Europe at Its Ugliest The Refugee Scandal on the Island of Lesbos
As winter arrives, the situation on the Greek island of Lesbos is unsustainable. Conditions at the refugee camps are horrific and island residents are tired of being left in the lurch by Athens and the EU. A visit to ground zero of European ignominy.
Those wishing to visit ground zero of European ignominy must simply drive up an olive tree-covered hill on the island of Lesbos until the high cement walls of Camp Moria come into view. "Welcome to prison," someone has spray-painted on the walls. The dreadful stench of urine and garbage greets visitors and the ground is covered with hundreds of plastic bags. It is raining, and filthy water has collected ankle-deep on the road. The migrants who come out of the camp are covered with thin plastic capes and many of them are wearing only flipflops on their feet as they walk through the soup. Children are crying as men jostle their way through the crowd.
Welcome to one of the most shameful sites in all of Europe. Camp Moria was originally built to handle 2,330 refugees. But currently it is home to 6,489.
Omar Sherki crawls out of a tent set up against the outside wall of the camp, a thin, pale man who was studying to become an engineer in Syria and played guitar in a rock band. He lives with hundreds of other men in an orchard outside the walls because Camp Moria has become so dangerous. His mattress lies on a wooden palette, beneath which rainwater has collected.
Omar is waiting for aid workers to distribute food: rotten-smelling meatballs and a bowl of rice. "I left to escape one war and ended up in a new one," he says.
Conditions on the island of Lesbos haverarely been as precarious as they are today. Just as winter is arriving in Greece, some 15,000 refugees find themselves trapped in the five "hotspots" located on Greek islands in the Aegean Sea. Fully 8,357 of them are on Lesbos, living in horrific conditions in overcrowded, completely inadequate shelters. A huge number of refugees are forced to sleep in tents designed for summer conditions and many of them fear for their safety because of the close quarters and the repeated clashes in the main camp. Dozens of refugees have begun a hunger strike on Lesbos.
The European Union's refugee deal with Turkey may have managed to cut the number of people reaching Greece by 97 percent, but dozens of migrants continue to arrive every day. Thus far this year, around 11,000 people have crossed over to the island from Turkey - a tiny number compared to the 12,500 who arrived on a single day in August 2015. But back then, newcomers were taken to the mainland and allowed to continue their journeys through the Balkans toward Hungary, Austria and, ultimately, Germany. Now, though, the former registration facilities have essentially been transformed into prisons.
Far Too Long
Those coming from Turkey to apply for asylum in Greece must do so on one of five islands: Samos, Lesbos, Chios, Kos or Leros. The regulation has been in place since March 2016, but the processing of those applications takes far too long. Nevertheless, only those whose applications have been approved - or those deemed particularly vulnerable - may travel onward to the mainland.
The government in Athens has had plenty of time to learn its lesson from last winter, when five refugees died in Camp Moria, some of them because they were trying to heat their tents. Now, the country's immigration minister is seeking to solve the problem at the last minute ahead of this winter by renting hotels on Lesbos and bringing in two ships from Piraeus that can accommodate a total of 3,000 refugees. On the island of Lesbos though, where residents have shown remarkable patience thus far, there is widespread opposition to the plan.
On Monday, the mayor of Lesbos, known for being a moderate, called for a general strike and declared war on the Greek government. He accuses Athens of seeking to use the need to establish winter facilities as an excuse to transform Lesbos into a prison island.
Meanwhile, the migrants stuck on Lesbos sink deeper into distress. Critics say that the island and its residents have been sacrificed in order to send a message to Turkey that it should continue to uphold its end of the refugee agreement. Brussels touts that deal as a success because it has led to a lasting reduction in the number of people arriving in Europe. But in reality, new slums have popped up on the EU's periphery.
"The smugglers said the waiting period was one or two weeks," says Omar Sherki*, 24. Having fled from Syrian conscription, Sherki initially got a job working 13 hours a day in a Turkish plastic factory, but his boss rarely paid him. He wants to continue on to Germany where his siblings live, but has been stuck on Lesbos for the past six months.
Hoping for a Miracle
Sherki shares videos of the nightly battles between various nationalities in Camp Moria, where he didn't end up staying long. In the videos, you can see the stones flying and hear the screams as people run across the roofs of the housing containers to escape. Residents of the camp have set it on fire multiple times. "We can hear the clashes at night," he says.
Sherki says he would rather live in the orchard with no electricity or water than in the camp. To bathe, he uses a hose near a rock quarry. And he continues to hope for a miracle.
Camp Moria is operated by the Greek federal government and journalists, unsurprisingly given its state, are not allowed inside. But it's not difficult to pull on a rain cape and sneak through the gates. Inside, you see containers meant for six people packed with 14, overflowing toilets and garbage bins that nobody empties with mothers changing their babies' diapers right next to them. "Moria, big problem," camp residents call out to the visitor.
Everybody has had enough: the refugees, the Greeks living on the island and, most of all, the mayor of Lesbos, Spyros Galinos. On Monday of this week, he could be found striding behind a column of honking garbage trucks as they drove through Mytilini, the island's capital.
The mayor has called for a general strike as an initial protest and hundreds of island residents have traveled to Mytilini by bus to take part. Galinos, a 65-year-old with untamed eyebrows and a deeply creased face, is wearing an oversized, blue winter parka. In his hand, he is fiddling with a string of orange worry beads, which are supposed to help him quit smoking despite the stress he is under.
When Galinos reaches the central square at the port of Mytilini, he climbs up a couple of steps and turns to address the crowd. A man in rubber boots is holding onto his goat with one hand while raising a sign aloft with the other. "We've had enough!" it reads.
"For the last three years, we have been bearing an immense burden on behalf of Greece and Europe," Galinos calls out. "But they have left us defenseless and alone." He says that decisions have been made without asking Lesbos residents what they thought of them and seethes: "The refugees have to be brought to the mainland immediately! This is an emergency!"
'It's War You'll Get!'
Winter is coming, Galinos continues, saying "the government alone is responsible for the five people who died in Moria." The mayor is speaking without notes and his voice is trembling with anger. "We don't have room to build any more camps here. There will be no hotel ships in our harbor. Otherwise, we will blockade the entrance or jump into the water to stop them! If it's war that you want, then it's war you'll get!" the mayor calls out, his message clearly addressed to the government in Athens.
We met with Spyros Galinos in his office two days before the protest march in Mytilini. Lesbos has been praised for its treatment of refugees by the pope, the UN and the European Union. Why is it now refusing to allow the establishment of winter quarters for the migrants?
Galinos lights a cigarette. The answer isn't so simple.
In September 2015, there were 35,000 migrants camping in Mytilini. Even then, local officials were helping to register the refugees before they were shipped to the mainland. "I was in favor of the EU-Turkey deal so that the pressure on us would be relieved," he says. "Nobody told me that the people would stay on my island."
"The backlog was created because those responsible in the asylum system are incapable of rapidly processing even a small number of applications," Galinos says. The decree that refugees are not allowed to leave the hotspot islands during the time it takes to process their applications, the mayor says, is meant as a message that "the path across the Aegean isn't worth it anymore."
The government has an additional argument to justify the conditions on Lesbos: The migrants now arriving on the island cannot be intermingled with those on the mainland because of the agreement with Turkey. The deal, after all, will only work if Ankara is certain that the migrants being sent back to Turkey are in fact the same people who recently crossed the Aegean to Greece.
A Humanitarian Catastrophe
Galinos, though, doesn't find that argument convincing. Indeed, he believes that Athens has intentionally created the catastrophic conditions on Lesbos ahead of the approaching winter. "They are blackmailing us so that we will accept the hotel ships and a new hotspot. There are enough empty facilities on the mainland." He finds it hard to understand that the leftist Syriza government is tolerating a humanitarian catastrophe on his island.
But is it really? Marios Kaleas, head of the asylum bureau on Lesbos, provided detailed statistics regarding the work of his agency in a telephone conversation with DER SPIEGEL. He said that he has only 37 Greek officials at his disposal, along with 100 assistants provided by the EU. Every week, they register 350 asylum applications and carry out 150 interviews. But they have been overwhelmed by the number of new arrivals, with up to 100 coming each day.
Kaleas is also openly skeptical of the EU-Turkey deal. "My colleagues and I don't want a single person sent back to Turkey" if there is any potential danger for them there or if they will simply be deported to the country he fled from, he says. In those cases, he says, Turkey should not be considered a safe country of origin. "When Afghans or Iraqis are sent back, Turkey just deports them," Kaleas says by way of example.
The treaty with Turkey allows the officials to treat each case individually. "We need 45 to 50 days to process a single case," Kaleas says. In the first instance, 70 percent of applications are approved. Those from the remaining 30 percent who appeal can expect to be stuck on Lesbos for more than a year. Only 36 people work in the committees who decide on the appeals, handing down roughly 30 rulings per week.
Taken together, the numbers go a long way toward explaining the gridlock on Lesbos. The situation, though, doesn't just make the migrants themselves more aggressive, but also the surrounding residents.
"The refugees slaughtered one of my sheep," says Dimitris Kathiotis, 86, as he sits at his kitchen table in the village of Moria. It was his favorite sheep. "It used to give me two liters of milk per day." Kathiotis has spent his entire life on Lesbos breeding animals. It was a peaceful existence, at least until the camp was set up next to the village he lives in.
Kathiotis claims that he isn't xenophobic, but adds that he no longer feels safe here. "Thirty sheep and goats have disappeared from my fields," the farmer says. "The migrants have destroyed the fence and my grapevines, and they use the field as their toilet." He says he had to pay 1,500 euros to fix the fence, but only receives a pension of 338 euros per month. On one occasion, when young migrants sought to drive him off his own land, Kathiotis says he grabbed his rifle and fired two shots into the air. Now, his weapon has been confiscated by the police. "Unfortunately," he says.
Kathiotis says he saved the head of the slaughtered sheep in his freezer until the mayor came to Moria for a closer look at the problems in the village. "I threw the bloody sheep's head at his feet," he says. When even that didn't help, the farmer bought himself a large dog for protection. He would like to see all the migrants locked up.
Down at the port of Mytilini, four young sisters from Afghanistan have pitched their tent on the asphalt next to the tents of dozens of other Afghans and Iranians. There is a banner in front of their tent: "We want freedom!" it reads. And: "Hunger strike for our rights."
"We haven't eaten anything for 18 days," says Karime, 17. She is a serious young woman with a red scarf wrapped loosely around her head. "We don't know how else to get people to listen."
After fleeing from the Taliban in the Afghan province of Helmand, the women eventually ended up in Moria. But during one of the skirmishes in the camp, Karime was hit in the head by a rock. She became one of the many to leave the camp to escape the dangers inside.
The sisters have ambitious dreams for their future, with one wanting to become a dentist, another a designer and a third hoping for a career in engineering. "We though Europe respected human rights," says Karime. "But that's not true. " So they have changed plans. They no longer want to go to Germany, aiming instead for a life in Canada.
*Name and some biographical details have been changed to protect his identity.