Lost on Lesbos

Refugees, Responders, Reporters & Rumours

Moria ‘closed’ facility, Lesvos — Alyoscia D’Onofrio/IRC

The gates of Moria were firmly shut.

Unlike in J. R. R. Tolkien’s creation of the same name, there was no magic phrase to open them. Nor were they guarded by some tentacled beast in a pool of water, just some bored looking police watching over the forty or fifty men sitting on the bare ground just inside the second set of gates.

A protest from the detained refugees? A preparatory huddle before deportation? Who could tell? Rumours abound on the Aegean island of Lesbos (Lesvos) and get recycled as news and analysis. Credible information is in short supply.

I should situate these comments, since ours was a visit at a particular juncture in the Lesvos timeline of the global refugee crisis. It was Tuesday of this week, the 5th of April 2016, the day after the EU began deporting refugees to Turkey under its much-criticised deal. It was also the day, according to rumours we heard later that evening, that these same deportations were suspended until both sets of authorities “were better prepared”. Something to do with failing to process asylum claims made by 13 of the deportees… (Although as of the time of publication, it seems that deportations have resumed.)

I’d come to Lesvos to explore with International Rescue Committee (IRC) colleagues how we can more systematically listen and respond to the wishes, perspectives and aspirations of the people we seek to serve. With the Greek refugee response in a transitional phase, this seemed to be a good time for a scoping visit. First stop Lesvos: the former front line in refugee reception and now, judging by the quantity of reporters filming in the harbour, deportation.

And so to Moria, where the bulk of refugees left on the island are detained. Unlike Amnesty, we did not have access to the interior of the closed facility, but if you take a walk along the wall and double front fence, turn the corner and walk past the entrepreneurial kiosks that cluster along the camp’s perimeter, you come to a section of single fence. The kiosks were carrying out a brisk trade in biscuits and phone credit to meet the demand of their captive clientèle, bartering in Arabic, Greek and English, with cash and commodities being thrust in opposite directions through the fence.

We met a group of Congolese, sitting and lying in the sparse shade of an olive tree: a smattering of Lingala interspersed with French briefly transported me to other places and other times — arriving in Kinshasa to manage IRC’s programmes there: 4 long years spent in the sprawling overcrowded capital of the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Only there was no laughter, no music. Drawn faces, tired eyes, worried frowns, hushed voices. A sick child. A concerned mother. Hungry bellies.

And of course the fence. A big fence strung with barbs. We were two sets of migrants sharing stories, personal details. Only one set was free to walk away and tell this tale, with our passports, our status intact. Those seeking asylum, taking risks with their lives and those of their nearest and dearest, remained behind the walls and fences of Moria, the gates firmly shut, with no access to information about what is going on, what might happen to them. Rumours abound in Moria, stories of people taken in the night and put on boats to Turkey. They told us the camp is overcrowded, sleep an elusive luxury. Food and medicine are available, but insufficient and difficult to access. The queues are long.

We asked about their aspirations. They told us they just wanted to escape the dangers they had faced. Some wanted to go to Germany, France, others were seeking to stay in Greece. “I am a black Greek” declared one.

We parted company, frustrated that we couldn’t even impart useful information.

Kara Tepe camp, Lesvos — Alyoscia D’Onofrio/IRC

In contrast to Moria’s overcrowded prison-like character, the municipal-run Kara Tepe camp is open access (inhabitants are free to come and go), sparsely populated, and has the look and feel of an out-of-season holiday camp, albeit with smaller housing units placed closer together than your average holiday maker would wish for. At one time a transit centre for Syrian and Iraqi refugee families, when we visit it houses a handful of refugees deemed especially vulnerable.

At a hygiene kiosk we discuss the situation with IRC staff. They tell us that at the height of the crisis they were seeing people continuously from morning until late into the evening. Over the last week they have had maybe five or six clients a day. On Tuesday, given access issues in Moria, IRC staff and other responders could provide high quality assistance to only a tiny fraction of the remaining refugee population in Lesvos, all the while assessing rumours that there may be a relocation of hundreds of refugees from Moria to Kara Tepe.

Two days later the numbers soar again: some 500 people are transferred across from Moria, including some of the Congolese we met, along with refugees from Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Eritrea and many more countries.

For those responding to the needs of refugees, uncertainty over the future direction of the crisis provides significant management challenges: the need to maintain staff and physical infrastructure to cope with a rapid change in circumstances vs. the need to programme resources to most effectively meet the actual and anticipated needs of the people we seek to serve — the majority of refugees still in Greece are now on the mainland.

However, it is entirely possible that the EU-Turkey deportation deal will founder on the rocks of international or domestic opinion. It is possible that significant events in Syria, Turkey or elsewhere could relaunch a major movement of people towards the EU. Either scenario could see Lesvos once again receiving significant numbers of refugees.

Only time will tell whether this week represented a brief hiatus in net arrivals or was the turning point in population flows. Or something else entirely.

Children’s play area, Kara Tepe camp, Lesvos — Alyoscia D’Onofrio/IRC

From Lesvos we headed to the new camps on the mainland — more to follow in another post.