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Lesvos—a hellhole for refugees created by racism

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Some 20,000 refugees are trapped in the tiny Moria camp on the Greek island of Lesvos. Nick Clark spoke to some of those in the camp about the reality of life there—and to anti-racist activists about how they have organised solidarity. Photographs by Guy Smallman
Issue 2696
Children in Moria refugee camp on the Greek island of Lesvos
Children in Moria refugee camp on the Greek island of Lesvos (Pic: Guy Smallman)

Didier just wants safety. He doesn’t mind where he has to go to find it—as long as it’s not Moria, on the Greek island of Lesvos.

“Wherever it is—in Greece or out of Greece—as long as it’s safe it’s okay for me,” he told Socialist Worker. “But not Moria. Because Moria is not safe.

“There are many people in a small space. Facilities like shelter, food, water almost don’t exist. The majority of people don’t get much access to food, or showers.

“I came for safety and I didn’t find it in Moria.”

Didier is just one of 20,000 people kept on Lesvos against their will. Like many, he faces a months-long wait for an interview appointment to have his asylum application assessed.

It’s a place no one should have to live in for any amount of time. Racist border laws—designed by the European Union (EU) and implemented by Greece—have created a hell on earth.

When Moria was first built, it was meant to house 2,800 people. No one was supposed to be there long. Even at the height of the refugee crossings in 2015, there were fewer people living in Moria than now, and their stay usually lasted a few weeks.

But now the camp has expanded far beyond its limits, thanks to policies designed to stop refugees reaching the mainland and moving to other European countries.

The “official” camp is surrounded by fences. A sign next to the gate proudly declares it was set up with EU funding.

But if you take a camera out inside, you risk being detained as a trespasser. The security aren’t too keen on people seeing what’s in there.

“Moria is very, very bad,” Ahmed, from Syria, told Socialist Worker. “There’s no water, no food, no doctor. If you’re sick, they just tell you to drink water.”

Ahmed lives with his family in one half of a small isobox—a converted shipping container. Another family lives in the other half, separated by a curtain hung down the middle.

This is where a refugee family will end up if they’re lucky—it’s where they get the most space. “This is the best in the camp,” said Ahmed.

Larger isoboxes can be split between up to seven different families, each getting a floor space of about five metres. Cobra and Khalil live in one of these with their three children.

“But at least it’s not a tent,” said Khalil.

Outside the fence, the camp has expanded far into the olive groves of the surrounding hills. Support and aid work here is left to volunteers.

The shelters close to the main camp seem more organised, with numbered canvas sheets over rickety wooden structures ­provided by NGOs.

Towards the outskirts, there are masses of small, flimsy summer tents perched along the hillside. Families mark out personal spaces outside their tents with bits of wood and barbed wire.

It’s a clear, early spring day but the ground is wet and muddy. A stream of water runs down a path up the hill. It’s waste from the meagre toilet facilities.


In these conditions, it’s easy to get ill. And refugees are legitimately scared about coronavirus.

“If there’s coronavirus, I’m running,” one told Socialist Worker. “I don’t care where I go. Whether it’s in the bush, whether it’s in the streets in Mytilene. I’ll just run.”

Massih from Afghanistan has been in the camp for 14 months. He helps to run a school and a library by and for refugees. When we visit, he and others are preparing to distribute advice about the virus.

“People are scared,” he told Socialist Worker. “Lots of people have to gather together in the line for food, or for the bus into town.

“We’re writing advice and translating it into Pashtun, Arabic, Farsi, English and French. We’re putting posters up and we’re going to have it broadcast in the camp.”

It’s astonishing that this essential operation is left to refugees to organise from a tent. Aren’t the EU or the Greek government doing anything? “There’s nothing,” said Massih.

It’s a valiant effort in crowded and dirty conditions. There’s no proper infrastructure to manage the waste that tens of thousands of lives produce.

Rubbish bags are piled up metres high, and plastic bottles clog a stream that’s become like an open sewer. Most of the bottles are empty, but some have urine in. It can be dangerous to leave your tent to go to the toilet at night.

Camp residents, aid workers and volunteers all say violence is part of daily life there. There are mass fights and stabbings every day, robberies, thefts and rapes.

Tensions and conflicts exist in every society. But in Moria, they’re exacerbated by the stresses and problems that occur when tens of thousands of people are trapped together in awful conditions indefinitely.

When we first meet Omar, a Syrian refugee, he begins to guide us into his part of the camp. After a word from a friend, he decides to turn around and take us back. “Maybe tomorrow. It’s not safe—there’s a problem,” he said.

Earlier, on a hill overlooking the camp, we’re almost caught in the middle of a fight between two large groups of young men. We get out of the way as the rocks start flying and one group—armed with sticks and knives—charges up the hill at the other set, also armed.

Metres away an older man asks us to sit down with him and suggests that someone has been stabbed. “This happens all the time,” he said. “Police do nothing.”

A few minutes later, outside the camp’s main entrance, a young man is put in an ambulance and taken away.


“It’s hard to believe that somewhere like this exists in Europe,” said Elena, who works and volunteers in the camp. “And that the Greek government thinks this is okay, that the EU thinks this is okay.

“But this is what taxes to the EU are being spent on. Not helping refugees, but keeping them in a place like this.”

The truth is, the EU isn’t interested in helping refugees. Only detaining them and keeping them at bay.

Four months ago this week—20 March 2016—the EU signed a deal with Turkey to deport everyone who arrived on the Greek islands “irregularly”.

In practice this turned camps on the islands into giant, overcrowded detention centres where people wait in limbo for their asylum applications to be processed.

Almost everyone Socialist Worker met has been stuck on Lesvos for months—and face a wait of many more months, if not years, before they can leave. One person even showed us documents that said he’d been waiting since 2016.

Everyone is waiting for the date of their interview, which always seems to get postponed.

“I arrived in October, and I’m supposed to get an interview in September,” said Didier. “And there’s no guarantee I’ll get it on that date. So many people have an experience of getting a date and they postpone it.

“Last week someone from Afghanistan went for an interview and they postponed it until December.”

Those not successful are locked in the camp’s prison, where they wait to be deported. Even coming from a warzone such as Syria is no guarantee that your application will be accepted.

It’s an horrific situation. But the EU and Greek government could seek to make it permanent, especially now the deal with Turkey has broken down.

EU commission president Ursula von der Leyen recently praised Greece as Europe’s “shield” against refugees.

By then there were already plans to build new “closed” refugee camps on the island, and a new law to immediately imprison anyone who arrives “irregularly”.

When refugees in Moria marched against the plans in February, riot cops attacked them.

Elena, who witnessed the march, said women with children led the march to the island’s city Mytilene. They were followed by older people, with young men at the back. But 20 minutes in, Greek riot police launched tear gas.

“I had to wash tear gas out of children’s eyes,” she said.

At least 32,000 bottles of water are handed out daily with no provision for recycling making the camp an environmental disaster as well as a humanitarian one.
At least 32,000 bottles of water are handed out daily with no provision for recycling making the camp an environmental disaster as well as a humanitarian one.

Protesters wanted better conditions, and no more deportations. But above all they wanted to be let out of Moria, into Europe and to safety.

Instead they’re brutalised by the racist policies of governments playing politics with people’s lives.

Ahmed has been waiting eight months in Moria to bring his family to Germany, where his son already lives. They’ve already had one application rejected. Now they have one more go at an appeal before they could be forced back to Turkey, which doesn’t want them either.

“Erdogan says all the Arabs come to Turkey—now he tells the Syrians to go,” said Ahmed. “We don’t want to be in Greece. But the Greeks caught us and made us wait eight months.

“Why do we have to wait? What do they want from us? Let us go.”

Names have been changed to protect the refugees

From freezing mountains to squalor

Nothing illustrates the callousness of EU borders like the story of Khalil, Cobra and their three children. 

They made a long, dangerous journey from Afghanistan—facing unimaginable trauma along the way—only to find a prison instead of safety.

“It’s really hard to travel illegally,” said Khalil. “If police or soldiers catch you they will beat you and then deport you. It’s painful to speak about it. You can’t imagine what we’ve seen.

“We were on the mountains for many nights in the cold and the snow. Me, my wife and my children passed dead bodies on the way.

“They had fallen because they were injured—shot by police or soldiers—and no one wanted to help them because you have to keep going.”

In Turkey, they spent a month locked up and separated. “I was in a man’s jail and my wife was in the woman’s. My children were in the jail for underage people,” Khalil explained.

“It was really painful for me because I never knew where my wife and children were. If they deported me, I wouldn’t know where they’d be or what they’d do.”

After finally making it to Europe, the family is trapped again. They’ve been in Moria for nine months and still don’t know when they’ll leave.

Until then, they have to share an isobox with seven other families. Their share of the space is a corner with floor space of about five square metres.

It’s not just the living conditions that make their situation so intolerable. It’s the waiting and uncertainty at the mercy of the bureaucratic border system.

“I feel I’m wasting time here,” said Khalil. “I never imagined Moria would be like this.”

‘The camp should be closed. The border should be opened’

One effect of the EU’s migrant policies has been to create a huge explosion of resistance among Greeks on the Aegean islands. That reaction has the potential to take a racist turn, or the form of solidarity with refugees.

Over three days in March, almost the whole of the island of Lesvos was involved in what left wing activists call a rebellion against the government.

It was triggered by the Greek Tory government’s announcement that it would build a new, closed refugee camp in a different part of the island. After Lesvos’s right wing local councils rejected the plan, the government tried to requisition the land and sent elite riot police to enforce it.

The island’s trade union federations called a general strike and ordinary people came out to confront the cops.

Michalis, an anti-racist activist involved in a blockade near his village, told Socialist Worker, “The police focused on the area of Mantamados, where the camp would be built.

“Three of four thousand people confronted the police at the centre of Mantamados. At the same time, supported by the strike, people came from Mytilene and created a second front behind the police.”

Michalis said riot police tried to block three other roads leading to Mantamados, but were met with resistance there too. “This was spontaneous, it wasn’t organised,” he said. Eventually the police had to negotiate a retreat. “If the police didn’t keep their word there would have been a massacre,” said Michalis—deadly serious.

The government dropped its plans for closed centres on the islands—for now. This was a genuine defeat inflicted on it by a genuine rebellion.

But the nature of that rebellion was contradictory. People were united by the fact that they didn’t want any more new camps on the island.

Michalis said left wing groups organised some of the roadblocks. Anti-racist groups intervened on the basis of no new prisons for migrants.

Right wing groups intervened on the basis that they don’t want migrants.

Emboldened by the government’s defeat small bands of fascists—some from outside Greece—organised attacks on NGOs and refugees.

“They tried to attack the camp,” Ahmad, a teenager from Afghanistan, told Socialist Worker. “We stopped them from coming in. But they had the police with them. The police left them alone and fired tear gas at us.”

Though small, the fascists’ attacks intimidated some NGO workers, stoked a racist atmosphere—and made refugees feel threatened.

“The Greeks don’t want us here,” said Ahmad. “It’s not safe to leave the camp after 5pm, and when we go into town people tell us to leave.”

Anthi, another anti-racist activist, explained that EU and Greek governments have used racism to justify excluding refugees—and to scapegoat them for austerity.

She said these ideas have gained some ground—but they’re not set in stone, and not held by everyone.

“It’s a time of general turmoil,” said Anthi, “Some neighbourhoods are more anti-refugees than others.

“It’s not necessarily that they’ve been affected by refugees. But they’ve been affected by the crisis.

“The right says refugees come here to take our jobs, or impose their religion on us. But a lot of people who repeat bad things about the refugees have never met one. I don’t believe all these people are far right, or want refugees to die or get hurt.”


Importantly, Anthi pointed out that people in Lesvos had helped refugees when they began arriving, and that those feelings of sympathy haven’t disappeared.

In every society, there’s always a battle between left wing anti-racist ideas and right wing racist ones. That’s become particularly intense in Lesvos.

“People in Lesvos know that the camp is bad,” said Michalis. “Most have either positive or neutral opinions of the refugees. But those who are neutral can be swayed to the right.”

Organisation and activity on the ground is often what makes the difference. Anti-racists in Lesvos are organising. But some larger organisations on the left have given ground to racism.

The Greek Communist Party—which still has significant votes and influence in trade union federations—essentially argued that refugees on Lesvos are bad for Greek people.

Dimitris, a leading anti-racist trade unionist in Mytilene, explained, “The two union federations in Lesvos and Samos, influenced by the Communist Party, have only one slogan and one demand—to clear out the islands.

“Both think refugees are a burden on society and the working class movement. So the solution for them is that refugees should go away, but they won’t say where or in what conditions.

“These arguments divided people and played into the racists’ hands.”

Despite this, when the unions called a general strike, anti-racist groups on the island supported it.

Dimitri said it “gave the working class an opportunity to take an active part in the rebellion”.

It was also a space for anti-racists to try to make the movement against the camps one of solidarity with refugees.

Paraskevas, an activist in Mytilene, said anti-racists have tried to coordinate and build a stronger movement in the wake of the rebellion.

“We staged a demonstration of about 500-600 people in Sapfous Square in Mytilene a week later,” he said. The demand was “for Moria to be closed—and the borders to be opened”.

An anti-racist demonstration is planned on Lesvos on 21 March.

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