The Greek island camp is full of Afghan refugees, who spend their days in what they say is "filth and degradation".
Moria, Greece — For thousands of Afghan asylum seekers, life in Greece’s Moria refugee camp is a daily struggle against disorder, filth, overcrowding, inequity as well as endless waiting.
Whether it be the papers allowing them to leave the island of Lesvos and head to Athens — where they will likely be transferred into another refugee camp — or news as to whether Greek authorities will actually close the camp, Afghans wait. And wait.
The waiting is made worse by the conditions in the camp, which Greek officials have likened to a Nazi concentration camp, a stark contrast to the ‘reception and hospitality centre’, referred to in local media reports.
The camp is currently home to nearly 5,000 refugees — mostly Syrians, Afghans and Iraqis — nearly twice as many people as the former military base was meant to house upon its 2015 opening.
The effects of overcrowding are felt in every aspect of daily life here.
Habibullah, 40, sits outside his small tent as swathes of people pass by. He shares his tent with his three children and wife and less than a metre separates it from the neighbouring tent.
“Everywhere you look there are people, all of them desperate,” he says as he gathers his children.
Habibullah’s family has been here for more than a year, after they paid thousands of euros to smugglers who put them on a tiny plastic boat from Turkey to the island of Lesvos in the dark of night, unsure of how they would even reach the island.
They fled the fighting in their native Baghlan province, in Northern Afghanistan, where Taliban fighters battle the local Afghan National Security Forces and narcotics traffickers smuggle drugs between Kabul and Badakhshan province in the extreme northeast.
The narcotics trade has taken a heavy toll on the province which is now home to at least 50,000 people suffering from drug addiction.
Prior to their journey across Iran and Turkey, Baghlan itself had become overcrowded, due to hundreds of families from the neighbouring province of Kunduz fleeing the Taliban takeover in 2015 and 2016.
Now, they are left to deal with overcrowding in a refugee camp emblazoned with the words “Welcome to prison” on its entrance wall.
Still, Habibullah knows he is fortunate, his tent is near the camp’s entrance, along one of the few stretches of paved road.
Only a few hundred metres up from his tent is an unpaved swathe of land dotted with hundreds of white tents, that has come to be known as ‘the jungle’. There, families and groups of unaccompanied young men sit amongst piles of trash as the dirt below their tents turns to mud in the rain and snow. According to the medical charity Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), children in the camp “are at a greater risk of getting seriously ill”. In the jungle, children play within metres of overflowing garbage and on dirt paths.
Tasos Yfantis, a doctor speaking to Greek media, said that there are at least 1,000 people in the jungle who do not have access to proper heating in the winter cold. Yfantis said containers meant to hold no more than 12 people at a time are currently housing at least 30 people due to overcrowding and winter weather.
MSF, along with the Greek health ministry, has started a three-day campaign to immunise at least 2,000 children in the camp, but it may already be too late. In October, the Greek Police who, along with military soldiers, stand guard in the camp, had to undergo testing for tuberculosis after two police officers contracted the infectious disease.
"These issues are all consequences of the unacceptable living conditions in the camp, as well as a lack of access to decent food and healthcare," MSF said of the health scares in the camp.
Matters were made worse after the November resignation of the government-appointed doctor, who was charged with overseeing the monthly health and psychological checkups for thousands of asylum seekers.
In a report published earlier this month, Oxfam International said the chronic understaffing in camps like Moria is yet another sign of Greece and its EU partners “failing pregnant women, unaccompanied children, victims of torture or sexual violence and other vulnerable people who seek protection in Europe”.
The UK-based NGO pointed to reports of women wearing diapers at night for fear of venturing out alone to one of the few toilets as an example of the indignities faced by people seeking asylum. There have been several reports of women being attacked in the camp.
MSF’s vaccination program is one of the few volunteer efforts still taking place in Moria and on the Aegean island itself. In 2015, when more than one million refugees crossed into Europe, the beaches of Lesvos were full of volunteers from around the world looking to assist arriving refugees. But such efforts have largely dried up in recent years, even though refugees continue to arrive in Turkey and Greece.
So far this year, the United Nations has documented at least 109,073 arrivals to the Mediterranean region, with 28,687 of those arrivals in Greece. With 6,902 arrivals, Afghans make up the second-largest number of refugee arrivals, just behind Syrians.
Volunteers who had come to aid refugees in Lesvos in previous years told TRT World they feared the impact of the island’s frigid winter cold on the health of refugees, particularly children.
Today, thousands of refugees are forced to wait in line for everything, from the dozens of bathrooms and showers spread across the camp to the hundreds-deep food lines before each meal.
Ehsanullah, 22, is one of the hundreds of men who have stood in line for more than two hours to take back food for his family in the so-called jungle. Because of the long, winding lines, it is common for families to send one or two members to queue up. Most often, this duty falls on the young men, who spend almost the entirety of their days in line.
“This is what we do all day, wait in line. My father is too old to stand here, so I wait for two, three, sometimes even four hours at a time for each meal. At most we get an hour break from waiting between meals, but we never venture too far,” he says.
When the food does arrive, crowds of hundreds of people dash through the camp trying to deliver the day’s rations to their families. In another show of the scarcity of resources, young men from Cameroon and Ghana stand on the sides, watching the crowds looking to offer passersby money for portions of food.
“There isn’t enough to go around, so we try and buy what we can,” said Michel, a refugee from Cameroon, where the government has staged a crackdown on armed groups seeking to declare independence for the nation’s Anglophone regions.
He offers one euro for six water bottles and two euros for a take-away container of food to several passersby with no takers.
Ehsanullah brushes off the offers.
“Who isn’t hungry here, our families need food, not euros,” he says.
With so many jockeying for so few resources, different groups of refugees have begun to harbour resentment against others, claiming an informal hierarchy has taken root.
Refugees from the African continent — mainly from Eritrea, Cameroon and the Democratic Republic of the Congo — feel that that they are ignored in favour of refugees from the Middle East.
Earlier this month, a 24-year-old man from Cameroon was found dead in the camp late at night. Coroners told Greek media that they are investigating his death.
Afghans too, feel forgotten. In Moria, as in other refugee camps in Greece and the cities of Turkey, Afghan refugees employ a common phrase when referring to the perceived slights: “Everything is for the Arabs.”
Volunteers too, said they had felt, but could not accurately document what they say as systems of favouritism for different refugees by Greek and international officials in the camp.
Though that perceived inequity is difficult to quantify, much of the camp has been divided into ethnic ghettos, with Arabic speakers in their own area. In the back, near the fences, are the refugees from the African continent. The so-called jungle is dominated by Afghan refugees, including dozens of families who gathered on a dirt path to prepare a meal as nazer, an offering, in the hope that God would bring them better fortunes.
“Our children play in the mud and the dirt, while we wait for answers from any government, so until then, we will turn to God for what the Afghans, the Greeks and the Europeans have failed to offer us,” says Fatema, a mother in her late thirties, as she stirs the food.
In Athens, Afghan refugee activists say they hold out little hope for Moria’s closure. A 30-day deadline issued by the Greek minister for migration and the camp’s director in September came and went, a fact the activists find unsurprising.
“They won’t close it, they know they have nowhere else to put these people, so [the refugees] will continue to be stuck there,” says one Afghan activist, who has lived in Greece for more than 10 years now. He asks for his identity to be withheld for fear of retribution.
“The world, especially Afghans living in the EU and the US, need to raise their voices, they can say things we can’t,” he says.
In the past, Greek authorities have closed refugee camps, the latest was in 2017, when the the Elliniko camp in the abandoned Athens Airport was closed. But still activists hold out little hope for Moria’s closure.
“Elliniko was an economic decision meant to lure tourists, nothing else,” says the Afghan activist.
Adding to the troubles of Afghan refugees in Greece are two back-to-back deals that have been signed between the EU, Greece, Turkey and the Afghan government.
First came the three billion euro EU-Turkey deal of March 2016, which stipulated that for every Syrian asylum seeker returned to Turkey from Greece, one in Turkey would be resettled in the EU. The deal made no direct mention of Afghan refugees, but it did effectively make leaving Turkey or Greece nearly impossible as EU nations began to close their borders just before the agreement was inked.
Amnesty International referred to the deal as a “disaster for the thousands who have been left stranded in a dangerous, desperate and seemingly endless limbo on the Greek islands”.
Then, only eight months later, came the Joint Way Forward, a pact between Kabul and the EU allowing for the deportation of an unlimited number of Afghan refugees.
Though Greece itself has yet to deport Afghan refugees, the combined effect of these deals weighs heavy on refugees in Moria.
“What is our choice, to sit here in filth and degradation or to be sent back to a war,” says Habibullah.