Lesvos, Greece (NI) – Hamza is a 9-year-old boy from Hama, a city in the west of Syria. He was hit by an aerial bomb a few weeks ago, wounding his leg and hand, with shrapnel causing a head injury. In his current state, he can’t talk, and he can’t walk.
Just like over 4 million other Syrians, Hamza and his family fled the war that has devastated their country. They travelled through Lebanon and Turkey and, from there, on an overcrowded, inflatable rubber dinghy, they sailed across the Aegean Sea to reach Europe.
When Hamza arrived on the Greek island of Lesvos, he and his family were expected to walk around 15 kilometres along mountain roads to reach the bus stop. From there, a bus would take them to Mytilene, the island’s biggest city, where refugees have to register – except that there are not enough buses for all of them, so most people have to walk a further 60 kilometres.
At Mytilene’s port, there were thousands of people waiting to be registered. With only one photographer available to register everyone, the wait is long – and many people are told to return the next day.
Waiting at the designated refugee camp, a further 3 kilometres away from Mytilene, Hamza needs medical treatment but by now night has fallen, and there are no doctors at the camp. There are also no tents, no blankets and no food available.
Welcome to Europe
The peak of summer means calm Mediterranean waters, and that means over 2,000 refugees arriving daily in Lesvos. On busy days, up to 4,000 refugees land on the island. In the usually quiet coastal village of Skala Sikaminias, up north, the shoreline is now littered with slashed rubber dinghies and lifejackets.
Every day, the boats come streaming in. And every day, the beaches bear no sign of any official state presence or NGO representatives; it’s only when refugees reach Mytilene, 75 kilometres away, that they are met by officials.
The moment the refugees arrive is dramatic: there’s crying, laughing, singing, taking selfies and praying. Shortly afterwards, when they realize what lies ahead, their faces transform as sorrow, disappointment and fear creep in.
Lesvos has become a kind of limbo: a burning hot and filthy cauldron where refugees wait endlessly to be registered so as to leave the island and continue their onward journey. With refugees now arriving in record numbers, there are not enough ferries to get them to Athens, so their time in purgatory extends and the island becomes increasingly chaotic. There are now an estimated 17,000 refugees on the island and the UNHCR has called for an emergency evacuation.
Each morning at 5.30, British citizens Eric and Philippa Kempson head down to the coast and greet the refugees. The Kempsons and their small team of rotating volunteers provide water for the journey ahead, while women with babies and people with disabilities are driven by volunteers to the bus station, located in a car park in Molyvos town.
Once at the bus station, it is again volunteers who hand out water and sandwiches to the newly arrived. Most people will continue by foot to the city, but some will wait in the car park with no toilet facilities for a bus that has no timetable.
Recently, the municipality, under pressure from local associations, has closed down the volunteer-run transit centre and stopped allowing refugees to wait in the car park. In addition, the authorities have stopped transporting people by bus to the city because of overcrowding. This means that people either have to sleep rough where they first land, or everybody, young and old alike, walks to the city.
The city of Mytilene is one of the most beautiful in Greece, adorned with neoclassical buildings and surrounded by hills. Now barely recognizable, the port and parks of the city are heaving with refugees, tents everywhere. Some are waiting to be registered, while others who cannot bear the squalor of the camps prefer to sleep rough outdoors.
Eleni Kelmali is a junior grade Lieutenant of the Lesvos Hellenic Coastguard. In addition to conducting search-and-rescue missions, the Hellenic Coastguard is now assisting the police with registration and crowd management at the port. Hundreds of refugees wait under the sweltering sun every day as the authorities struggle to maintain calm and get the refugees to form orderly queues without the assistance of interpreters.
Despite being sent reinforcements from the Central Port Authority, Kelmali explains: ‘The measures taken are not enough. Even if you doubled the number of people, it would still be difficult to manage the situation. We should have unlimited people. We wish for more help from the EU through our Ministry.’
‘This is not the Europe I expected,’ a Syrian man told me. The refugees who arrive aren’t guaranteed to find food, water and shelter. Overwhelmed by the number of arrivals, and suffering its own economic crisis, Greece is unable to cope.
‘Who will protect us?’
Even though the city feels like a cesspit waiting to explode, the two refugee camps, Kara Tepe and Moria, are worse.
Anna Halford is the Lesvos Field Co-ordinator for Médecins Sans Frontières. She says: ‘Basic standards of living need to be met. For Lesvos, there has been an effort to organize reception and transit, but the organization isn’t sufficient. Numbers exceed the capacity and measures to manage it. The country cannot cope.’
Kara Tepe camp was set up by the Mayor of Lesvos on a traffic education site and was intended to house 500 refugees; now, there are around 2,000 people there. The camp is meant to be only for Syrians, although the vetting process is weak and several other nationalities also reside there.
The International Rescue Committee (IRC) is one of the only NGOs operating in Greece for the first time to assist in the refugee crisis. The NGO provides information, water and sanitation services in Kara Tepe camp and is planning to expand its operations further inland as well.
Simon Clarke, the Emergency Deputy Field Director for IRC, said: ‘The situation is horrendous. There’s nowhere near enough shelter. There’s not enough food – there’s one meal a day provided. The toilets and showers are at breaking point.’ With no management of the camp, conditions are unhygienic and rubbish overflows – but this does not compare to the squalor of Moria.
When you walk into Moria camp, it is hard to believe it’s in Europe. The detention facility, with a capacity for 700 people, is full, so the outside area is strewn with tents and makeshift shelters for almost 3,000 refugees. It feels desperate. Few people speak English, but those who do ask the same questions: ‘Why is there no water?’; ‘How can I wash here?’; ‘Please, where is the doctor?’; and ‘Do people know we are here?’.
Greece operates a fast-track system for Syrians, so their registration papers tend to be processed within a couple of days. For the other nationalities who arrive and stay at Moria, the wait is much longer and can be anything from 20 to 40 days.
While food is provided, it is never enough: no-one, not even the catering company, was ever prepared for these numbers. There is water from the tap available, although it reeks, so many buy water from the kiosk. The lucky ones have tents provided by international organizations, such as Médecins Sans Frontières; the majority sleep on flattened cardboard boxes or mats.
With a lack of management and authority at Moria, an atmosphere of insecurity reigns. Fights break out regularly and some people carry knives as weapons.
Amin is a 13-year-old Amin from Afhganistan. On 20 August, we had both witnessed a fight involving around 100 people, some of whom had knives, and one man was stabbed. No security staff or doctor ever came.
‘Where is [the]UNHCR? Where are the guards? There are fights here. Who will protect us? It is not safe at all here. You can’t sleep at night,’ he says.
Antonios Gkagkarellis, a police lieutenant based at Moria camp, says that on a daily basis, there are 8 to 9 police officers at Moria, but they only guard the interior detention centre.
‘We don’t have enough resources. Inside, we have about 750 people and outside around 2,500. This isn’t safe. Our lives are not even safe here. The numbers are so big outside that we don’t have the ability to check the stuff [weapons] of the people outside. With this situation, we can’t cope.’ Eliza Goroya, Amnesty International’s Campaigner for Greece, echoes the same concerns over the situation.
‘Greece does not cope, cannot cope. Refugees flee war, rape, torture, and/or poverty only to be met by a support system on its knees. Too often for it to be acceptable, these vulnerable people rely on the kindness of local activists even for the most basic things like shelter and food. Greece is on the news constantly, but we need to talk more about the humanitarian crisis. We need to hold EU leaders accountable.’
On the island of Lesvos, it is glaringly obvious that Europe has failed in its duty to protect refugees. There is anger towards EU leaders but also towards the UNHCR.
Despite this being the biggest refugee crisis since the Second World War , the UNHCR has so far not provided a single tent. This year, the organization has distributed a total of 7,400 units of bottled water, the equivalent of what the volunteer Kempsons distribute in a couple of days.
In purgatory, something has gone horribly wrong. The smugglers are proving more organized than European states; and kind-hearted, untrained volunteers are assisting more people than international humanitarian agencies.
The EU has so far failed to take responsibility for the refugee crisis, and as the situation escalates and refugee numbers on the island swell, the EU and its member states urgently need to increase emergency support to those assisting refugees arriving in Greece.
On 14 September 2015, a meeting will take place in Brussels between several EU interior and justice ministers. This is an opportunity to rectify the dysfunctional European asylum system and to create safe and humane routes for refugees, which can respect their rights and protect them.