Written by Ophélie Lawson.
On Tuesday 8th of September, the famous Moria camp was consumed with fire. Thousands of refugees were forced to sleep rough on the street with no access to health and medical assistance and very poor access to food.
Paul, an asylum seeker from Congo RDC, was amongst the people who found himself forced to live on the streets. Paul has been waiting for his asylum to be granted for 16 months in Lesvos. On the 19th of September, Paul, along with every single person that was left in the street of Lesvos was moved into the new camp. Europe’s new largest hotspot has been built in a peninsula called ‘Akra Asfali’ which in Greek roughly translates as ‘Safe Extemity’. However, for asylum seekers, it feels the farthest thing from safe. Unlike the old camp, the new camp is lacking the space and capacity to hold extra activities such as schools, language classes and so on, that are supporting the refugee population in their mental health whilst living in these inhumane conditions.
From the old Moria camp to the streets of Lesvos, and now to the new camp, Paul’s testimony of life in the new camp gives us a first-hand account of new horrible living conditions asylum seekers suffer through on the island of Lesvos, Greece.
What was the process of moving from the streets of Lesvos to the new camp like ?
Paul: Moving from the street to the new camp, it was not easy. We had been just surviving in a inhuman place.
When I left the old Moria camp, I expected and hoped for more than what we experienced. I left the old camp full of stress and anxiety, with a fire behind me. 8 metre high.
Everyone was in distress, looking for their family members or friends. We all lost something, most of our material belongings got burnt. Losses and material damage for everyone, while we all had one destination in mind: the port of Mytilini, which is between the old camp and the centre of Mytilini. But unfortunately for us, the police came and intercepted us using truncheons. They used violence by throwing tear gas at us to stop everyone and prevent us from entering the city center. All this without taking into account the pregnant women, the mothers with their children that were amongst us. After these severe attacks, they started barricading roads to prevent people from moving forward. There were more than 12,000 people behind me who just had to abandon the camp that was on fire.
You could hear screams everywhere, chaos, disorders, people crying because of the tear gas in their eyes nobody could stand, all of this in the dark, late at night. It was so frightening I thought I was in hell on earth.
The next morning we tried to cross the barriers that the police had erected but they would not let us pass. They had no pity on us. We had no water to drink, nor food. Everything behind us all had gone up in smoke. People started to get dehydrated. After a few hours, MSF (Doctor Without Borders) came and they started giving first aid to pregnant women, children, and very vulnerable people. For the rest of us, everything we tried to do to help ourselves was met with no success. The police had surrounded us and we were trapped in one place. In the street we were trapped in all the shops and supermarkets were closed, even those of us with a little money to buy a few things to eat didn’t have access to anything. My friend and I looked for a way to get inside the city center, unfortunately, we did not succeed. The people of the village we had passed through began to yell at us, telling us that we had coronavirus. I felt very humiliated that day. 5 minutes later the police came and dispersed us with truncheons to make us return to where we were trapped. We protested and marched in the same street we were trapped on, to protest our current conditions and called for us to be moved from Lesvos, a place where we all feel so uncomfortable after seeing how everybody treats us, and how they all seem to hate us. I spent 10 days on those streets, under the stars.
Many vehicles that tried to bring us some things to eat would be stopped by the police from accessing where we were.
After 10 days, the new camp was set up to accommodate us temporarily, in which the authorities forced us to enter.
Pictures from the protest that took place in the street of Lesvos on the 11th of September
How did you feel during that whole process ?
It was one of the most awful and horrible transitions of my life. From start to finish, I went through the hardest moment, through inhumane treatment, mistreatment by the police, starvation, military brutality, no food or water to drink.
There were times when I felt like committing suicide, to end once and for all this suffering that seems to never end, it is a hardship that I would not wish even on my enemy to go through.
Entering the new camp was also not easy at all, it felt like we were receiving the same treatment as deserting prisoners, when we force them to enter a cell by force. Yet we have not done anything to deserve this treatment because we were harmless, everything happened with brutality and threat. We were not given the right to claim or to refuse anything.
What were you expecting from the new camp?
Paul: In the new camp I was expecting everything to change, it’s like when you move to a new house and everything is new. But it was not this kind of change.
The informal markets are gone, the presence of the police inside the camp is less, but the asylum procedures continue in the same, slow way. The change of the new dates for the big interviews for asylum claims take a lot of time, the interviews’ decisions are not published on time.
My expectations of what the new camp could be were not true because the system continues to be the same, it’s like you drive in the same bus but you only change the driver. This puts us under a lot of stress, we have limited hours to walk around, no place for entertainment etc…
What was your first day inside the new camp, that is meant to be a temporary camp, like ?
Paul: The first day inside the new camp was hard. The queue was so big you had to wait hours and hours to get checked in and everything was done with violence and police brutality, without respect for any of us. It was scary and painful. Inside the camp I had to spend the night outside, they closed the registration before it came to us and many of us just got abandoned inside the camp with no tent, nothing to sleep in or anything to protect us against the bad weather. We still couldn’t rest. We slept on the pavement on gravels and rocks, on a wet surface, in an old military firing range, without access to any sanitation. Everything we had for cover was burnt in the old Moria camp, we had to wait until the next day around 10am to register, after the registration we finally settled inside tents.
Can you tell us about the new living conditions?
Paul: The new living conditions are not easy, the sanitary situation is completely catastrophic. No showers, this means that many women are exposed to urinary infections and other transmissible diseases. No proper toilets, food is once a day, the electricity is not permanent, we are always exposed to bad weather, many services are limited. Everyone is accused of having the coronavirus and they have quarantined without any treatment. The health situation it’s even worse, all of the medical clinics are mobile and there are no medical NGOs allowed to set up a permanent space inside the camp. In the event of an emergency during the night, we are all screwed.
For the food it’s really painful because we only receive it once a day. It’s not good food. Sometimes it’s not well cooked so we have to recook it to be able to eat it properly. With the electricity issues you can stay a whole day waiting for the electricity to cook, on top of that the food distribution is always late.
We are exposed to bad weather, we have floods everytime it rains. Everytime we need to use motor pumps to evacuate the rain water. It can remain stagnant for 3 or even 4 days. For electricity we depend on generators which do not work very well, when there is no fuel you are in the pitch black. For drinking water it is the same thing.
What about your asylum claim ?
Paul: For the continuation of my asylum procedure, I am still waiting, I have been here for 16 months with 2 rejections followed by appeals but so far I have not received any results or a clear answer.After a first rejection you have to look for a private lawyer and need to pay more that 1500 € for the continuity of procedures. Imagine me, who is a refugee who has not received any money from the UNHCR, for 5 months now, because I have 2 rejections, where can I collect 1500 € to give to a lawyer?
This is how the Greek government forces us to live in their lands.
Do you feel safe in that new camp ?
Paul: From a security point of view, there are a lot of things that have improved compared to the old Moria camp, there is a strong police presence who circulate 24 hours a day, patrolling police on foot and in vehicles, there are drones flying the area at all times, all entries and exits of immigrants are monitored by identification number records accompanied by systematic searches with metal detector devices, all alcoholic beverages are prohibited in the area. Inside the camp, cigarettes are also prohibited, small informal sales and street vendors are always arrested by the police, if you are caught with any toxic substance such as drugs you are severely punished.
Can you describe the new camp infrastructures ?
Paul: In terms of infrastructure, there are still a lot of things that are being added because the area was an uninhabited area, an empty lot, a former shooting range, which they are trying to transform into a refugee camp. There is not sustainable infrastructure, it’s because of this that there are still not any showers or definitive toilets. Even the administrative areas are still tents, and the clinics are tents. During the rain the tents remain under water because there are no rainwater drainage pipes, this causes flooding after each shower or storm, the water is evacuated by motor pumps, I never knwo what to expect, it changes from one day to the next.
Is the new camp worse than the old camp?
Paul: Actually neither one nor the other if it is to make a choice.
How is the black community holding up?
Paul: Here in the new camp the black community is a bit far from other communities. This is for security reasons. We are known as a nonviolent community, so our area is less secure, we have our own food line, our own taps but no plastic toilet. In comparison to the other communities. Patrols are done even during the day.
If there are some NGOs who want to donate things to support us, they have to stay outside the camp and we go to meet them to pick up some basic necessities that they are offering us.
Who is managing the new camp ?
Paul: The new camp is managed by the Greek authorities, all NGOs and services inside the camp are controlled by them. To be able to work inside the camp, you have to accept the Greek conditions and requirements. Here, we are slowly dying. I have been here for 16 months in LESVOS. I lived and suffered through 3 fires, I do not know when my situation will ever get better. If anyone of goodwill could hear our voices.