The overcrowded Moria refugee camp in Greece is where Europe’s ideals—solidarity, human rights, a haven for victims of war and violence—dissolve in a tangle of bureaucracy, indifference, and lack of political will.
The huge number of migrants who sought to enter Europe in 2015 spurred a strengthening of border controls and a rise in the popularity of right-wing parties. Then came Brexit, and Donald Trump, and shifting political winds. It came to this because of the European Union’s inability to set an immigration policy that would help individual member states whose own infrastructure was not enough to bear the burden. Greece was—still is—recovering from a crippling economic crisis at the time of the 2015 migration crisis. Its current conservative government, which took power in July with a more law-and-order approach to immigration, has asked for additional European help. But so did its previous leftist government. Not enough help has yet arrived.
On a hot day last month, I walked around the Moria camp. I heard the cries of children, and also their laughter, and saw women from Afghanistan and Somalia wearing long robes and head scarves. Some baked flatbreads in makeshift tandoor ovens that are undeniably fire hazards; a round Greek man sold fruit from the back of a truck outside the main gate—1.50 euros a kilo for yellow apples and peaches. On the road that abuts the camp wall, I smelled the ripe stench of bags of rotting garbage. Nearby was a natty 20-year-old Afghan man who had set up a makeshift barber shop, with hair sprays and combs, his clippers plugged into an extension cord that stretched through the metal fence into the camp. “I want to go to America,” he told me.
If the Moria camp were to bear a message, it would be: “Welcome to Europe. Now go home.”
And yet people come. And they don’t go home. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Lesbos receives 40 percent of all the arrivals by sea to Greece, and Moria is operating at seven times its capacity. Almost every day, boats arrive on Lesbos from Turkey, carrying migrants. In September alone, 12,500 people arrived in Greece, mostly from Afghanistan and some from Syria. The number of people who have come to Greece since July is the highest since March 2016, when the EU signed a deal with Turkey pledging 6 billion euros to Ankara so that it would keep Syrian refugees fleeing Syria’s civil war inside Turkey, where they receive assistance from the Turkish state.
I suppose that should tell you something about Europe, or Greece, in 2019, about the banalization of a crisis: that what could be a resolvable situation has instead ossified into a routine. The Moria camp is a 10-minute drive from the port of Mitilini, the largest city on Lesbos. The island has long been a tourist haven, but like Lampedusa in Italy, it has become shorthand for a refugee emergency. When I was in Mitilini, a British border-guard vessel and an Italian coast-guard ship shared space with pleasure boats, and in the cafés on the harbor old men held worry beads as they sat for long hours, sipping coffee and playing backgammon.
The route to Moria winds its way up hills, past a crumbling Ottoman-era port, past an industrial compound, until you reach the front gate of the camp. Inside, metal containers used as housing are stacked in levels of two or three. Outside are other encampments, including one run by Movement on the Ground, a Dutch NGO, that has 740 people in 70 tents. Some of the tents have potted flowers outside their entrance flaps. Here, in the olive grove, they try to keep things more human than in the camp itself. Up the road, outside the camp’s walls, white gravel has been spread to make space for larger, sturdier tents that the UNHCR will soon erect to house even more people.
The boats arrive on Lesbos often in the northern part of the island, so close to Turkey that my phone picked up Turkish cellphone networks. Here, boats have been arriving almost every day in the inky darkness of night. Once they pass from Turkey into Greece, a border writ in water, they are brought ashore with the help of Frontex, Europe’s border police. A small and jolly group of volunteers—from Ireland, England, Iceland, Australia, the United States, Germany, and France—works for NGOs that keep a lookout. The volunteers rush to the beaches to deliver blankets and water and food when they learn that boats will land. Kind, young, engagé, they, too, are part of the normalization of the crisis. There’s even a bit of nostalgia in their voices when they talk about the hot days of 2015.
Greece’s government said recently that it would increase border patrols in the water and speed up the mechanisms for processing asylum seekers, keeping those who qualify for refugee status and sending back those who don’t. Last month, it passed a bill to make deporting people back to Turkey easier. That bill received fierce criticism from NGOs that said it would scale back protections for the vulnerable. (In practice, Greece deports very few people, Theodoros Alexellis of the UNHCR told me.) The government also said it would start to relocate people from island camps such as Moria to the Greek mainland, where they would have better access to medical and other facilities, but those words have yet to translate into action. In Greece or in Europe.
I think of a small girl I met outside the gates to the Moria camp one afternoon. She pointed to my notebook and then to herself. She wanted me to give it to her. I wavered, she insisted, but then I shook my finger no. Better to keep the notebook, and write that she and thousands of other children are stranded here in Greece, with no clear future, and it’s on Europe’s conscience to act.