The wall outside Moria detention camp, which was just painted white ahead of the Pope’s visit.
When you land on Lesvos it’s hard to imagine this is the setting for so many horror scenes. I had just arrived from Brussels – where I’m often knee-deep in EU policy documents on migration and refugee laws. It only took me a few hours in Moria detention centre on the island to realize how detached and far removed the whole EU is from the shocking reality on the ground.
The picturesque harbour and scenic views on the island make you feel like a tourist, and the sea looks too peaceful for the onlooker to grasp that thousands have lost their lives trying to cross it. The contrast is particularly palpable when you drive up to the grim entrance of Moria detention camp, which is surrounded by three iron fences topped off with barbed wire. Upon entering, on your right hand side you immediately see two closed cell blocks where 159 unaccompanied children are being held. Each block cannot be bigger than 100 square metres. The blocks are separated between Arabic and non-Arabic speakers. These are not criminals, but asylum seekers, the vast majority are people fleeing horrible wars. Young teenagers stand there, leaning against the iron fence, watching passers-by and occasionally talking to people entering the medical facility across from their cell block. They have nothing to do. There’s not even enough space to kick a ball around.
Further down the road men are waiting in a long line. There must be hundreds of them. They all look exhausted. It’s the food line. Most of them spend their entire day waiting for meals, as food deliveries are slow and the portion is not adequate. At one point a fight broke out. Everyone is tired, hungry, bored. They are anxious and stressed. No one knows what will happen. Their lives are being determined by a cruel lottery sponsored by the EU.
A number of people are being held in a separate, isolated cell block in the camp. Those are the ones that will get deported to Turkey. They’re mainly Pakistanis. The most shocking of it all is that 57 children are held in a separate area in that same facility, due to a lack of space. They are completely isolated, most of them aren’t registered, and they have little or no access to any basic services. Aid agencies have no access to them. Like animals in a cage they were staring at us, from a cell block within a prison. They need to get out of there immediately. They’re hardly teenagers and still so fragile, locking them up in an isolated facility is just another testimony of the EU’s complete inability to implement the EU-Turkey deal in a humane way, on the territory of a member state.
The European Asylum Support Office recently designated a separate area in the camp to conduct admissibility interviews. People are being called in there and asked a number of basic questions to determine whether they’re in need of international protection, and Turkey is a safe country for them to be returned to. They are asked if they passed by Turkey; why they didn’t apply for asylum there; and what are their links to Turkey. This ‘admissibility’ interview determines whether they get sent back to Turkey or not. We spoke with a young man who had just been through the interview. When he heard how poor the translation was he decided to do the interview in English. There are barely any licensed translators present in the camp, which means that interviews can’t possibly be conducted in line with European law. Asylum seekers are legally entitled to an interpreter of their mother tongue or another language in which they speak and understand fluently. The interpreter plays a key role in determining the quality of case. Any failure to clearly present their arguments may result in their deportation, imprisonment, harassment or even death.
While we were walking through the camp, young girls continued to come and talk with us. In the little Arabic I knew, I asked them names and where they came from. Four-year -old Maha* from Idlib, Lubna* from Aleppo. A woman in a wheel chair was pushed up the steep gravel road that runs through the camp.
It struck me that there are so many children in the camp. So many children, so many babies. The UN estimates that children make up 35% of the population of refugees and migrants stranded in Greece. Up the hill, next to our child friendly space, is the area where families are held. There are bunkers with mattresses but due to a lack of space many families are camping in little igloo tents which are placed on the hard concrete floor in front of the bunkers. A man came to speak with us in fluent English. When he heard I was Belgian, he switched to French. ‘I love Belgium, I studied in Liege for five years, to obtain my engineering degree. That was twenty years ago. I love Europe. If Europeans could see this situation, they would not agree. In Belgium, even the dogs have rights! But they don’t hear our stories, because journalists aren’t allowed to enter. We don’t know what is happening. We arrived on the 20th March. They gave us a number. We can’t leave the camp. I have money, I want to shop for groceries, but it’s impossible.‘ He has relatives in Germany and hopes to go there. ‘We are so bored. I just want to work.’ For him, and many of the other men and women we spoke with, a major issue is access to health care. If they want to go to the dentist, that’s impossible. There are no antibiotics. That day, there was no running water in the camp. Some of them had asked to create green zones and benches to make the environment a bit more bearable.
On our way out, a family had just arrived. A mother, a father, two toddlers and a baby. They stood there, exhausted and confused with a few blankets in their hands. I wondered which journey they had to take to get there. This is the first thing they get to see of Europe, the continent of peace and human rights.
What drives European leaders to push such a horrible deterrence policy? To blame public opinion is an easy way out for our leaders. This is not managing the crisis. This is keeping the crisis away from the public’s eye. Now, the Western Balkan route is shut and Europe has closed its borders. Borders between Syria and Turkey are as good as shut. The same applies to the borders Jordan and Lebanon share with Syria. But the wars aren’t over. You must wonder: where do these people go? And what is the future for Maha, the boys with nowhere to play, the Engineer and his family, and all the other children who are spending their childhood detained in conditions no child should ever experience? Europe has a huge responsibility to bear in this crisis, and history will judge how abhorrent its reaction has been.
*The names are pseudonyms