“Moria is like Guantanamo. The new Guantanamo!”
The young man from Afghanistan uttered the words in halting English, pointing out the centre behind him as around 100 refugees protested outside the entrance.
Moria is the main refugee camp on the Greek island of Lesbos. But a combination of chronic over-crowding and official policy have led to accusations that it is effectively a huge prison.
Some 5,500 people are housed here, even though the centre was supposed to take fewer than half that number. Lesbos currently has more than 8,000 migrants and refugees. In the three months from mid-August to November 10, some 7,000 turned up on the islands of Lesbos, Chios and Samos.
The opposition, NGOs and local people accuse the government of planning to leave migrants on the islands, in big “warehouses for souls”. Discontent spilled over this week, with police and refugees organising demonstrations and the local council calling a general strike for next Monday.
The spontaneous demonstration outside the gate came as one group of around 30 refugees – mostly women and children – was about to leave. They were taken away by bus, heading for the port and a boat trip to the Greek mainland. But people among the majority forced to remain told euronews that conditions inside were appalling.
“Moria is not good. I want to go to Athina (Athens). (Here, there is) no house, no money. Food: no good! Water: one! Today, one! “ said 20-year-old Sami Al-Bayati from Iraq in English, indicating that the authorities were only giving out one bottle per day.
Dozens of people continue to arrive each day on the Aegean islands, and almost all claim asylum. Under the terms of the accord between the European Union and Turkey struck in March 2016, they must stay until the end of the asylum procedure – facing deportation back to Turkey when requests are refused.
Only the most vulnerable are transferred to the mainland. But the local authorities say the government is interpreting the agreement too strictly, calling for a solution to be found to house the refugees elsewhere in Greece.
Many of those in the Moria camp arrived in Lesbos several months ago; some have been here for years. They await patiently an official response to their asylum request – while flagging up unbearable living conditions inside.
“You have to help us, it’s a human thing, don’t let us (remain) in this prison of Moria. I want to talk about the toilets: it’s very disgusting, there’s no water, no cleaning. Everybody lives here as if they were dead!” said Wasim Shahnawaz, 36, from Afghanistan.
Moria is “severely overcrowded”, Boris Cheshirkov of the UNHCR’s Greek branch told the AFP news agency. He pointed to a risk of violence and sex abuse, noting a “striking” number of families with very young children. “We continue to ask the government urgently to relieve the overcrowding in Moria,” he said.
A request by euronews for access to the interior of the camp was refused, and our correspondent Apostolos Staikos reported from the scene that it was hard to get TV cameras inside. “But refugees have come outside and are talking of unbearable living conditions. They say they just want to move on,” he said.
with Alasdair Sandford