By: Jessica Duronio
(Lesvos, Greece) — Inside the gates of Moria Refugee Camp on the island of Lesvos, there are locked gates for some people’s protection. There are wire fences. There are rows of temporary housing units stacked inside with bunk beds where thousands of people are waiting. They wait for months on end for word of their future. Moria is both a refugee camp and a processing center for the refugees who make their way across the Aegean Sea to the shores of Lesvos, and it is the first stop for many on a long journey to a new life in Europe. The residents inside describe it as “no good” “prison” and “Hell.”
The frustration of the refugees can manifest in riots such as the one in Moria on July 11, 2017 at 3:00am. This particular riot was meant to convey the anger refugees felt toward the asylum process, as residents of the camp threw rocks at the Asylum Service’s offices within the camp, tore at the fencing, and set fires in the surrounding area.
Ariel Ricker, Executive Director of Advocates Abroad attributes actions like these to the long asylum processes refugees endure. “All you do here is wait,” says Ricker “you know people go crazy when they wait. You have to give them hope but you can’t build up their hope, and that’s something that is being very poorly handled here [Lesvos].”
Representatives from Doctors of the World have noticed a rise in mental health cases amongst refugees in 2016, and attribute these cases to the waiting process, poor living conditions, and hopelessness refugees often experience. This environment, they claim, stems from the closure of European borders that trapped 50,000 refugees in Greece with the asylum process as the only path to move into Europe in combination with the EU/Turkey agreement that restricts migration flow to the Greek islands.
Those on the islands are stuck until they receive a determination on their status as refugees. Those granted refugee status, which entitles them to international protection, can then apply for asylum in Greece and later, relocation to another European Union member state. For those who are not granted refugee status, their journey into Europe officially ends.
“Greece has become a sort of dead end, or at least a very slow, difficult path for refugees.” Says Stathis Poularakis, a representative of Doctors of the World.
The Asylum Service has accounted for approximately 10,000 applicants who haven’t yet begun applying for asylum while 20% of applicants have been rejected asylum in Greece. Not only does this create an environment of tension as residents await their determination, but residents at Moria Refugee Camp also complain of the poor conditions of the camp.
“See we are humans, we don’t feel like humans here… we are waiting for freedom… this place is like a prison.” said two Nigerian women outside of Moria camp, who have been waiting for over a year for the final determination as to their status as refugees.
While awaiting their determination, the two women have been given temporary housing on Lesvos outside of Moria as conditions in the camp were deemed too dangerous for them.
While Moria Refugee Camp is an open camp, meaning residents are allowed to leave whenever and for however long they like, asylum applicants forfeit their application as soon as they leave the island. This restricts the residents to the island and contributes to the feeling of isolation and imprisonment as some applicants wait over a year for their determination.
The asylum process in Greece is slow for a number of reasons. According to Eleni Petraki, a spokesperson for the Asylum Service, their offices are understaffed with roughly 200 caseworkers responsible for processing thousands of cases. Their staffing issues are a result of the Greece’s economic crisis and the government’s inability to hire more workers.
The Asylum Service also claims the bureaucracy of multiple actors in charge of the asylum and relocation processes is also to blame for the slow moving pace of both programs. The relocation process in particular, which relocates refugees from Greece to other European Union member states, relies on the cooperation of multiple states in order to make progress.
“Everything comes down to the pledges countries make to take more people.” Said Christine Nikolas, a representative of the International Organization for Migration.
While those working in the system, and those currently in the process of applying for asylum recognize flaws in its operation, the Greek people find comfort in the thorough interview and vetting process.
When addressing the potential threat to international security mass migration can pose, Stavros Mirogiannis, Onsite Director of Kara Tepe Refugee Camp said “They [refugees] should be treated like human beings, but there is a responsibility to protect humanity.”
Still others, like Laura Pappa, President of METAdrasi, question the toll the system takes on individuals. “These people want to go to Germany but how do you want them to come? Alright in their heads and in their hearts?”
For now, the situation remains the same. While officials are caught up in the bureaucracy of the system, individuals are left in the poor conditions of camps like Moria. As long as the conditions remain the same, it may only be a matter of time before there is another riot in the camps.