Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 18 September 2020

'My daughter’s eyes nearly popped out': Moria turns into living hell

Two days after the Greek refugee camp burnt down, it keeps bursting back into flames

Mahmoud Jassem never expected to be twice made a refugee within Europe’s borders when he fled Syria in 2018 to avoid the military draft.

Mr Jassem, 32, sat with his wife and two daughters on a hot piece of asphalt, a kilometre from the smouldering Moria camp on the Greek island of Lesbos.

He said a tear gas barrage from Greek police followed the initial shock of realising on Sunday night that his family’s tent would soon be on fire.

“My daughter’s eyes nearly popped out and she kept on screaming until we could get her away from the fire and the tear gas,” Mr Jassem, 32, said in his thick Deir Ezzor accent.

“We were expecting that NGOs might come and support us on the day after the fire, but that didn’t happen either.”

The almost 13,000 residents of Europe’s largest and most disreputable refugee camp are receiving scant Greek government support, and have found themselves at the centre of a political battle.

They are caught between the centre-right Greek government and islanders sick of being stuck between the whims of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and an EU policy of perceived humanitarianism.

The islanders and their unwanted refugee guests are stuck on an island that has become Europe’s Nauru and Manus, the outposts to which Australia sent unwanted refugees to keep them off its shores.

Without the NGOs, this will be a total disaster

“The Greeks are relying on the NGOs to provide a lot of the services that the government cannot since they’ve never done it and they’ll never do it,” said Tommy Olsen, the founder of the Aegean Boat Report.

Mr Olsen's organisation tracks boat arrivals and those forcibly sent away on the Aegean Sea between Turkey and Greece.

“Without the NGOs this will be a total disaster,” he said.

Two days after it burnt down, Moria keeps on bursting back into flames.

The large fire that destroyed the camp on Sunday night erupted again, first on Tuesday night and then again on Thursday afternoon.

It seemed as if Moria’s arsonists, whoever they might be, were committed to making the camp uninhabitable.

The carcus of Moria refugee camp, as it keeps on bursting into flames. EPA
The carcus of Moria refugee camp, as it keeps on bursting into flames. EPA

Thousands of asylum-seekers, mostly from Afghanistan, Arab and African countries, dragged their possessions through the streets under the harsh sun.

They protested that they had yet to be fed or offered water.

They claimed police were telling businesses to ban them from entering shops. Authorities began to distribute water and food on Thursday afternoon.

The refugees’ slow progress on the hot asphalt came to an end against lines of riot police, posted a couple of kilometres from the embers of the camp.

Incapable of moving forward, they sought out the scant shade from trucks, riot vans or cardboard standing against the glare, and sat in suffering patience.

The riot vans and refugees on usually deserted roads, and the shops in the town filled with locals wearing masks painted a picture of a place suffering from a pandemic and a collapse in law and order.

Former Moria camp refugees are now sleeping in roadside tents. AFP
Former Moria camp refugees are now sleeping in roadside tents. AFP

“Moria is finished,” said Eman, 24, an Afghan gathered with compatriots by the first police block. “It will never function again as a camp.”

Inside the camp, a few refugees moved among carbonised tents and pathways under fire service airplanes and a hovering helicopter.

Among smoking olive tree stumps and melted metal containers, the only visible pattern on the scorched earth were the bases on which tents had once been pitched.

“Moria is not there to host but to send away, to shout to those others who hope to pass into the European Eden, 'Forget it'," said Dimitris Tsirkas, a journalist and commentator based in Athens.

"'There is no paradise here for you, only hell. And if you managed to escape one hell, we have another even worse one in store for you until you leave, or better still, never come in the first place'."

Greek opposition to migrants has intensified

Five years after Europe opened, then closed its gates to refugees, many Lesbos locals no longer want to see these people on their island, and express their frustration in escalating protests.

Unrest began in February when locals opposed to permanent camps on the island faced down riot police sent from Athens.

Greece’s right-wing government is pandering to its voter base through a policy of reducing the numbers of asylum-seekers by speeding up processes and rejections, and increasingly sending back boats at sea.

Now, after this embarrassing disaster, the government is rushing to house the refugees in military and civilian ships, and thousands of tents.

“So now you have a state of emergency for the next four months and they’re bringing in lots of riot police because they know that this won’t go quietly,” Mr Olsen said.

“The refugees won’t stay put and nor will the locals. Local vigilantes and fascist groups were going around town last night intimidatingly checking the IDs of volunteers.”

Notis Mitarakis, the Greek Minister of Migration, said: "At this moment we have two fronts: that of the migrants blackmailing to be allowed to leave; and unfortunately that of the local authorities and the lack of the necessary responsibility that should be shown during tough times."

Outside Moria, locals faced off on Thursday morning against army bulldozers seeking to start renewing the camp.

For kilometres on both sides of the centre, ragged families continued lugging the few possessions they managed to rescue from the fire, or sat by the roadside, as new plumes of smoke erupted from inside the camp.

Looters had already stripped most tents and local shops of anything valuable.

A refugee with a bike he managed to salvage from the fire. AFP 
A refugee with a bike he managed to salvage from the fire. AFP 

“We don't know who it was who set fire to the camp but they were quickly followed by thieves who stole our refrigerator, clothes and the stock of the shop we used to maintain here,” said Ali, 19, an Afghan refugee from Pakistan.

Ali sorted through the remnants of his intact but looted tent. He spent four years working illegally in Iran before arriving in Greece.

In the absence of a functioning Moria camp, tension on the island will remain high until a more permanent solution is found.

Mr Jassem and his family sipped tea as they prepared to bed down for another night, alongside the safety of two other families.

They left family members and friends as sentries, to protect themselves and to keep an eye out for fresh outbursts of fire.

Updated: September 11, 2020 04:40 AM

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