Island Prison: Inside Moria, Europe's Largest Refugee Camp
Updated: Apr 16, 2019
On the island of Lesvos, Greece, twenty minutes from the luxury villas of Mytilene, streets of scattered life jackets hint at the high number of stranded refugees. With these life jackets migrants discard their hopes for asylum: upon arrival to Lesvos they are placed in Moria, the European Union’s (EU) largest refugee camp and a symbol of its inaction over refugee suffering.
Moria epitomizes the tragedies of the refugee crisis. The recent shutdown of the Greek-Macedonian border forces the refugees there to remain in Greece, which, in the midst of an economic crisis, is ill-equipped to support them. Due to their geographical proximity to Turkey, islands like Lesvos disproportionately bear the brunt of this challenge. As a result, Moria holds 9,000 inhabitants—three times the camp’s capacity—and is fenced in by barbed wire. Families with children and grandparents live in makeshift tents and must endure a dangerous lack of food, sanitation, and heating during the winter. One doctor serves the entirety of the camp, and deaths from curable infection or suicide are frequent.
The harsh conditions are accompanied by a dearth of bureaucratic assistance. Reliable legal counsel is near-nonexistent, forcing refugees to navigate the EU’s complex asylum application alone, often in languages in which they are not fluent. In addition, the application process is severely backlogged and almost guarantees an extended stay in Moria.
The camp has drawn considerable attention from human rights activists who, in 2016, launched an investigation to determine why it was in such decrepit condition, despite more than €1 billion in aid from the EU. Camp volunteers believe they have an answer: Moria’s decay is a deliberate attempt to discourage asylum seekers from coming in the first place. Brutal conditions in the camps on the periphery of the Euro bloc act as a major disincentive to refugees hoping to reach the mainland, especially when the asylum application process may force refugees to stay in such a camp for upwards of six months.
Intentional or not, the EU's poor management of its aid distribution has created financial chaos. No single entity administers the money’s allocation, despite several departments of the Greek government and twenty non-governmental organizations receiving funds. The Greek Ministries of Migration and Finance deny any government maladministration, but Moria’s disrepair indicates otherwise.
Recent policies enacted by the EU have added to refugee's difficulties. In 2016, a deal between the EU and Turkey forced the return of more than 200 refugees to the latter. Known as the EU-Turkey Statement, the policy states that for every illegal refugee deported, the EU will accept one refugee legally. The strategy is intended to discourage refugees from arriving via human smuggling, however, policymakers fail to realize that refugees who elicit the help of human smugglers are desperate and often lack another choice.
The EU-Turkey Statement also undermines safeguards implemented by the Greek Parliament that prevent mass deportations of children, single parents, the sick, and the elderly. Human rights lawyers fear the deal will permit deportations before refugees are given a fair asylum application and are concerned that the EU will implement a similar deal for southern Italy and Spain, where migrants and refugees arrive from Northern Africa.
To alleviate Moria’s harsh conditions and the struggles of Euro-bound refugees in general, the EU must improve its application process, perhaps by providing Moria and similar camps funds for lawyers, translators, and social services. It should also scrap the EU-Turkey Statement. The deal’s premise claims there is a proper way to flee violence—but this is absurd. Refugees escaping war-ravaged Syria or famished South Sudan should not be additionally burdened by bureaucratic labyrinths.
Moria may lie within EU borders, but refugee suffering is not bound by geography: it is matched by camps throughout the Mediterranean, Africa, the Middle East, and South Asia. Despite inaction from those with the power to reform the camps—like the EU—refugees will endure. Developed countries cannot wish away the refugee crisis, nor can they pretend they cannot do more to help.