The refugees with no refuge

They fled Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and sub-Saharan Africa. Now in Greece, they face fresh uncertainty

An elderly refugee returns to her tent at the Moria open camp on Lesbos. An elderly refugee returns to her tent at the Moria open camp on Lesbos.

An elderly refugee returns to her tent at the Moria open camp on Lesbos.

An elderly refugee returns to her tent at the Moria open camp on Lesbos.

The Greek islands were the EU entry point for 857,000 refugees fleeing war at the height of the migrant crisis three years ago. 

In the months that followed, the island of Lesbos attracted the world’s attention for fields covered with half a million lifejackets and graveyards filled with those who drowned crossing the Aegean from nearby Turkey.

Lesbos faded from the headlines until recent demands to close its camps and warnings of a mental health emergency. The conflicts that caused the 2015 exodus have not stopped. Families, young men and women and children continue to make perilous journeys across continents in hope of a better life in Europe.

In March 2016, the EU reached an agreement with Turkey to return thousands of refugees. Under the deal, those landing on Greek islands must remain there unless their asylum applications are approved, or face deportation back to Turkey.

Only a fraction made it to mainland Europe since the deal was reached and applications are backlogged. 

The islands are full, the camps are overcrowded and life has become unbearable for children, families and young adults.

Moria, Europe’s most notorious refugee camp, has almost 9,000 residents, nearly three times its official capacity.

Politicians and NGOs are calling for its immediate closure and demanding an end to the containment policy that has made the island a place of misery for those who came in search of refuge.

From Baghdad

Noor Albumohammed, aged 4, and her sisters Zainab, 3, and Fatima, 2, fled Baghdad with their parents after a death threat Noor Albumohammed, aged 4, and her sisters Zainab, 3, and Fatima, 2, fled Baghdad with their parents after a death threat

Noor Albumohammed, aged 4, and her sisters Zainab, 3, and Fatima, 2, fled Baghdad with their parents after a death threat.

Noor Albumohammed, aged 4, and her sisters Zainab, 3, and Fatima, 2, fled Baghdad with their parents after a death threat.

Farah Abass and her husband Ahmed Albumohammed left Baghdad after a death threat was posted on their door: stay and we will kill your family.

“Ahmed would tell people the militia were a problem,” said Mrs Abass, 28, a chemist who was in her first year of medical school. “They threatened to kill my husband if he stayed in our house. They said if anybody stayed, they would kill them and everyone in the family.”

Mrs Abass, her husband and their four daughters under the age of seven, set out to find safety in Europe a few days later.

“I thought that we would succeed at a good life with my children in school, that my wife would study and I would return to my field of work,” said Mr Albumohammed, 35, an electrician.

They landed on the shores of Lesbos, a Greek island less than 10km from the Turkish coast.

They are just some of nearly 20,500 refugees living on the Greek islands. More than half are on Lesbos, which currently has 11,000 refugees.

On the island of Samos, there are 4,000 refugees and migrants living in Vathy, including 1,700 children. It has a capacity for just 648 people. The Vial camp on Chios island has 2,269 residents, twice its capacity.

Mrs Abass and her family live in a canvas tent at a makeshift camp which is part of the overflow of Moria. Known as Olive Grove, the wooded hillside is a temporary home for an estimated 1,500 people living in nylon and canvas tents. Some sleep in the open air.

Moria was opened in 2015 as a transit base to process refugees within days, with the capacity for 3,100. It now has 8,827 refugees and asylum seekers. A third of its residents are children.

The camp has buckled under the strain of numbers. Sewage flows across the ground where people sleep. Residents queue for hours to receive food parcels. Violence is common, including rape, domestic abuse and stabbings.

“Part of the reason people's mental health deteriorates so drastically here in Lesbos is that they come from traumatising experiences, and reach Europe hoping for refuge and dignity,” said Giovanna Bonvini, a mental health activity manager at a clinic in the nearby town of Mytilene for Doctors Without Borders (MSF). “But what they find is the opposite: more violence and more inhumane conditions.”

Earlier this month, MSF described an unprecedented emergency in Moria.

In an open letter, MSF clinical psychiatrist Dr Alessandro Barberio compared Moria's living conditions to those of an “old-fashioned mental asylum”.

On September 17, MSF warned that child refugees on Lesbos are attempting suicide, self-harming or having suicidal thoughts. Others experience panic attacks and severe anxiety.

“The asylum seekers include people who have been subjected to extreme forms of torture and violence, both in their countries of origin and during their journey,” said Dr Barberio. “They have been severely traumatised, both mentally and physically.  

“In their island prison on Lesbos, they are forced to live in a context that promotes frequent violence in all its forms – including sexual and gender-based violence that affects children and adults. This constant violence serves as a recurrent trigger for the development of severe psychiatric symptoms.”

He said that as long as the containment policy continues, conditions will worsen.

This week a report by the International Rescue Committee echoed MSF, saying that 30 per cent of Moria residents who visited its clinic on the island had attempted suicide. Many asylum seekers were under "enormous mental strain".

On September 10, a local governor gave the Moria camp 30 days to improve or face closure.

The Greek government pledged to transfer 2,000 people from the camp to the mainland by the end of September. These transfers have started.

But this is only enough to keep numbers at the current level. In the first two weeks of September, another 1,500 refugees arrived on the shores of Lesbos and daily arrivals are expected to increase in the coming weeks.

Patience and resources on the islands are running out.

Mrs Abass and her husband cannot leave. There is nowhere to go.

Moria

An estimated 1,500 people sleep on the hills outside the Moria camp An estimated 1,500 people sleep on the hills outside the Moria camp

An estimated 1,500 people sleep on the hills outside the Moria camp.

An estimated 1,500 people sleep on the hills outside the Moria camp.

In camps such as Moria, everyone knows the day they left their home.

Mrs Abass and her family left on December 1, 2017. 

Her husband paid $10,000 (Dh36,700) for the six of them to get their paperwork in order, and they packed a few clothes and fled Baghdad.

They made it as far as Istanbul before they ran out of money.  The two toddlers shared a bottle of milk a day. The rest of the family went without. A relative sent money to get them to Izmir on the western Turkish coast where they paid a smuggler $150 each for six places on a small boat with 45 others.

“We slept in the streets and were without food for two days,” said Mr Albumohammed. “Then my friend sent money and we went from Istanbul to Izmir and arrived here to this hell."

Their story is a remarkable but universal one for Lesbos refugees. About a quarter of those who arrived in Greece by sea in 2018 were women, and just over a third were children. Iraqis make up the second largest nationality to arrive by sea, after Syrians. Everyone in the tent city made the same journey across land and sea. Most endured years of war before they made the journey.

Mrs Abass and Mr Albumohammed quickly decided it would be a better life for their daughters in the olive grove outside Moria’s bare walls. They slept in a nylon tent for months before buying a canvas one from another family for €200.

For the girls, this tent is their whole world. 

Farah’s eldest daughter, Narjis, is six and old enough to attend a local public school. But Noor, aged 4, Zainab, 3, and Fatima, 2, stay in the small tent with their mother all day.  They have no books, no toys. 

For entertainment, they share two mobiles phones and play with each other on two mattresses on the ground. Their parents cook and clean for them in a makeshift kitchen under an awning. This is also where they wash, with cold bottled water. Otherwise, it takes 30 minutes to get to the bathroom. 

In Olive Grove, there are 72 people for every toilet and 84 people for each shower.

Mr Albumohammed is using his skills as an electrician for a local NGO.

He and his wife are calm and soft-spoken parents, and their children are engaged, friendly and gentle with each other.  Four months ago, there was a chickenpox outbreak at the camp and all of them fell ill. 

When times are difficult, the phone is a reminder of why they left Baghdad. Mrs Abass played a video of gunmen shooting on a street. “That’s our house,” she said, pointing to the door at the centre of the violence. She points to holes in a concrete ceiling. “This is my house. This is my ceiling.”

“I remember Iraq wasn’t good,” Narjis told me. Here, she is much happier.

“She remembers the gunfire,” said Mrs Abass.

The family’s tent is on legally rented land where aid workers are allowed to provide food and assistance. Breakfast is a croissant and milk. Mr Albumohammed showed me an uneaten portion of lunch from the day before: rice and greasy chicken. “Sometimes it has insects,” said Mrs Abass.

She is concerned about her children’s nutrition. “I’m worried that Fatima has a calcium deficiency,” she said, helping the two-year-old to stand. “Her knees are weak.”

Further up the hill, new arrivals, mostly young men, sleep in the open air on blankets. When the first winter rains arrive in a few weeks, the ground will turn to mud. They accuse the landowner of threatening to burn them out.

The Iraqi couple will face a long wait but as a family they will be a higher priority than most.

For single men, there may be no hope at all.

“They don’t respect single men,” said an Iraqi who calls himself Alex. “They think single men are like dogs.”

Alex is 21 and has been in Greece for one year and six days.

He stayed in Moria for just one night. “Inside, there’s always fighting."

Alex’s friend Ali lived two months in Kara Tepe, a nearby camp for families on Lesbos with a better reputation than Moria. But when his family were transferred to Athens, Ali was left behind. “They said I cannot go with my family because I am 19,” he said.

Young men feel forgotten or despised, said Alex. “We are single men so we can’t move to Kara Tepe, and Moria is very dangerous."

“Ok, you must respect children,” he said. “Me, I respect children too. But you must respect all refugees. Make asylum for everyone.”

Images from the Greek islands often show Syrians and Iraqis but people have come from many countries including Afghanistan, Palestine, Yemen and from across sub-Saharan Africa.

At the entrance to the Olive Grove camp are young men from Cameroon. They cook tomato stew, stirring it with what appears to be an oar or cricket bat. Some tell me they are regularly detained without reason and sometimes held for months.

Outside the camp's main gate, a group of young Afghan women sit at a cafe. They were delighted when they heard news of attempts to close Moria.

“Yes, close the door,” said Hasina Hassina, 19. She and her friend Hamida tried to translate a word for me: jahanem. I recognised it.

“Hell?” I said.

“Yes, yes, it is hell! Moria is hell!"

The eldest in the group is Samane Ariyan, 24. The five months in Moria have been as perilous as her solo journey from Afghanistan.

“It is really, really dangerous,” said Ms Ariyan. “Women are not safe. Women are told bad language by men. It’s not healthy for women. The bathroom is very dirty. The shower is very dirty. All the women are sick, all the women have eczema. There’s no hygiene and the bathrooms do not have water. The food is no good and the water is no good.”

Ms Hassina jumped in: “All of Moria is no good.”

Beside them Zainab Jamili, 15, practiced her English grammar in a notebook as she waited for the school bus.

“I wish I would tell him…”

“I wish I would….”

“I wish I would…”

“I wish….”

What do you wish? I asked.

“I wish I would… go to Germany!” said Zainab.

“I wish I would go to Sweden,” said Ms Hassina.

“I wish I would go to Finland,” said Hamida. 

“I wish,” said Ms Ariyan.

The main entrance to the Moria camp.

The main entrance to the Moria camp.

Mr Albumohammed and his daughter, Fatima.

Mr Albumohammed and his daughter, Fatima.

A refugee brushes his teeth one morning at Moria.

A refugee brushes his teath in the morning at Moria.

Young men from Cameroon at Moria. Not all refugees have a roof over their heads.

Young men from Cameroon at Moria. Not all refugees have a roof over their heads.

Hamida, right, from Aghanistan, and a friend at Moria

Hamida, right, from Aghanistan, and a friend at Moria

Many at Moria stay in their tents and sleep for much of the day - tell tale signs of helplessness and depression.

Many at Moria stay in their tents and sleep for much of the day - tell tale signs of helplessness and depression.

WATCH: The refugees with no refuge

WATCH: The refugees with no refuge

Kara Tepe

Children in the play area at Kara Tepe, known for better facilities than other refugee camps in Greece. Children in the play area at Kara Tepe, known for better facilities than other refugee camps in Greece.

Children in the play area at Kara Tepe, known for better facilities than other refugee camps in Greece.

Children in the play area at Kara Tepe, known for better facilities than other refugee camps in Greece.

At Kara Tepe camp's entrance is a plaque containing high praise from high officials for the people of Lesbos:

'Lesbos is an island of peace - you are a sea of solidarity. Let us work together to make this world better for all, leaving no one behind'
Ban Ki-moon, former UN Secretary General
'The legacy of Lesbos will be to remind us of the power of compassion and helping those cast adrift'
Filippo Grandi, UN High Commissioner for Refugees

Sunflowers grow in a row by the gate and we were met by the camp director Stavros Mirogiannis, who guided us past a playground and through a series of caravans painted with bright birds, fish and cats.

“We have neighbourhoods,” said Mr Mirogiannis, extending his arms. “People are all free to move. From this side, we have the activities area. Here, we are one community.”

In one caravan, painted with the notes for John Lennon’s Imagine, we see children practicing the guitar. There is a football pitch, a beauty salon and children playing a board game under the shade of what looks like a schoolhouse.

This is a model camp, and houses 1,270 people, including 830 children from Moria in caravans stencilled with Islamic geometric patterns and shaded by olive trees. Each family has its own caravan.

“We don’t give new residents the idea to sit inside your house and wait,” said Mr Mirogiannis. “No. Move your mind, move your body. Do the things for the next step of your life. Mothers, fathers, they deserve to have an education.” 

At Kara Tepe, I met Hekmat Hosseini, who was transferred from Moria when his wife was pregnant. His wife, daughter Zahra, age 3, and son Yousef, age 9, shared a nylon tent. Sometimes he slept with them, sometimes he stayed outside.

As we walked through the camp, he gestured to a bus being loaded with people and large bundles of belongings. “That bus is going to Athens,” he said. “They go every day.”

He shook his head at the closure of Moria. “It’s no good. Where can they move? Do they have any other place for these guys? People are coming every day now and are sleeping under the sky.”

Beyond Moria

In mainland camps, tents are being erected once again to give emergency shelter to island arrivals. 

For Zubair, a 13-year-old boy from Afghanistan, arrival at the Malakasa camp north of Athens reignited his hopes for education.

Zubair’s family lived in Moria for six months before they were resettled about 12 weeks ago. 

“There’s nothing in Moria,” said Zubair, the eldest of seven children. “There’s just fighting every night.” 

Zubair wants to be a psychologist when he grows up. At Moria, his classes were taught by cleaners. "The children ask, 'Why we don’t have teachers here? We need some lessons. If we don’t have teachers, what is Europe?'”

Two rows of tents were erected by Malakasa's front gates for arrivals who came from the islands like Zubair's family. But winter is not far away.

“My fear is that once the tents go up, they take a long time to come down again,” said Petra Samways, protection adviser for the Danish Refugee Council in Greece. “We had done away with tents. So it is a bit of a step backwards.”

Unicef has called for resettlement pledges that prioritize children and speed-up family reunification procedures with EU countries. More than 7,000 children arrived on the islands between January and August, a third more than during the same period last year, an average of about 850 every month.

In August, the UN refugee agency warned that conditions at Moria were “reaching boiling point”. 

“There are an increasing number of children who are presenting with mental health issues,” said Charlie Yaxley, spokesman for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). “The available response and treatment is woefully inadequate at the moment.”

Arrivals to Greece increased 88 per cent in the first seven months of 2018, compared to the same period in the year before.

Although 1,350 refugees and asylum seekers were transferred to mainland sites in August and hundreds more from Moria this week, the number of arrivals is expected to outpace the transfers. On September 16 alone there were 324 arrivals on Lesbos.

MSF has called for an end to the containment policy. 

“Based on my long clinical experience and the analysis of this difficult context, I firmly believe that the current situation could drastically deteriorate even within the coming weeks, with an escalation of violence that would plunge the island into extreme chaos,” said Dr Barberio.

Crucially, this is avoidable.

“The people arriving in Europe today is a very manageable situation,” said Mr Yaxley. “It’s a question of political will.”

Greek politicians have pointed the finger at the anti-immigration policies of Hungary, Poland and other EU members that limit Greece's options.

"We must all understand that the only way for an overall solution to the immigration crisis is an equal and proportional sharing of refugees throughout Europe," government spokesman Dimitris Tzanakopoulos said earlier this month.

As politicians deliberate, Mrs Abass and Mr Albumohammed wait.

“I just want a home and a school for my babies,” said Mrs Abass. “I don’t hope for anything. Just a house. That’s my dream now.”

As I left their tent, Mr Albumohammed apologised profusely that he had not offered tea or water. He had none to give. “You know, in Iraq when you have guests, you take care of them.” 

A refugee at Moria, one of the thousands whose fate is unknown.

A refugee at Moria, one of the many thousands whose fate is unknown.

A refugee at Moria, one of the many thousands whose fate is unknown.

The National travelled to Greece with Etihad Airways, which donated stationery, clothing and blankets to 2,450 children at the Kara Tepe, Ritsona and Malakasa refugee camps on September 13-15.

Credits

Words: Anna Zacharias
Photographs: Victor Besa, unless stated
Videography: Andrew Scott
Graphics: Ramon Penas
Editors: Joe Jenkins, Declan McVeigh
Photo Editor: Jake Badger

Copyright The National, Abu Dhabi, 2018