Nothing could have prepared us for the night when approximately 300 people were shipwrecked off the coast of Lesbos.
Boatloads of people were brought in by the coastguard. Everyone was drenched to the bone, hypothermic, screaming the names of family members who had perished. Medics and volunteers desperately attempted to revive the unconscious.
One moment I was consoling a young man, shuddering and shaking in my arms, as he cried out, “my brother, my brother, I have lost my brother, our boat was broken, two hours at sea,” the next I was wrapping my arms around a woman screaming and banging her head against the wall, her eyes wide in shock, desperation and grief.
Another woman slipped in and out of consciousness, coughing up salty sea water, her lips blue, shaking under the pile of blankets on top of her. Another refused to let us change her out of her soaking wet clothes, refused water, food and warm tea, until she found her two-month-old baby. Nearly everybody that night lost a family member to the sea.
Nevertheless, the striking image of refugees piling out of rubber dinghies on the shores of Greek islands is by now a familiar one. We are familiar with the dangers posed by the treacherous sea crossing, with so many refugees perishing. We know of the extortionate rates charged by smugglers ($1,000-$2,000 per person, compared to 20 euros for the ferry), we know about the war zones, torture and persecution that these people are fleeing. But what awaits refugees who have survived all of this, on the Greek island of Lesbos, is unknown except by the few who have experienced and witnessed these horrors themselves.
From the port and the beaches, they are sent to one of the makeshift camps situated at the northern end of the island, next to a busy dusty road, where they are forced to wait in the long lines for buses to the registration camps. Many have to wait patiently overnight, given that their only alternative is to walk the 70 kilometers. There is a general sense of confusion and frustration at the lack of autonomy that the refugees experience: before registration, even those with the money are not allowed to take a taxi or rent a hotel room; they must sleep on the cold, dusty ground and await their turn in line.
There are two registration camps on the island, Kara Tepe for Syrians and Moria for non-Syrians, and refugees have to queue in the necessary line upon arrival. Non-Syrians are immediately struck by the discrimination they face: “Why is there a different line for Syrians?” the Afghanis and Iraqis ask. I tell them that it is because of the two different registration camps, but I do not have the heart to tell them of the stark difference in the conditions they will face, or that this discrimination will be enforced throughout the entirety of their journey across Europe.
Kara Tepe is a well-equipped and well-staffed camp, with UNHCR cabins for Syrian refugees, a solid stream of volunteers and NGOs, doctors easily available, and a quick and easy registration process. It is difficult to describe the horrendous condition in Moria, an imposing former military base with three layers of razor-wire fencing, intended to be used as a detention center. Here, Afghans, Iraqis and Iranians who are fleeing homes destroyed by war, poverty and persecution are subjected to dehumanizing conditions.
“On the boat here we were scared, we lost everything… then we arrive here, made to sleep outside here and wait for three days in the line for our papers, with the police, treated like animals, like I am not a human too, and I start to believe I am not a human — I am ashamed, I feel sorry to disturb you here in Europe… I am only searching for some humanity.”
There is very little NGO presence and only a few UNHCR staff, who have been allocated so little resources that they ask the volunteers for help: “do you have any blankets or food for us?” There is extremely limited access to a doctor, who is only on site from 9-5. All authority in Moria lies with the police, of whom some are ready to help but the majority treat the refugees with brutal cruelty; there are countless accounts of beatings and tear gas at the hands of the authorities in Moria.
The detention center was designed for 500 people, and in recent weeks there have been as many as 5,000 people there, waiting outside the camp to be let in for registration. Once the refugees arrive, they must wait in line for their papers, without which they cannot take a taxi, get a hotel room, or buy their tickets for their onward journey. If they attempt to leave the camp without these papers they face arrest.
They cannot even leave the line to buy food from the overpriced outlets that have appeared (charging 8 euros for a liter of water) without rejoining again from the start of the line. The authorities stopped providing food, reasoning that because they cannot detain the refugees they are not legally required to provide them with anything. When individual volunteers handed out food, paid for with their own money, they found people — children — who had not eaten in days.
The first winter storms hit the island this week with four days of torrential rain and thunderstorms. As a result, thousands of families, children and elderly people, were sleeping in a river of mud and rubbish with no shelter, food or medical care. The queue to enter the registration center stretched as far as 2.5 kilometers and some people waited under the rain, without food, for as long as six days.
People were huddled together in soaking wet blankets, trying desperately to get shelter, their eyes blank and empty, glazed over and no longer seeing the scene in front of them, or filled with a manic desperation. Barefoot children were knee deep in a river of mud and rubbish, their feet white and shriveled. There was no escape from the incessant rain. As volunteers handed out blankets people shrugged them away — “there’s no point, we are soaking wet” — or desperately asked if they could be sent back to Afghanistan.
Inside the area for registration, everybody desperately tried to shelter under the small tarpaulin, while the police shouted and beat people with their sticks. Families were split up in the chaos and volunteers desperately pleaded with the police to let them through the fence to reunite children with their parents. “What kind of person leaves their child alone? These people are not human,” one of the policeman said in response to these pleas.
This excerpt from a personal account of a volunteer, who was at Moria during the four days of storms, vividly describes the inhumane conditions, police brutality and desperation faced by those at Moria:
A girl, no older than 8, falls on her knees in front of me and folds her hands together and in hysterics she says: “please help, please help.” A passed-out woman is dragged in, babies drenched in their blankets. These are the scenes I see before my eyes like a horror film I cannot switch off.
The woman from UNHCR grabs me: “they are about to open the gates for the next group.” I take one look at the gate and see the squashed people pushed up against it, sounds of crying and screaming. The riot police removes the bolts and opens it. Hordes of people run in, people are getting trampled on, piled on top of each other when they all try to push in.
“We have to pull out the babies!” We run in and with all my might I tug at the people stuck at the bottom. It’s no use. I see a child and pull her arms. Then, a strange smell and a quick sensation: teargas. It burns my eyes, my throat, my face. People scream and run away from the gas. I have to let go of the child and run also, it is unbearable.
This registration process to claim asylum in Europe is so systematically abusive that it is putting the lives of those who have escaped war, prison and torture in danger. Instead of being used to create registration centers which do not put lives at risk, EU funding is consistently pumped into the further securitization of borders, forcing people to undertake the dangerous ocean crossing.
Far from providing safe refuge to those who survive this crossing, the authorities are subjecting these people to dehumanizing, degrading and life threatening conditions. The situation is critical. As one volunteer doctor who flew out to assess the situation said: “There are thousands of children here and their feet are literally rotting, they can’t keep dry, they have high fevers and they’re standing in the pouring rain for days on end. You have one month guys, and then all these people will be dead.”
Photos by Merel Graeve: