Seeking refuge in Lesvos by Christoph Donauer and Martin Choi

Nearly 100,000 migrants have made the journey to the Greek island of Lesvos in 2016. They have been confined in refugee camps for months because of the asylum process. As their basic needs are not met, their well-being falls into the hands of a group of unlikely volunteers.

The Statue of Liberty in Mytilene, the capital city of Lesvos, faces the Turkish coast just 18 km away, where the migrants come over by boat.

“Yallah!” shouts Cindy. Yallah means ‘hurry up’ in Arabic. The young German woman learned Arabic while helping the migrants on the Greek island of Lesvos since May.

She gestures for the migrants to move forward. Cindy is waiting for the other volunteers of No Border Kitchen, a group of self-organised activists from Germany and other parts of Europe, to bring today’s meal.

The work of the activists of No Border Kitchen is an open secret around the island. They provide shelters for refugees and migrants and organize protests for open borders. But their distribution of free food on a regular basis has made them known among those in need.

Every day, the activists provide around 600 meals to migrants and refugees, of which 200 meals are given to those that live on the streets of Mytilene, the capital city of Lesvos.

According to UNHCR, there are currently 6,348 people at the refugee camps/sites of Lesvos, which only have a total capacity of 3,500. There are no official figures for the number of people who chose to leave the camps to live on the streets.

“If we don’t provide them with food, they will steal it somewhere”, says Cindy.

A van arrives and a group of migrants follow it to a parking spot in the dark. The migrants scramble behind the car while two men open the back doors. “Line, line, line!” shouts Cindy.

Portions of couscous in paper cups are given out. After the food is distributed to the migrants, a man with dreadlocks and a beanie hands out cups with the rest of the food. “There’s enough for everyone today,” he says. “Food is for everyone.”

His name is Marvin and he is from Germany. He arrived two weeks earlier to help when he had learned about the living conditions of the migrants and refugees on Lesvos. “I heard about No Border Kitchen from my friends who were here when it all started,” he said. “On the first day you’re here, you’re just shocked. But from the second day on, you just work and try to help.”

Rumors spread that the police were on their way, and just as quickly as the van arrived, it left into the night.

The Moria refugee camp is sealed off to visitors.

Seeking refuge

5 kilometers away from the city of Mytilene is the Moria camp, one of the largest refugee camps in Greece. Converted from a former military base, the detention center has a capacity of 400. It currently holds more than 4000 asylum seekers.

When asked about their living conditions, their complaints are the same: not enough food, no warm clothes, lack of privacy and security issues.

The camp entrance is sealed off by a tall grey steel gate that is guarded by patrolling Greek police officers and military forces. The camp itself is surrounded by barbed steel fences. Inside, small hut-like tents are sprawled on the muddy ground, and many refugees walk in small groups, eyeing the officials and unwanted visitors curiously.

Outside the camp, merchants sell cheap food.

At the counter of a cafeteria tent, two young men drink coffee and listen to music. One of them is Amir, a Syrian with a red jacket. The other one is Yamman, a Lebanese with tied up hair. The two of them come to the cafeteria tent every day to escape the cold atmosphere of the camp.

“I have been in Moria for five months now,” says Amir. Questions about the food in the camp make him laugh.

“Only potatoes,” he says. “And sometimes with an egg. Not everyday.”

Back in Syria, Amir was a surgeon. He kept several pictures on his phone, including selfies with his colleagues in surgical gowns. But he left Syria because of the ongoing war. The young man made it to Turkey and paid about 4000 Euro for the boat trip to Lesvos. Now he is waiting for the asylum process to continue.

The registration process in the camp is complex and takes time. Check out what incomings go through.

He dreams of going to Germany, where his father lives. Amir says the German language is very difficult. In the meantime, he spends his time learning Greek. The shop owner, who Amir converses in Greek with, says he got very good at it.

Yamman, a Lebanese with brown eyes, shakes his head when he thinks about Moria, his current home.

“We only have water every three days to shower. And when there is water, everyone rushes to the showers”, says Yamman.

The young man worked as a hairdresser and a tattoo artist in Lebanon. He shows pictures of the tattoos on his left arm.

“Being a hairdresser was for money, but tattooing is what I love,” Yamman says.

His father and his three sisters live in Germany, where he wants to live as well. How he plans on getting there, he doesn’t know. “Right now, we can only wait,” he says.

He has been waiting for 7 months.

Many have died on the journey from Turkey to Europe. Crossing the sea in a rubber boat is dangerous and suicidal.

The EU-Turkey-Conundrum

Under the EU-Turkey deal on migration, the agreement that took effect on 20 March 2016, all new arrivals in Greece would be sent back to Turkey. For every Syrian being returned to Turkey from the Greek islands, another Syrian from Turkey would be sent back to the EU.

Data Source: UNHCR

According to a report by the Wall Street Journal, this exchange policy which was meant to deter people from paying smugglers to cross into Greece was never fully implemented. Besides the 83 Syrians that have gone back voluntarily, the report says that no Syrians had been deported to Turkey under the terms of the deal.

The deportations are on hold for the resolution of the cases in which Syrians are appealing for the Greek authorities to consider their asylum claims. These cases have been stuck in the Greek court system since last summer. The Greek authorities began the deportation of other nationalities in November 2016, after a delay due to the uncertainty of how deportees would be treated by Turkey.

Ahmet Keskin is the captain of a Charter Yacht. His trips take him from Turkey to Lesvos every 15 days. Check out what he has experienced on his journeys:

However, the Greek authorities denied the responsibility of the slow asylum processes. “The main reason for the slow asylum processes are the few number of European experts that have been promised to support Greece,” Kyriakos Mantouvalos, spokesperson of the Greek minister for migration Ioannis Mouzalas, told the German newspaper Zeit.

“According to the EU-Turkey-Deal, more than 400 experts should be working in Greece at this moment. But until now, only 38 have arrived", says Mouzalas.

In the report by Zeit, 13 of these experts are supporting the 45 Greek asylum officials on Lesvos. Their task: to handle more than 7600 asylum requests that have been stuck since March.

A Greek court is due to rule later in December concerning the process for deporting asylum seekers to Turkey and whether it is constitutional. Yet according to the report by the Wall Street Journal, the decision-making has already been delayed several times.

Frontex deploys police officers to support EU member states with securing the EU’s external borders. Check out what two Border Guards have experienced on Lesvos.

Kara Tepe, another camp on the island, is said to offer its residents slightly better living conditions.

The plight of refugees

In the evening of 24 November, a gas explosion in the Moria camp led to the deaths of a grandmother and her grandchild. The local police reported that the gas explosion was caused by the grandmother trying to cook with a gas canister in her tent.

“Many of the canisters are cheap, undated, and lacking the safety stamp of ‘CE’”, said Ariel Ricker, the director and founder of the non-governmental organisation Advocates Abroad which provides free legal advice for migrants.

She checked the gas canisters in the tents of Moria three days after the explosion with the help of Humans 4 Humanity, a newly developed non-profit organisation providing emergency humanitarian aid and basic necessities.

A woman leaving Kara Tepe, a camp for families and minors.

According to a statement released after the gas explosion on 24 November by Advocates Abroad, the explosion and fire also destroyed documents necessary in the asylum process and left hundreds of camp residents traumatized.

It states that “the temperature is dropping, the use of gas canisters and heaters is rising, and unfortunately camp officials have not provided any oversight or education of safe gas use for Moria residents”.

Ricker said she has already filed complaints to the Greek ombudsman regarding nobody evacuating the camp, a lack of forensics at the scene of the fire, no checking of faulty canisters and a lack of doctors and psychologists after the incident.

The lack of medical treatment is not only an issue after incidents like the fire, but a general problem as well. “Most of the medical issues are related to their living conditions,” says Aurelie Ponthieu, Humanitarian Specialist on Displacement at Médecins sans Frontières.

“Then you have additional needs related to chronic disease, and mental issues as well, as you have lots of people who have been through traumatic experiences either through conflicts or violence or difficult situations during the migration journey.”

The boats in which the refugees arrive are often cheaply made and in a terrible condition. The life vests are not always real, and people smugglers fill them with sponges. Have a look yourself:

According to Ponthieu, most of the consultations they have done when in Moria have been mostly linked to very low standards of reception.

“We have started to detect infections due to people catching the cold after long hours waiting to be registered or the inadequacy of the Moria centre,” said Ponthieu. “Skin disease, lack of hygiene, inadequate food, other difficulties and so on.”

Médecins sans Frontières, also known as Doctors without Borders, stopped working from their outposts in Moria in March because they did not agree with the terms of the EU-Turkey deal. They continued providing health care from a clinic in Mytilene with some outreaches to Moria, and mobile clinics in Kara Tepe, another refugee camp for families and minors.

“There is a greater need for assistance because they have been staying for months. Transfers to the mainland are very slow for those who are able to stay in Greece and apply for asylum,” said Ponthieu.

“There is no clear understanding of how long they will stay on the island. It’s going to be more and more difficult with winter which is now here, and the cold weather.”

No Border Kitchen, a group of activists provides shelter and cooking equipment for migrants that left the camps.

Refuge without borders

Hot steam gushes out from the windows of an abandoned warehouse somewhere in the outskirts of Mytilene. In this building, the activists of No Border Kitchen have established what they call their “social center”. It is a place where migrants receive food once a day and seek refuge.

The social center now is not as visible as their previous camp at the Tsamakia beach in Mytilene. They were evicted by the police at that camp early this year on 21 April. “I had the shift and had to be awake until 6 am,” said Patrick, one of the activists of No Border Kitchen.

“But I slept and when I woke up, the police were everywhere. It was the Hellenic Coast Guard, the Border Police and the normal police and they were even on boats. They arrested all of us and sent the refugees to Moria for registration. But almost all of the people could leave the camp on the same day. We looked it up afterwards and the worst they could accuse us would have been illegal camping.”

Today, rice with carrots simmers inside the huge metal pots in their make-shift kitchen. A young Syrian man is eagerly stirring it while other Afghan men cook more rice. Patrick says their names should not be reported as many of the migrants here have no papers.

“Normally, they are supposed to go back to their home countries,” says Patrick. “But even if they are denied asylum, the readmission process takes long. Because of that, many stay on Lesvos, either forced to or by choice, where they live on the streets.”

Patrick is proud of the improvised kitchen they built. “Our kitchen is run mostly by Syrians and Afghans. They decide what’s on the menu and cook on their own,” he says. “It gives them something to work on and a purpose – they don’t even want us to participate anymore.”

If the police finds them, they are taken back to the camps.

Patrick thinks the possibility of being more independent is the main reason why people chose to come to the social center.

“In the camps, there is not much space and privacy. Here they have a safe space where they can come and stay whenever they want”, says Patrick.

Next to the kitchen, a big room is divided into sections. One of them is a separate space just for women, the rest is supposed to be a children’s play area. In the corner, a medical tent is run by a volunteer doctor and a nurse.

“Of course, they can only provide basic medical treatment,” says Patrick.

About 30 minutes before the food distribution, the migrants line up. The food distribution is one of the major problems in the camps, says Patrick. “The residents of Moria told us that they have to wait in line for three hours without sitting to get their food.”

At the Social Center, the migrants get to cook, eat together and even sleep in squatted houses:

While the others are standing in line for their food, Muhammad Sadiq sits on a bench. His two crutches lean against a stone pillar while he watches his son play.

“One of my legs is disabled,” he says. The middle aged man lives in Kara Tepe, a refugee camp for families and minors on Lesvos, with his wife and five children.

“My son brings the food we get here to my wife and children in the camp,” he says.

“The food in the camp is not enough for my family”, Sadiq adds.

Originally, Sadiq lived in Baghlan, a province south from Kunduz in Afghanistan. With his two shops which sold disposables, he earned “good money”, he says. But ongoing attacks of the Taliban, an Islamist fundamentalist political movement waging war in Afghanistan, haunted the 41-year-old man.

“One time, a bomb exploded about 100 meters away from one of my shops. There were many injured people and I had to clean up many glass shards from the street.”

He decided to leave Afghanistan with his family. Despite his disabled leg, which only allowed him to walk with crutches, he took the one month long journey from Afghanistan to the Turkish border. “Sometimes I walked for 20 hours,” he recalls.

But he wouldn’t have embarked on the risky tour if only for himself, the sitting man says. “I did it only for my children. And my wife. But in Greece there are no schools for the children. That’s why I want to go to Germany.”

How he wants to achieve that, he does not know yet. But the thought of staying in Greece makes him sigh.

The ferry going to Turkey and Athens is well secured.

“If they were all on Athens I wouldn’t care, because they will get to go to other countries,” says Cindy. “But here in Mytilene, they can’t do anything, they don’t have opportunities.” Cindy wants to stay here to help for as long as she can. She takes Greek lessons and hopes to find a job in Greece.

“I won’t leave until the last refugee is gone”, the young woman says.

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Christoph Donauer and Martin Choi
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