by Stavros Malichudis and Ingeborg Eliassen • cover photo Nicolas Economou • translated by Gigi Papoulias
January 20, 2020
The living conditions that asylum seekers endure at the Moria Reception and Identification Center on Lesvos have become infamous. Insiders who know about the inhospitable environment at the camp are not surprised by clashes which have turned deadly. Residents have persistently asked for more security.
The 20-year-old from Yemen, who died on the night of Thursday January 16, was the second man to have been knifed in Moria last week. Today, (January 20), early Monday morning and shortly before the news report was complete, an 18-year-old woman was taken to the hospital with serious knife injuries.
According to reliable sources among the refugee communities on Lesvos, the 20-year-old’s death occurred just minutes before 11pm. There was a dispute between Afghans and asylum seekers from Sub-Saharan Africa, which took place in Zone 12, near the location of the European Asylum Support Office (EASO).
The incident also resulted in the (fortunately minor) injury of an underaged resident who happened to be passing by. A 27-year-old man from Afghanistan was arrested during the incident. Just two days earlier, a young man who had sustained knife injuries on New Year’s and had spent 14 days in intensive care, left his last breath on Lesvos.
The young man was 19 year-old Yanik Moukantou from the Democratic Republic of Congo, who, according to news reports had survived a shipwreck in which seven people perished, only to die from stab wounds in Moria. According to Lesvos hospital records, from the beginning of the year more than ten people from the Moria camp were hospitalized due to knife wounds, including the 18-year-old who was seriously injured Monday morning.
Too many people, too little space, too little hope
Following the resignation of the chief administrator of the Moria Reception and Identification Center, Yiannis Balpakakis, on September 11, 2019, deputy chief Dimitris Vafeas has assumed the position.
During a phone call last November, Mr. Vafeas presented the population of the wider Moria camp, which far exceeds the capacity originally designated for this particular Reception Center, by comparing it to the population size of Greek cities.
“Essentially, we are dealing with a city that has become larger than Messolongi, and it could now be compared to Florina or Kastoria, and is heading for the size of Preveza,” Dimitris Vafeas said.
In November, the population of the Moria camp was slightly below 16,000. Today, according to the latest records by the Secretary General for Media & Communication, 19,256 people reside at the Moria camp.
The official capacity of the Moria Reception and Identification Center during this time was only 2,880 people, which became 2,840 when on September 29, 2019 a fire destroyed some of the containers – an incident which resulted in the death of a woman.
This means that the vast majority of residents do not live within the original structure of the camp but in the “jungle”, as the surrounding area around Moria is called, where a tent city has developed. In contrast to the aforementioned Greek cities that cover large land areas, the Moria camp, including the surrounding space covered in tents, comprises an area of less than 0.2 km.
It is characteristic that Preveza, mentioned by Mr. Vafeas, with a population similar to that of Moria (19,042 inhabitants in the 2011 census), has a land area of 668 square km. This means that the residents of Moria live in an area 3,340 times smaller. Even more importantly, however, are the conditions in which the residents live.
Foretelling the number of deaths “with mathematical precision”
In March 2016 an agreement between the European Union and Turkey was signed. It provides, among other things, for the geographical restriction of asylum seekers arriving on the five Aegean islands (Lesvos, Leros, Kos, Samos, Chios). In other words, those arriving on the islands must remain there and endure the problematic conditions at the overcrowded facilities, until their request for asylum is processed.
“Wait” refers to most stages of daily life, and is reflected in long lines for food, showers and toilets, or waiting days to see a doctor or waiting months for asylum interviews
“With the implementation of the EU-Turkey Agreement and the geographical restriction, the hot spot has been transformed from a transit zone to a place of long-term residence, due to its association with international protection procedures. Theoretically, people would stay here for one to three months maximum, but instead there are some who end up staying here as long as a year and a half,” Patric Mansour tells Solomon MAG. He is with the Norwegian Refugee Council, which has been operating in Moria since the beginning, participating in the camp’s management team.
The word “wait” is one of the few Greek words that asylum seekers learn at Moria. When “wait” refers to most stages of daily life, and is reflected in long lines for food, showers and toilets, or waiting days to see a doctor or waiting months for asylum interviews and administrative procedures, one realizes that the general social coexistence of thousands of people flows in a climate of tension.
The combination of new arrivals and the number of those left behind emphasizes the issue of overcrowded facilities. The Panhellenic Federation of Police Officers has also highlighted the issue in an announcement, saying that the coexistence of so many people in such a small space has resulted in “the creation of an explosive situation that will only leave behind −with mathematical accuracy− death and injuries, regardless of staff identity, background, origin and religion.”
“Safety? Security here is a big issue”
Dozens of deaths have been reported at Moria since the launch of the Reception Center, with humanitarian organizations and observers claiming existing conditions are to blame.
The news of the accidental death of a child who was run over by a truck while playing with a cardboard box comes as no surprise, as there is very little space in the camp. A similar incident occurred at a camp on Chios. For the vast majority of the population, the lack of heating has resulted in cases of people dying each winter as they attempt to stay warm.
And when night falls and most of the camp is plunged in darkness, where thousands of people of different nationalities reside, it creates an environment conducive to fighting, stabbings, rape, and shouting from clashes which disturbs the peace of the night. However, what’s missing is that no one is surprised by this. These nightly incidents have come to embody part of the everyday reality at the camp.
“There are 20,000 of us. In every community there are good and bad people, bad people do bad things and that will end up making an entire community look bad,” an Afghan who was raised in Iran and now lives at Moria told Solomon MAG. “I’m here to finally feel safe and live in peace, but I really don’t know what to do with these people,” he added, referring to all the incidents of fighting
Like most of the people at Moria, he prefers not to go to the toilet at night because he doesn’t want to leave his mother and sister alone in the tent.
Accompanied by his sister and mother, he has been at Moria for four months already and the date set for his asylum interview is in three more months. Like most of the people we met at Moria, he prefers not to go to the toilet at night because he doesn’t want to leave his mother and sister alone in the tent.
As night falls at the Reception Center, the number of people around gradually decreases. Women are not out, and as darkness grows, friends and families who gather outside their tents to cook or drink tea, go inside. There are groups of young people who roam around looking for quarrels, others roam around drunk.
Members of an Afghan family who invited us for tea last November, shortly after sunset, looked down when a group of young men passed by us shouting in a loud manner. When the group went away and we asked the family what had happened, they told us that the group roams around swearing at people, provoking, looking for a fight.
When we asked them if they felt safe at Moria, the eldest son, who worked in Afghanistan as an English interpreter, responded “What security? “Security here is a big issue.”
Police on the island but no policing at Moria
Recently, the tensions between Afghans and asylum seekers from Sub-Saharan Africa, mainly Somalis, have been on the rise at Moria. This was reported at the weekly meeting of community representatives, (where asylum seekers have the opportunity to express their concerns to the administration), and where people can discuss conflicts among the communities. The weekly meeting of representative has helped to alleviate tensions.
However, this alone does not seem to be enough. On January 17, asylum seekers from Sub-Saharan Africa blocked the street in front of the Moria Reception Center with rubbish bins as a sign of protest.
But this time they were not protesting against the living conditions, quality of the meals, the need to speed up asylum procedures or their restriction from leaving the island. What they demanded was more security. They had protested for the same reason on New Year’s Day.
In fact, police officers try to pull strings to get transferred to Lesvos
The irony is that in Lesvos police forces have been reinforced. Officers from other parts of the country are stationed on the island for a few months and mainly stay in hotels. According to our information, such posts are desirable, because they come with double the salary, due to the expenses. In fact, police officers try to pull strings to get transferred to Lesvos.
Another reason for this preference may be related to the fact that for most of their time on Lesvos, they won’t have to work particularly hard. During a shift at Moria, there are only 25 police officers on duty −as of last fall, there were half as many. Police have been ordered to show restraint, a directive which was handed down by the previous government regarding police presence in the country’s Reception Centers. The majority of enhanced security forces concern the riot police units, which don’t act as policemen, but intervene in the event of conflicts.
There are no recorded attacks or tensions with the local residents of Lesvos, thus the police presence relates solely to the suppression of tensions between the residents of the camp
This means that the strengthening of police forces is not linked to the need to reinforce the sense of security among the residents of Moria, or for the protection of the local population. Certainly, it is worth noting that there are no recorded attacks or tensions with the local residents of Lesvos, thus the police presence relates solely to the suppression of tensions between the residents of the camp.
One could argue that police officers were not on the island to deter, for example, a stabbing incident, but in order to deal with the tensions that are likely to break out as a result of such an incident.
A “safe zone” for unaccompanied minors, of questionable safety
More than 1,150 unaccompanied minor refugees reside at Moria where accommodation is provided for some of them in special sections of the Reception Center. Sections A and B are for boys 14-17 years old, while the safe zone is for infants and for boys up to 13 years old and girls up to 17.
The Norwegian organization A Drop in the Ocean has been operating at Moria since March 2019, providing support activities for children in Section B and the safe zone. Since then, incidents of violence in these sections have decreased by 80%. The organization chose to take over the afternoon shift, which other organizations were not interested in and until then, had remained vacant.
“The reason we work the afternoon shift is because after 8:30pm, employees such as social workers and psychologists’ shifts are over and they leave,” Angelika Sogn, Lesvos coordinator from A Drop in the Ocean, tells Solomon MAG.
This means that by 12 midnight, the time when the minors must return to the Reception Center, and when the police lock the gate of each section, there was no adult inside to supervise the minors. On the evening of August 25, 2019, in the safe zone, when a 15-year old Afghan boy died from stab wounds received during a fight, employees from A Drop in the Ocean had that day off. Sources present that night blame the riot police unit, which was located outside the safe zone, noting that they were called to intervene, but were slow to respond.
“The issue is that in order to enter the safe zone, security forces outside of it must first receive an order to enter it from Athens. So, by the time they can intervene, it may be too late. The employees had called the police, but the police were waiting for their orders to intervene from Athens,” staff members, who wish to remain anonymous, reported.
“The safe zone is a good idea,” says Katrin Glatz Brubakk, a psychologist at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology, who has worked for an extended period of time at the Médecins Sans Frontières clinic outside of Μόria.
“But the staff is instructed to leave immediately if tensions arise. And as they leave, they lock the door. This means that there were no escape routes for the boy who was killed. The result is that, when it really matters, young people are locked up without help and support,” she notes.
People who should not have been allowed to enter have been found within in the otherwise protected area
Another security-related issue at Moria, is that four years after the onset of the refugee crisis, and despite the significant funds that have been allocated, it seems that things still operate on a temporary and case-by-case basis. Thus, in Section B where another organization, Euro Relief, is active, they are also tasked with guarding the door. In order to be let in, unaccompanied minors must show their card.
But in Section A there is no organization tasked with this responsibility. As a result, there have often been cases where people who should not have been allowed to enter (either older individuals, or people who entered with the aim of stealing, or others who the children were frightened of) have been found within in the otherwise protected area.
The Aegean islands have become seething cauldrons
Lesvos is not the only island hosting overcrowded facilities where desperate people reside in difficult living conditions, resulting in an increase in tensions.
According to the latest recording by the Secretary General for Media & Communication, the Reception Center on Chios currently houses 5,695 asylum seekers (in facilities that hold a capacity of 1,014), the center on Samos houses 7,214 (in facilities that hold a capacity of only 648 −more than ten times difference), the center on Leros houses 2,377 (860 capacity), while Kos houses 3,839 in facilities meant to house only 816.
A Syrian, who in 2016 arrived as an unaccompanied minor on Chios where he spent months living in the “jungle” surrounding the camp, talked about an incident which reflects just how fragile the living conditions are for the thousands of people who reside there.
A Syrian boy had a mobile phone and two older Afghan boys took it. When the Syrian boy informed his family, two young Syrians went to talk to the Afghan boys. They started shouting, tensions rose and scuffles broke out. The Syrians returned to their family.
“You’ve played videogames, right? Well it was a battle like the ones you see on videogames”
As a result, a fight broke out which involved dozens of people on each side. The language and the experiences are different, but there are some commonalities that can be used to describe what happened.
“You’ve played videogames, right? Well it was a battle like the ones you see on videogames,” our witness said about the incident. In such circumstances, perhaps the reason the fight began in the first place may not even matter in the end.
The culprits return to the scene of the crime
The lack of security within Moria seems to be amplified by the following, a fact which has been confirmed to Solomon MAG by various sources active in the field. In many cases, the offenders who were arrested by the police during incidents, would, after a few days return to the camp.
These are cases where the victim was not killed −if the victim was killed, then the attacker would remain in custody. As the lawyers explain, only the prosecutor can decide whether an attacker will remain in custody until his/her trial date.
However, the attackers are often released, which results in their victims having to face them in the camp. According to confirmed reports, the Somalis detained during the protest over the lack of security on Friday, January 17 will remain in custody until their trial date.
On the one hand, offenders who are involved in knife attacks soon find themselves free to circulate in the Moria camp, and on the other hand, others are detained for protesting about the lack of security at the inhospitable Reception Center of Lesvos.