By Chau Mui
ADELINA FONTES IS CURRENTLY STATIONED IN CAMP MORIA AS A VOLUNTEER IN THE ISLAND OF LESBOS, GREECE. PRIOR TO THE REFUGEE CRISIS, LESBOS WAS A POPULAR TOURIST SPOT FOR ITS BEAUTIFUL BEACHES. TODAY THE HOTELS ARE STILL FULLY BOOKED, BUT INSTEAD OF FANNY PACK RIDDEN TOURISTS, IT’S FILLED WITH REFUGEES WHO’VE TRAVELED FOR HOURS BY BOAT AND BUS IN THE HOPES OF STARTING A NEW LIFE ACROSS EUROPE.
“THIS IS JUST THE FIRST STEP OF THEIR JOURNEY”
The term refugees is a broad one, and surrounds more than just the Syrians. The current refugee epidemic categorizes Syrians, Afghans and Iraqis as “Priority Refugees”. In Camp Moria, they are the only ones able to get paperwork to enter Europe.
Economic migrants such as Moroccans, Pakistanis, Algerians and others escaping economic turmoil are caught in limbo on the island. Unable to get paperwork to enter Europe, migrants pretend to be Syrian, but are usually caught by Frontex, the European Union’s border patrol.
INSIDE THE UNHCR
One of the most notable branches of NGOs (non governmental organization) on the ground is the UNHCR (United Nations Higher Commissioner for Refugees). In Greece, every single refugee must go through the UNHCR in order to get paperwork to continue their trip. Over 1,000 refugees are stationed at the UNHCR at any given time, but resources and workers are limited. Food is provided once a day through organizations like “Good Samaritan” and “Save the Children”. Workers have limited hours despite the amount of people arriving on shore at night and only recently did they get a 24 hour medic.
“THEY DON’T HAVE ENOUGH SUPPLIES FOR THE REFUGEES…SOMETIMES WE HAVE TO SNEAK FOOD AND DRY CLOTHES UNDER THE FENCE TO THEM”
Refugees are expected to wait in wet clothes for hours, even days. Two children died last week from Hypothermia while waiting on line. Hypothermia is the leading cause of death amongst refugees in the camps. Private organizations and volunteers outside of the compound fill the holes that NGOs like the UNHCR can’t cover. Independent volunteers like Adelina feed, dress and prepare hundreds of people a day before they make their trek across Europe. Out of a whopping 28 countries within the European Union, only Germany and Austria currently have open doors for refugees.
INSIDE CAMP MORIA
It’s Winter in Greece.
On the ground, volunteers are running out of men’s shoes and refugees must wear socks with warming blankets tucked inside. The smell of wet clothes, un showered bodies, vomiting refugees and baby diapers permeate the air. Over 1,000 people stay within the UNHCR compound. When they run out of space, private volunteers set up tents outside of the compound for families to stay in. Economic migrants have stayed here for weeks in political limbo for a lack of better options. They can be fined up to $10,000USD for sneaking into another country.
“WE HAVE TO TELL PEOPLE TO LIE AND SAY THEY ARE GOING TO GERMANY OR ELSE THEY’LL BE FORCED TO TURN AROUND”
From Camp Moria, refugees must either take a cab or bus to the port in Mitilene. Sometimes taxis increase their rates so much that refugees walk over an hour to the port. With the Greek economy in turmoil, strikes happen frequently and refugees are left in the dust. Just last week, ferries were on strike all weekend. From Athens, bus routes generally take refugees to Macedonia, where they will show paperwork to make their way to Germany or Austria.
Before getting to Camp Moria, refugees must hire a smuggler in Turkey to take them across the water to Greece. Last year over 600,000 people people entered Europe from Turkey’s point of entry. A small number compared to the 2.2 million Syrians, 300,000 Iraqis and 50,000 Afghans who are currently living in Turkey trying to make a new home for themselves. The number continues to grow. Last year Turkey was offered over $3.48 billion USD to tighten us security on it’s shores and mitigate the refugee situation. In return, Turkish citizens would have visa free travel to Schengen countries and a deal to join the EU.
What does tightening up security in Turkey mean?
It means the demand for a boat goes up. Refugees pay approximately $1,000 Euros per person for the trip to Greece. These plastic raft like boats are overpacked (sometimes with over 60 people in a boat made for 30) and sent off to sea in the dead of night to escape getting caught by border patrol. Smugglers send off these boats on their own sometimes, choosing one of the refugees on the boat to man the ship. Last week alone, two boats capsized, 43 people, 17 of which were children, drowned. It seems refugees are paying more to die than to live.
“THERE WAS A BOAT LAST WEEK WHERE THE ADULTS WERE UP TO THEIR NECKS IN WATER, AND THEY WERE LITERALLY HOLDING UP BABIES ABOVE THEIR HEADS FOR HOURS”
Last week five volunteers of Humanity First and Prem Aid were arrested after they rescued refugees from a sinking boat. They were accused of “human smuggling” and now face up to four years in prison. One of the members, Salam was ordered to pay 10,000 Euros to make bail. This is a situation where harsh politics are thrown around in place of drawing humanity from one another.
Over 3500 refugees died crossing the waters in 2015.
THE WORLD REACTS
Last week Denmark announced they would start confiscating money and jewels from refugees to pay for their stay. Chinese artist Ai Wei Wei shut down his exhibition in Denmark over the Danish laws regarding the refugee status. The EU is in talks to set up concentration camps for refugees in Greece. Sweden is considering expelling over 80,000 refugees this year.
Since 2012, the US has only received 2,000 refugees. This year, President Obama vowed to take in 10,000 refugees. Canada has opted to take in 25,000 refugees. Australia has vowed to take in 12,000 refugees.
Compare these numbers with some of the other European countries. Germany, one of the only countries with it’s doors still open granted 44,910 refugees last year and registered 240,000; expecting more than a million this year. Lebanon has 1.2 million refugees. Turkey, as mentioned earlier has 2.2 million.
The European Union has been criticized for it’s mishandling of the refugees.
HOW YOU CAN HELP
The only way we can help is to educate ourselves and keep the conversation going. No solution can be found if no one is talking about the problem. One of the reasons for the backlash in the US for accepting refugees is the fear that many Syrian refugees may be “terrorists” or ISIS sympathizers. This is ignorance. They are being accused of what they are running away from. Maybe if people realized that these refugees are not terrorists, that there is room to help, that we could open the doors a little more.
“EITHER WE REBUILD SYRIA OR WE START SPREADING THE INFLUX OF REFUGEES ACROSS THE GLOBE AND NOT JUST EUROPE.”
The conflict in Syria will only continue, and pretty soon Germany and Austria will have to close their doors too as they hit oversaturation. The refugees will be landlocked in Greece and Turkey. Turkey, with it’s precarious history with the Kurds is another recipe for disaster. The Kurds have been persecuted for years, even as recently as 1993. The question remains, how will refugees be treated in Turkey and other countries when they are no longer wanted?
We need the rest of the world to step in and accept refugees so that it’s not just on a few countries that are handling the breadth of people. Besides reaching out to your government, you can also donate money and clothing to volunteer organizations on the ground.
The refugees urgently need:
– Warm Winter Jackets (in all sizes)
– Socks, folded together (in all sizes)
– Waterproof walking shoes sizes 39 – 43, tied together
– Sweat pants/trousers for men in sizes S/M and warm leggings for women
To send clothing and supplies:
Better Days of Moria
PIPKA CAMP, Neapoli, Mitilene 81100, Greece
Contact: [email protected]
To donate to Adelina:
To follow Adelina’s day by day accounts on the ground:
About the author:
Chau is a freelance writer living in New York City, but mostly exploring the world. Last year she traveled across 12 countries, 33 cities and 5 states. To follow her adventures, visit www.chaufornow.com, a travel blog dedicated to the outdoors and off the grid adventures.
Feature photo Syrian refugees via Shutterstock