Here at Moria Camp


Dear Mom:

There’s a strong wind blowing in from the south. This could make the seas choppy for inbound refugees, many of whom don’t know how to swim. In addition to illness and injury, drownings are a big problem here. I attended a burial yesterday of twelve bodies, and evidently there are sixty more at the morgue. Weather like this complicates an already difficult situation, and the volunteers on the northern beaches may be in for a long night. I’m further south, where our immediate concern is how the cold and rain will affect conditions in the camps.

You asked about the camps.

After the refugees arrive, they must register with the Greek police before being allowed to transit further into the European Union. There are two main processing centers where this happens. The camp in Kara Tepe is for Syrian families. It’s clean and organized and offers a number of services; the IRC directs them to numbered tents for sleeping, for instance, while the MSF and Médecins du Monde provide medical care. Still, the refugees don’t stay very long. Because they’re fleeing a war zone, Syrians are given priority status and receive fairly quickly the registrations that allow them to transit through Greece. They’re are often in and out of the camp within a few hours, at which point they head to the port city of Mytilene for the ferry to Athens before continuing to Macedonia and beyond. Certainly nobody wants to be a refugee. But as far as camps go, the one for Syrians is pretty good.

The camp for non-Syrians is a totally different story. It’s located a few kilometers away in Moria, and was originally a prison before being converted into a processing center. When refugees arrive, they’re given a slip of paper with a number on it. A small dry-erase board, the kind you might use to take notes or write messages, hangs by one of the gates. When a refugee’s number appears, he or she lines up to enter the facility, where a police officer takes fingerprints and processes the registration. Once refugees pass through the gate, it’s only an hour or so before they can leave and rejoin their Syrian colleagues for the trek north. The problem, though, is that it can take up to a week for their numbers to be called, and this is where the experience goes from being an inconvenience to a humanitarian crisis.

The main facility is small — you could walk around it in five minutes — and doesn’t really provide refugees with anywhere to sleep. The UNHCR erected a few dozen plastic shelters large enough for a family or two, but there are thousands of people in the camp. Most try to find space in one of the donated tents in the olive grove surrounding the compound. If they can’t, they can either fashion some kind of a tarp — I’ve seen large plastic UN bags suspended from string — or sleep outside. Fortunately, the evening temperature on the island has hovered between 50-60 degrees. Still, this can feel cold once the sun goes down, and the UN blankets are thin and tend to run out quickly. As a result, many refugees spend their nights huddled around campfires. Most of the olive branches have been burned already, so refugees have resorted to burning plastic and anything else they can find. On my first night as a volunteer, a medic and I walked in our reflective yellow vests through grove, where many refugees complained of coughs and other respiratory ailments caused by the acrid smoke that hovers in the air.

The smell of plastic, however, is nothing compared to the stench of raw sewage. While there are three concrete outhouses beyond the fence (plus a small handful of portables), they overflowed long ago and have since become troughs of human waste. The smell is so overpowering that some volunteers don surgical masks whenever they walk by the affected areas, and I drink as little water as possible in the hours leading up to my shift. I was showing a newly arrived Iraqi family around the camp a few nights ago. As we passed the bathroom the father turned to me and asked, “Why so dirty?”

Just as it’s difficult to parse a zebra from the herd, at some point in the chaos individuals blur into a backdrop of need; you see this person as “needs a blanket” and that person as “has no socks.” Maybe it was the matter-of-fact way he asked it — or maybe because I realized that, had your father not decided in the 1940s to emigrate to the United States, I could have easily been a refugee myself — but there was something about the Iraqi man’s question that jostled me. For all I know, I suddenly thought, This guy was an accountant in Baghdad who helped his daughter with her math homework and listened to Beethoven on his way to work. Now he’s at a refugee camp in Greece trying to find a place to sleep.

The only way I could think to respond was to put my hand on his shoulder and say, “This must be so disorienting. I’m sorry.” But my Arabic isn’t very good and he was carrying a sleeping child. So I just shrugged and kept walking.

Two weeks ago I helped treat an Afghan teenager who had been sleeping when someone accidentally overturned a pot of boiling water onto his foot. Much of the skin had sheered off in a thin layer, crumpled by his toes like a t-shirt on the floor, and he was highly susceptible to infection given the conditions in Moria. Broken bones. Theft. Beatings. Rape. While I haven’t witnessed any of these myself, I hear they’re not uncommon. The situation here is better than the ones many of the refugees are fleeing. Still, that may not seem much of a silver lining to someone who has trench foot and hasn’t eaten in two days.

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This isn’t to say it’s all bad. Children make up games to play during the day; I watched a group of Afghan teenagers practice volleyball sets with a ball they’d found and a pair of young girls crayon in a coloring book beneath the barbed wire. My shift ends at 6am. I’ll occasionally shoot portraits before going back to the hotel, and the smiles seem genuine. I was speaking one evening to an officer at the gate by the road. He told me that he was supposed to be manning a guard booth, but when he opened the door he’d found teenagers asleep on the floor. I asked why he didn’t wake them. “We’re all human,” he said.

It’s not all bad. At the end of the day, though, Moria camp is still a prison. And it wasn’t built for this many people.

That said, it doesn’t seem like it would cost that much to add shelters, construct bathrooms, provide basic food service, and hire additional officers to speed up registrations. I don’t know whose responsibility this would be — the UN, the Greek government, or the European Union — but I suspect it wouldn’t be that difficult to improve the experience for non-Syrian refugees.

But here’s the thing: I’m not sure that anybody actually wants to.

I was speaking with a German volunteer a few nights ago who explained that his country is aging and needs young workers to bolster the tax base. Many of the Syrian refugees are well educated and relatively affluent. However, many of the other refugees aren’t. And while the Syrians are war refugees whom EU countries are obliged to accept, there is no such requirement for economic migrants looking for work.

Given that many European governments are already worried about the sustainability of their social safety nets, I can understand why they would be weary of accepting millions of new, poorly educated migrants. If a Bangladeshi twenty-something can’t find a job in Dhaka, a policymaker may reasonably ask, how likely is he to find one in Berlin? From a government’s perspective, not only might these migrants not contribute meaningfully to the economy, but they may also require exactly the types of services that are already under strain. (It’s the same reason health insurance companies are raising rates: They’re concerned about having too many sick people in the pool.) On top of the economic concerns are safety concerns. When societies fail to successfully integrate migrants, it often results in a widespread feeling of second-class citizenship that many blame for the recent attacks in Paris. Earlier this month I read a story about Sumte, Germany, a 102-person village that received 750 migrants. Certainly this is an extreme example, but I can’t even imagine what “successful integration” looks like here.

A few days ago I photographed a father cradling his infant son. He said he was from Iran and asked whether I’d heard the rumors about Macedonia. I Google’d “Macedonia refugee news” and found a Financial Times article which described how, hours earlier, Macedonia and Serbia had both sealed their borders to everyone but Syrians (ISIS), Iraqis (ISIS), and Afghans (ISIS and Taliban). He asked what I thought he should do. Even though it would be colder in the north, I knew it wasn’t weather that he was racing but the prospect of more widespread border closings.

“I think you should go,” I told him. “Do you have a coat?”

In a recent Guardian video, a Pakistani man complains of Moria, “So bad, the conditions here.”
“Before you came here,” the reporter asks, “Did you hear that it was easy to come?”
“Ah,” the main replies. “The people say it’s so easy.”

An estimated 3000-8000 refugees arrive to Lesbos each day from everywhere from Morocco to Bangladesh, Nigeria to Iran. I even read of a mother who brought her daughter from Haiti to join the exodus. Each day new crowds march up the hill into the Moria camp, where conditions are unlike anything I’ve ever seen. Yet while this may be a case of inadvertent neglect, it’s also possible that whoever’s responsible for the camp is intentionally leaving it in a poor state in order to discourage more people from coming. It’s possible that the powers-that-be want would-be migrants like the Pakistani gentleman to realize that, no, it’s not “so easy” here: that it’s in fact very hard. I understand why he came. But I also understand why many EU countries didn’t want him to.

And for me, that’s why this isn’t just one of the most significant human migrations in the past century. It’s also one of the most profound ethical dilemmas, a dilemma encapsulated in a simple question: Should they improve the conditions in Moria or not? And I don’t know if there’s a right answer.

What I do know, though, is that the camp is filthy. It stinks. There are only two water spigots for thousands of people, and the only reliable source of food are the Dutch volunteers who deliver apples in the morning and sardines at night. I know the crisis is so difficult as to be in some cases literally unbearable. One of my colleagues found an Afghan man laying by the side of the road. Weeks ago he watched as Taliban fighters executed six of his family members — I’m told they tore his cousin apart limb by limb — and he had simply collapsed on his way to camp.

I’ll head to Moria in an hour. One of the jobs my fellow volunteers and I will do tonight will be to walk around the camp gathering vulnerable families — parents with small children and nowhere to sleep — and bringing them into the prison dorms I mentioned earlier; even though there are no mattresses and the families will sleep on the floor, at least they’ll be out of the cold. Whatever the geopolitics, these people are here and they don’t deserve to freeze.

Since I started writing you, the winds have died down and the skies have cleared. That’s good. However, next week’s forecast shows four days of rain. That will turn an already unsanitary camp into a breeding ground for illness, and the olive groves into a muddy, unlivable mess. We won’t have enough clothes if everyone gets wet, and I’m not sure how many blankets the UN will be able to provide. The weather’s been good since I arrived, mom, but I don’t know how we’ll cope if the rains extinguish all the fires.

November 21, 2015