thirty-two year old Marizghe Ashraf is folding and stacking the blankets that the two families who share the tent used last night. As many as nine people are crammed into a tiny space, which they use as a bedroom at night, but becomes a living and dining room during the day in the new refugee camp on the island of Lesbos. The government of Greece has built the new camp in an old shooting range, after a blaze destroyed the one in Mória. That was one month ago. In theory the new facility was a temporary solution, but Marizghe and the 7,500 people who are struggling together with her have already spent three weeks in the new camp and no date has been set for them to move on. Now the authorities are talking of summer next year. That is over eight months from now.
Marizghe delicately lays down her son’s three teddies on top of the pile of blankets. Alireza was five when they arrived in Lesbos and he will turn seven soon. His mother tries to keep everything clean, but it is not easy: it rained during the night and the camp has become a quagmire. The men had to step outside in the middle of the night to dig a drainage trench so that their new home wouldn’t get flooded.
“No mother can begin to imagine how you feel when you set your child on a boat”, she says while holding back her tears, “but I didn’t get to go to school and I don’t want him to be illiterate, too. He deserves a chance”, she says as she pulls herself together. Still, she admits that this is not what she expected from Europe: “When we fled Iran I was looking forward to an education, sending my son to school, starting a new life. But I can’t think anymore”.
Marizghe is a two-time refugee: she was born in Iran to Afghan parents, like her husband, a carpenter by trade. They paid people smugglers €5,000 to be taken to Lesbos and now they have scrambled every penny to pay the legal fees of a lawyer who will lodge an appeal on their behalf after their asylum application was turned down twice. Their two years on the island can be summarised as a struggle to survive camp brawls —she showed us a video she made of a young man in his death throes after being stabbed to death in Mória (“they killed him to steal his mobile phone”) and waiting for international protection that never comes. Her son has never set foot in a school and now she wonders whether all that suffering might have been for nothing.
We hear shouting and a commotion. Standing between the tents, a man is holding a four-foot long snake. They knock it out with a club. Conditions in the camp are, in many ways, even worse than in Mória. That might be why the press isn’t allowed on site. There are no showers, only chemical toilets and few water outlets. Some areas still have no electricity. People have to wash themselves and their kitchen utensils in the sea, where they also do the laundry. Collecting daily food and water rations requires a two-hour queue, once a day. It is impossible to take any safety measures against the coronavirus.
When people were forced to move into the new camp —after a week of sleeping rough in the aftermath of the Mória fire— everyone was tested and the 243 refugees who came back positive were sent to an isolation area surrounded by barbed wire. Officially, there are 25 active cases at the moment. A police detachment of 250 officers is spread all over the camp, with a vantage point at the top of a hill, and they watch all the comings and goings.
Marco Sandrone, the Lesbos coordinator of Médecins Sans Frontières, complains that they have wasted a chance to end one of the darkest pages in the history of the EU. “After the blaze, the government of Greece and the EU could have done some soul-searching and ended the policy of holding refugees on Greek islands, which began with the agreement between Turkey and the EU. But now the European Commission’s new deal on migration keeps insisting on watching Europe’s borders and deportation. It is humiliating to keep people in a military zone, with no shade, no showers and sharing tents. It is unacceptable in the middle of a pandemic”.
Autumn is mild on the islands of the Aegean Sea, but the humidity and cold sea wind can be felt already. Winter will be tough. The Greek government’s EU-endorsed plan is to keep the refugees in these conditions at least until the summer, once a new enclosed camp —which local residents and authorities oppose— is operational. In the meantime, a small number of the more vulnerable cases have been moved to the Greek mainland.
Still, the meaning of the word “vulnerable” is not entirely clear on Lesbos. Next to a Lidl supermarket, where refugees shop all day (they are allowed to leave the camp from 8 am to 8 pm) an Afghan couple that don’t wish to be named push around a pram full of blankets and bags. She is holding a two-month-old baby girl and her older brother, who is fourteen, helps them. They have another five children. They left Kunduz eighteen months ago, the city where the US air force “mistakenly” bombed a Médecins Sans Frontières hospital in 2015. They have been on the island for one year, but they haven’t been able to get an asylum application interview. They would like to travel to Germany: “Their president says that refugees are human beings, too”, they explain. They are driven by a desire to give their children a better future, but they are beginning to feel short of strength: “Back [in Afghanistan] children couldn’t go to school because of the Taliban, but they can’t do that here either, because there were no schools in Móira”.
Brunette Abo is 32-year-old woman from Congo who is getting a bottle of orange soda for her three children from the supermarket. Her husband is a mechanic who was persecuted and fled the country. She was left alone and was raped. Now she says she is afraid to leave the tent after dark: there are no streetlights in the new Mória. And nothing is likely to change in the camp over the coming months.