Asylum seekers on the Greek island of Lesbos are trapped in limbo—confined to filthy, dangerous and overcrowded camps, they must wait months for their asylum claims to be processed. The stakes are high—if their claims are rejected, they face deportation to Turkey. Last Monday, people living in Moria Camp began protesting inhumane treatment and poor conditions. The tension and stress boiled over and, soon, someone had set some of the tents ablaze.
Close to 4,000 people are trapped in the migrant reception centre in Moria. Some have been waiting for months while Greek authorities consider their asylum claims. The overcrowded camp isn’t far from Mytilène Port where many people-- mostly from Africa and the Middle East-- arrive in boats from Turkey. NGOs have frequently complained about the terrible conditions in the camp, which amount to a health and safety risk for its residents. Aid workers recount raw sewage running into tents, contaminated water, snake invasions and high fire risks.
This winter, we spoke to numerous Observers who described the dangerously cold temperatures that descended on Moria (-14C), freezing the many camp residents who were living in summer tents.
On the afternoon of Monday, July 10, a group of camp residents began protesting the inhumane treatment of a failed asylum seeker. Soon, a small group of frustrated and angry men clashed with police and, soon after, one of the tents was ablaze. This is the third time since September 2016 that a deliberate fire has swept the camp.
United Rescue Aid, which provides services in the camp, posted on its Facebook page that the offices of several different NGOs had been burned down. Greek news agency ANA reported that two large tents and two prefabricated units had been destroyed by the flames.
"The offices of humanitarian organisations were ransacked”
Our Observer, Ted (not his real name)-- an activist who fled his native Congo-Brazzaville because he opposed the government-- arrived in the camp in Moria in early December. He sent the France 24 Observers team several videos of the fire that raged through the camp on Monday.
On Monday, a man learned that his claim for asylum in Greece had been rejected for the second time. The police immediately handcuffed him and brought him to prison, which is the first step before he is deported back to Turkey. The scene was absolutely shocking. We are asylum seekers, not criminals!
Several men in the camp began to protest his deportation and the situation quickly spun out of control. Men started throwing rocks at the police, who then let off tear gas. Some of the rioting men ransacked the offices of humanitarian organisations and set fire to some of the camp’s infrastructure.
The situation didn’t calm down until the leaders of the different communities in the camp came to an agreement with the police. The asylum seeker who was originally going to be taken to prison was allowed to stay. People here are demanding better housing conditions and faster and more lenient consideration of their asylum claims. We definitely don’t want to be deported to Turkey.
In a post on Facebook, United Rescue Aid described the same sequence of events, except they specified that the failed asylum seeker who was meant to be deported was originally from Haiti. On Tuesday, the aid group posted a video of the man in question, who explained that he had been allowed to stay in the camp after the protest movement. He didn’t specify how long he had been allowed to stay.
Since March 20, 2016, an agreement between the European Union and Turkey has allowed Greece to deport migrants back to Turkey.
However, the deportation process has met with substantial criticism. In a statement published last May, the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) accused Greece of endangering people in need of protection by illegally deporting Turkish asylum seekers back to Turkey-- including a journalist who was arrested by Turkish authorities immediately after his return.
Delays in processing asylum claims has transformed the Greek islands from places of transit to places of detention, where people waiting for their claims to be processed can remain trapped for up to a year.