Heavy snows hit Moria camp

A woman crawls out of her collapsed tent with only a flimsy plastic poncho for protection from the elements.

On the morning of 9 January 2017 refugees woke up to heavy snow in Moria camp, the second in three days. Some tents had caved in, others were covered in snow. Men and women, stuck in a detention center thousands of miles from home, were left with nothing, not even warmth or shelter.

According to numbers given out at a north shore meeting on 22 December 2016 Moria is home to 4,786 people, many women and children. Moria was built to host 3,904 people in total. The tents are overcrowded to the point that men and women are forced to share living quarters, some fitting 10 or 11 in a tent designed for 6 people.

There are 6,134 refugees total on Lesbos as of 3 January 2017, and 373 people are arriving every week on the Greek islands. Although the number of arrivals have dropped by over 80 percent after the EU-Turkey deal, the crisis is still burgeoning and there are only temporary solutions to clear the camps.

Men, women, and children mill about the front gates of Moria camp.

The long road to Moria

John Desalle, an Eritrean man, spent two months on foot to get to European soil. He had to cross a desert for six days, travelling at night to escape the baking sun. After running out of water and food, after sneaking through Sudan, Egypt, Jordan and Syria, he had to cross the Turkish mountains to get to the town of Ayvalik. Crossing the sea took two hours on a dinghy filled with people. Mr. Desalle was escaping a corrupt government and forced conscription, he explains, hoping to find freedom on the shores of Greece. Instead, he has been stuck inside of a fence surrounded with razor wire.

This is not what he envisioned when he crossed four miles of sea in the middle of the night with over 60 other souls on a small rubber craft. Mr. Desalle has now been here for six months, and claims to not have had a chance for registration yet to further his asylum process. After registration, you must wait for an interview, and then wait to hear if you have been accepted or declined.

A disabled man is stuck in his tent, unable to come out in the snow.

“I spend the day watching the sun come up and watching the sun go down,” Mr. Desalle said. There are no books, no classes, no work to do. “The food is not good in Moria. It is not good. We don’t need food, we just, we need freedom. That’s it.”

Assante Selassie has been in Moria for two months, and already has a position of influence in his community. His major concern is the overcrowding, which has led to riots and several fires. “For four or five months, they give us [men and women] separate tents but now here there are five girls and six boys [in the tent up the hill]. They tell us these tents are for four people and 12 people and six people. It is very dark at night and day. They just give us these small tents and these plastic sheets to stay dry,” He said, sweeping his arm and pointing to the tents near him, “staying in these tents with no food and no heat is not living.”

Woman stands next to the wreckage of a fire on 24 November 2016, wearing a towel.

The small tents and plastic sheets are not enough to keep out the cold, and when an unexpected snow hit the island, some shelters collapse under the weight.

In a recent report, UNHCR called for faster movement of refugees from the Aegean Islands, citing the poor conditions in the camps. While the agency mentions the two new heated Rubb halls installed to increase warm space in the camp, they fail to mention the overcrowding, or the fact that the refugees are living in tents still.

On January 5th Greek Migration Policy Minister Yiannis Mouzalas said, “There are no refugees or migrants living in the cold anymore. We successfully completed the procedures for overwintering, with the exception of 40 tents left in Vayiohori, near Thessaloniki, and another 100 in Athens. Of course, without the EU-Turkey deal we wouldn’t have been able to do what we are doing. We would have had another 100,000 people whom we would have to shelter.”

When I asked a representative of UNHCR stationed on Lesbos they declined comment.

The EU-Turkey Deal

On 20 March 2016 the EU and Turkey reached an agreement to send all of the refugees landing on the Greek islands back to Turkey, promising the return “will take place in full accordance with EU and international law.” Hundreds are still arriving each month. In the weekly report for the beginning of January, UNHCR claims 173,447 people crossed by sea into Greece in 2016, and 24,659 are unaccompanied or separated children. Since April only 20,380 of the refugees that have made the crossing either by land or sea have been resettled into a permanent living situation.

Children are fending for themselves in the worst conditions imaginable. Those stuck on the island and in the camps are forced to either wait out the registration process that has taken some people over a year, or hide in shipping containers for days, hoping to take a boat to Athens and continue their long and perilous journey. Mr. Selassie told of a few friends who have escaped on the container ships after waiting four days without food or water, in the dark, hoping that the box they are hiding in will head to Athens soon. Others, he said, are caught and beat mercilessly, some getting taken back to Moria with less of a chance of asylum, and others are deported back to Turkey. When they finally escape the island, they are not at the end of their journey.

For the men and women trapped on Lesbos, freedom is their major concern. Mr. Selassie said, “They say just be patient. I don’t know when I will get out of here. We are all frustrated and hopeless. They said they switched on a green light two weeks ago. We are waiting on appointments for an interview but they keep delaying them. We have to wait for an interview for so long and then they delay it.”

“With this many people, how can we have hope? If my friends have been here for nine months how can I have hope? We are okay with staying in Greece.” He added, “We don’t need to go to Germany or the UK. We came for peace, for freedom, but we don’t get that. Some Englishmen say beggars can’t be choosers and we are beggars so we can’t choose but we need freedom.”

Because of the Dublin Regulation signed by member states in 2003, refugees are forced to seek asylum in the country of entry. In a country grappling with a financial crisis that has left 40.34 percent between the ages of 30–44 unemployed this year, the burgeoning refugee crisis seems unending.

When asked what the hardest part of his journey has been, John Desalle answered, “right here. Being stuck right here.”

The names in the article have been changed to protect the identity of the sources.

Men wonder what to do with their belongings as the snow keeps coming down.
A tent collapsed under the weight of snow.
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