Communities

How the EU-Turkey Deal Is Impacting an Infamous Refugee Camp in Greece

by Victor Xu Mark Hay

March 30, 2016
Protests at the Moria camp last week. Image by Better Days for Moria via Facebook

Of the more than 1 million migrants who entered Europe in 2015, 856,724 came via Greece. Although they were often just passing through on their way north, this migrant flood has put special strain on Greece’s Aegean isles, where most arrive first, roughed up after Mediterranean crossings. That’s especially true in the case of Lesvos, an island of 86,000 people with the stated capacity to accommodate 3,500 migrants, but which fielded about 450,000 refugees last year. Overcrowded and overwhelmed—especially at sites like Moria, a military barracks turned refugee center slammed for its subpar facilities and slow paper processing time— last year Lesvos became a symbol of the European migrant crisis.

Yet Lesvos still provided basic services reliably to migrants, thanks in large part to the support of locals and an influx of (some argued too many) volunteers. “Moria, while not perfect, was well taken care of,” Carolina, a volunteer currently on Lesvos (speaking under a pseudonym for reasons outlined below), tells GOOD. While ostensibly under state control, at least 81 aid groups, many of them small, ad hoc organizations responding to local needs, reportedly kept it afloat.

All of that changed last week, though, after a rapidly devised and implemented deal on refugees between the European Union and Turkey came into effect. Meant to ease the migrant burden on places like Lesvos, the deal effectively decimated the aid presence at Moria. Although press access to Moria has been limited in recent days, a number of migrants and volunteers have been in touch with Victor Xu, a GOOD contributor who recently visited Lesvos, providing information that confirms fears and paints a stark picture of a rapid deterioration of camp conditions.

The EU and Turkey signed the deal in question on March 18 with unanimous approval from all EU representatives involved. Under the plan, starting on March 20, all new refugees arriving in Greece have been detained at Moria and centers on four other islands, pending fast-tracked asylum hearings. Those who do not apply or whose claims are rejected will be sent to Turkey starting April 4, after EU and Turkish officials arrive in the coming days. In exchange, Europe will take one approved Syrian refugee from a Turkish camp for each one it sends back. It will also pay Turkey about $6.7 billion, move to bring it into the Schengen visa-free scheme by June, and reexamine its application for EU membership in exchange.

Because it’s aimed at stemming the Greek migrant flow, it’s possible to read this deal as theoretically benevolent. After all, Mediterranean crossings killed more than 3,700 migrants in 2015 alone. And the rush on facilities has resulted in atrocious living conditions (and racist backlashes) in Greece and beyond.

Image by Better Days for Moria via Facebook

Aid agencies however, have balked at the deal, which most view as ill conceived, dehumanizing in its one-to-one mathematics, and thoughtlessly rushed. More importantly, major organizations fundamentally oppose the mandatory detentions involved in the scheme. Observers also note that Turkey is not a full signatory of the Geneva Convention, does not treat Afghans or Iraqis as refugees, offers weak protections on paper at best to many migrants, is already overburdened with more than 2.7 million registered asylum seekers, and has allegedly sent Afghans and even Syrians in threat of real persecution back to their homelands. This means that Turkey is arguably not a safe nation adhering to international law, which could mean that the EU-Turkey deal itself violates not just European morals but global legal norms.

“We will not allow our assistance to be instrumentalized for a mass expulsion operation,” the head of Doctors Without Borders’ (MSF) Greek operations, Marie Elisabeth Ingres, stated last week as the agency pulled out of Moria. “We refuse to be part of a system that has no regard for the humanitarian or protection needs of asylum seekers and migrants.”

The International Rescue Committee, Oxfam, the Norwegian Refugee Council, the United Nations High Commission on Refugees, and Save the Children have publicly voiced their dissent and either scaled back or withdrawn their services as well.

Even as Moria and the other island centers lost these pillars of support, volunteers on Lesvos claim that Greek authorities are frustrating their operations, functionally shuttering some. It’s unclear whether these accounts relate directly to the EU-Turkey deal, though. They may be part of ongoing state discomfort with the number of unregistered, informal operations on its soil. As of January, only 30 of the 81 groups on Lesvos were operating legitimately. A therapeutic clown told NPR this past weekend that officials had recently told her she couldn’t operate without a permit and finally denied her access to the camp when the EU-Turkey deal came through.

“There’s not a lot of access anymore for volunteers,” an aid worker named Laura Jansen told NPR this weekend. “Everything’s becoming quite militarized. And the governments are stepping in and pushing volunteers out.”

Image by Better Days for Moria via Facebook

It’s unclear how many groups remain operational in Moria and to what extent. Volunteers in the camp vary in their tallies. However, Xu estimates, based on the collective accounts of aid workers in and around Moria, that perhaps a dozen or less remain. This seems to have pushed more well-being maintenance duties than ever before onto Greek police.

By turning the camp into a closed detention facility, Greek authorities have also incidentally limited outsiders’ ability to observe the results of this mass withdrawal and crackdown. Locals who used to walk in and out of the facility are now shut out, while press have no access inside the camps; Xu was asked to apply for special permission before he could even receive official comment on the state of Moria. Some aid workers remain hesitant about sharing their experiences of the camp for fear that they could jeopardize their organizations’ standings with Greek authorities and their ability to operate fully in the camps.

Yet migrants and volunteers within the camp have been able to tell GOOD the following:

At the start of the month, Moria offered migrants ample food and drink. Susan, another volunteer from the same organization as Carolina, and also speaking under a pseudonym for the reasons outlined above, recalls preparing 3,000 meals on March 11 alone. Although there were more people than official facilities, forcing some to sleep outside, NGOs provided them with tents, for which U.S.-based aid organization Samaritan’s Purse offered propane heaters as well. Samaritan’s Purse and the UNHCR also regularly distributed clothing, hygiene kits, and other basic supplies to newcomers. There were also several medical tents, UNHCR reps offering guidance and support, and even food trucks at the gates of the facility where people could charge their phones to communicate with the outside world. Migrants were free to come and go, moving onto the mainland at will.

In the days after the EU-Turkey deal and the camp’s closure, however, multiple sources at Moria have confirmed, the tents and heaters disappeared. As a result, many were (for a time at least) forced to sleep on the ground wrapped in blankets—if that—despite the camp having, by official Greek estimates, more spaces available than migrants in residence. Although Samaritan’s Purse provided remaining groups with a few supplies, their kits have stopped flowing, and volunteers are not allowed to access the UNHCR’s remaining donated goods. Volunteers with at least one organization managed to procure some baby food, blankets, clothing, diapers, and hygiene products. But their capacity is limited. Phone charging stations vanished for a time and power sometimes cuts out in the facility, where gates are now locked. For at least 24 hours the men’s toilets were also closed, forcing women to share their facilities, which is not just culturally unacceptable to many, but increases the risk of assault, especially in the confined setting.

Refugee with blankets and cardboard sleeping inside Moria Detention Center last Wednesday.

“I was searching for a bottle of water [for a night] but I couldn’t get [any],” Jamal, an Afghan migrant in Moria speaking under a pseudonym out of concern for his well-being, tells GOOD, adding that men haven’t been getting food either. “We can drink from the toilet.”  

These flagging conditions have reportedly been exacerbated by cluelessness-bordering-on-hostility from Greek police suddenly thrust into the operational spotlight. “The police were ignoring our attempts to ask them for blankets and were turning us away,” Carolina tells GOOD. Some claim that the police can be outright hostile to migrants—especially Afghans, who seem to face special discrimination (Susan claims that Afghans with babies have not been given shelter) because the state views them as economic migrants, which allegedly puts them lower on the priority list for resources and accommodations than recognized refugees like Iraqis and Syrians.

“The police [do] not behave nicely with the refugees,” Jamal tells GOOD. “A person [may] ask for water [and] the police [answer], ‘Wait until the rain comes.’”

Jamal’s experiences resonate with those of Pakistani migrants in Moria who Xu managed to communicate with. However, Xu could not reach any Syrian migrants in the facility by the time of this publication, so it remains unclear if everyone in the camp has suffered uniformly from the lack of supplies and ill treatment from Greek officials described above.

“One [individual] said that he wished he had never become a policeman,” Carolina tells GOOD, “because he strongly disagreed with the treatment of the refugees” that he’d recently observed. 

The rapid transition has not only left authorities and volunteers confused and overtaxed; with a lack of translators and explicit communications, it apparently has led to extreme fear amongst migrants, some of whom have been given no guidance after being scooped up off of the island’s shores by the Greek Coast Guard and delivered to Moria in the middle of the night.

Image by Better Days for Moria via Facebook

On Saturday, March 19, during the deportations to clear out Moria for new arrival-cum-detainees, Susan claims to have witnessed a particularly harrowing manifestation of this confusion: “With no warning or communication to volunteers, [the migrants] were told to pack up and start lining up to board buses.… They were not told where they were going. Many believed they were being deported to Turkey. [There was] panic. Refugees were scared and crying.”

Xu reached out to the Greek Ministry of the Interior requesting comment on the conditions reported to him. Officials had not responded as of the time this piece is being published; GOOD will update this article with official comment if it comes in.

Conditions may improve in the coming days. As of her Sunday-to-Monday night shift, Susan noted that no one was sleeping outside without tents anymore. This may be a result of the reported movement of at least dozens of new Moria migrants to other centers (at least some are apparently handcuffed while in transit). Electrical charging stations had been restored as well, suggesting that some immediate deterioration may have been the result of early confusion and a lack of preparation. This week’s promised arrival of 2,300 EU officials to help administer the island camps may bring much-needed logistical, translation, and general support. And attention brought to Moria’s plight by protests outside the camp last Thursday, in the Lesvos port town of Mytilene on Saturday, and within the camp this Monday, may swell support for remaining aid groups, if not a proper response from the EU to make up the recent NGO shortfall. An American envoy alone reportedly pledged $20 million to assist UNHCR migrant aid operations after visiting Lesvos on Monday, although it’s unclear if that money will materialize or reach Moria.

Yet some think it’s also possible that administrators will shy away from seriously improving conditions at Moria and other centers as part of a bid to signal to migrants that the Aegean route is closed.

“I believe [authorities] have been apathetic and slow to respond to the worsening conditions … to make an example of the new arrivals,” Susan tells GOOD. “Reports of poor conditions and inadequate provisions could be a serious deterrent to any who plan to come to Greece.”

Given that the entire EU-Turkey deal is a type of deterrent, this interpretation is not irrational. But it’s entirely possible that the EU simply did not account for the severe backlash to its plans from aid groups, or Greece’s ongoing scrutiny of minor, ad hoc NGOs.

Yet if the EU believes that any element of its Turkey deal will help to stem the burden and the horrors of the migrant crisis, they may be sorely mistaken. Reports have recently emerged of individuals considering alternate routes into Greece, crossing the Black Sea from Turkey to Romania, or even opting for a more dangerous crossing from North Africa across the Strait of Sicily.

If conditions at places like Moria simply push migration down the coast, or if the deal with Turkey falls apart because of legal concerns or the failure of EU membership talks, it will be disastrous for the EU. The Union’s maneuvering was already hard for many to swallow, and the deterioration at Moria will likely strike many as blatantly cruel and shortsighted. And if it turns out that it was all for nothing, then it will be hard to paint the deal and its aftermath as anything other than a reactionary, delegitimizing boondoggle of the highest, most harmful order.

Image by Better Days for Moria via Facebook

Display image by Better Days for Moria via Facebook

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How the EU-Turkey Deal Is Impacting an Infamous Refugee Camp in Greece