe because everything is more controlled. Less “mafia” and drugs, hopefully a bit safer for the ladies who are less afraid of violence by young men, something very common in Moria. Of course there is no lack of exceptions.
What about the other camps on Lesvos? “Kara Tepe 2” until when?
The Greek government & EU needed a compromise with the local politicians in order to convince them build a new permanent camp. Given that local governors have been elected by promising to close all camps, the ministry in Athens decided to shut down both other camps on the island, as an “exchange” to a new permanent camp that will substitute the current “temporary” one.
In October 2020, the police (in a harsh way) evacuated the PIKPA camp. Pikpa was an independent small (80-100 people) structure hosting vulnerable cases. Pikpa was run by volunteers and was an exemplary camp, offering dignity. Too good to be compared with Moria run by the State! Unfortunately, it was also located next to a wealthy neighborhood and the town Mayors always promised to their voters that they would shut it down. The organisation running PIKPA, "Lesvos Solidarity”, is now orientated towards helping their "support centre Mosaik”, the Asklipios medical centre, as well as towards adding services as a “Day-centre” or renting houses in the town for vulnerable families.
The government has also shut down the “Kara-Tepe 1”, a camp very close to the new “temporary” one. “Kara-Tepe 1” was a very well-organized camp run first by the municipality then by UNHCR, hosting around 1000 people, mostly families. It was organised in neighborhoods according to nations/religion. While several tents were “floating” in the “Kara-Tepe 2” camp, 400 empty beds have been available in “Kara-tepe 1”. Oh yes, it’s better to have tents floating than putting people in houses, in order to satisfy local politicians in their fight to “shut down” all camps (and accept a new permanent one in the middle of the island and of nowhere).
What was the contribution of Odysseas to Lesvos in 2020
In 2020, Odysseas started with the usual support to Mosaik support centre in Mytilini town, by providing Greek language classes. During the summer we have additionally supported the PIKPA camp especially because they hosted 30 extra minors, coming from the overloaded Moria camp. Education programmes, sometimes in person and sometimes digital, have been supported by Odysseas at Mosaik centre as well. Then came the fire at Moria! During the first week we have tried to help people living in the olive groves. We have bought and distributed food, diapers, water and whatever could be helpful. We have also helped Pikpa distributing meals for them.
After a while all migrants entered the new “temporary” camp. One month later Pikpa was closed (look lower at our previous posts). At the same time, the second lockdown made our education programmes impossible. In a way, Odysseas was for a while without clear purpose. We have continued to support LeSol (ex Pikpa camp & Mosaik support centre), because they are also operating a small medical centre called “Asklipios” in the town of Mytilini.
In the meantime, several volunteering organisations have entered and worked inside the new “temporary” camp. We have chosen two of them, “StandByMe” and “Cadus”, and have donated €5.000 to each of them. Members of Cadus with their mission on Lesvos have worked for several weeks as a medical team. Standbyme, among other missing, has repaired the rough electrical installations inside the new camp before winter really arrives.
How is the situation on Lesvos now
After tough negotiations, the "negative" fact that the temporary camp is closer to the town than Moria, together with promises of financial benefits, the Mytilini Municipality compromised and accepted to build a new permanent camp (the Municipality of West Lesvos still opposes it). Although the objective of the EU remains “not to facilitate the migrants”, everybody agrees that a human camp abiding by European standards has to replace horrible Moria after the fire.
This new camp with a capacity of 5.000 people is planned somewhere on the hills, in the centre of the island, far away from the capital (25km) and relatively far from any other village of Lesvos. If everything goes as planned, this will be ready at the end of 2022. The only one thousand asylum seekers, living now in Kara-Tepe, will be moved into the new camp. The remaining four thousands empty beds will be there waiting eventually a new crisis. For the same reason we believe that EU will also keep the temporary KaraTepe standing by …just in case!
In 2020 and 2021 we had very few new arrivals compared to the past. It is not clear if this is because of Covid-19, or because the borders are controlled “better” (potentially including push-backs that Greece and Frontex are refusing), but in any case, this is what the numbers say: less than one thousand asylum seekers on Lesvos in May 2022.
Are there needs in Greece aside Lesbos?
Ritsona is a big camp hosting 2500 refugees on Greece mainland, located 80 km north of Athens. The nearest town is Chalkida, on the island of Euboea, at a distance of 18km without public bus connection. In May 2021 we have been asked to give a lift to the school for 50 pupils of Ritsona
Local parents in Chalkida have been against the idea of refugee children joining the schools of their town. But the Municipality was obliged, according to the EU lows, to organize bus transfers from the camp of Ritsona to the schools. Standing between the “NO” opinion of some voters and the “YES” opinion of the low they have booked couches but …one was missing! Odysseas has paid for more than 40 days one bus to bring and take back fifty pupils to/from the school.
They have invited us for their international poesy day. It was not only a beautifully organized day. It was great to see the Greek and refugee pupils reading poems in different languages, to sing and have fun. Here is the best: When we told them that Odysseas will be able to pay again the bus for the next school period starting in September we got the following answer. Not necessary. Local parents have no rejections any more –since they met the new pupils from the camp and have realized that they are nice children like all children of the world!!!!! As Aristotle says: first step to become friend with someone is …to get know him!
These are moments that make us feel it is worth doing these small things we do!
Indeed, the transportation has started in October 2021 for about 200 pupils with buses paid by the regional Government. But then, soon after Christmas the authorities stoped the programme because they had no more money (that’s what they said).
We could not imagine even just to say to the refugee pupils that they cannot go to school anymore. Since February 2022 Odysseas is transporting them with 3 buses daily, morning and evening.