By Aida Ghajar
February 6, 2020
At Camp Moria, a refugee camp on the Greek island of Lesbos close to the shores of Turkey, everything is in turmoil. In the midst of it all, there are children with nothing much to do, and some of them scramble among the trash, crowds of people everywhere they try to go. Illness has spread everywhere and the garbage is piled up high. By official count, more than 20,000 refugees live in Camp Moria in converted temporary Conex units and in tents. The rest, the unofficial numbers — we do not know how many — live in tents in the forests and on the streets. A large number of people also live in the island’s ruined buildings.
Amidst this mayhem, lone women and women with children have their own stories to tell.
The women’s section is on the right after you enter Camp Moria. Thousands of women refugees, alone or with their daughters, live in this place, which was designed for just 200 people. The extreme overcrowding has forced many of them to live in the men’s section or under tents in the woods around the camp. They too take shelter in nearby ruins, and most of them prefer it to Camp Moria. According to human rights organizations, a human catastrophe has unfolded in the camp. Anyone who experiences it, be they refugee or visitor, agrees that it feels like a hell on earth.
I stepped into the women’s section amidst a commotion that never seems to subside. A solitary woman refugee told me her story of sexual harassment. She has lived in the camp for a year without any prospects and is awakened every night by nightmares. One night, as she was returning from the city to the camp by herself, several men attacked and tried to rape her. She screamed loudly and a group of people luckily came to her rescue. Now she refers to the incident as “that horror” and never leaves the camp by herself.
We started walking around the camp with a few other women so they could tell me about the camp’s polluted environment and the lives of other refugees. But every step of the way we were chastised, a group of men shouting sexual insults at us. It was impossible to ignore.
Refugees from Domestic Violence
Most of the Iranian woman refugees who live in Camp Moria’s women’s section, and many like them who live in Athens or Turkey or other countries that take in refugees, have escaped domestic violence — a type of violence that is not considered a crime in Iran. There are no laws there to adequately address it.
On this visit, I talked to a woman who told me she was forced to escape Iran because of domestic violence. Another said that her family tried to force her to marry a man she didn’t want to so she packed her bags and reached this island without letting her family know. “I wanted to commit suicide in Iran and here I also attempted suicide once,” she said as we were walking. “So they have given me tranquilizers.” She reached into her bag and showed me a plastic vial with some pills. She did not know the name of the pill, but it had stripped her body of all its hair. Still, I could see the shadow of a smile on her face and she spoke calmly.
A woman who had arrived at Lesbos with her son and her daughter and who lived in one of the tents outside the camp told me that she had been stuck on the island for more than 13 months. “My husband continuously beat us,” she said. “He would even beat my children. He was a drug addict and he wanted us to get him drugs. I took the children and came to Greece because of their future, but this is where we have ended up.” Did she have guardianship of her children? I asked her. “It would have taken years to get a divorce,” she said. “He refused to give me a divorce so I escaped.”
In another tent an Afghan woman told me about her illness, and her child’s. “My daughter throws up blood but the doctor says that she is all right,” she said. “My kidneys ache and the doctor says I might have kidney stones. But they do not give us any medication. They just tell us to drink water.”
Another woman living in a tent had recently given birth. “For a whole month neither me nor my baby have had a bath,” she told me.
There is no hot water. If people are lucky, the water is lukewarm. But often it is cut off, and it is the same with the electricity. The washstands and lavatories are dirty and there is a single food line for more than 20,000 refugees. Fights and violent clashes are common and weapons such as knives and machetes can be bought and sold easily. Illicit drugs are readily available. All the violence and crime happens right before the eyes of children, as well as adults, many of them vulnerable. Fires, fights, hunger, poverty, long waits and an uncertain future have pushed up the rate of suicide attempts.
No Medicine, No Money and Not Enough Doctors
Many people in the camps suffer from an illness everyone refers to as “scratchy.” Putrid boils appear on the skin and when the affected person scratches the boils, they spread all over the body, including to the genitals. But there is no medicine, no money and not enough doctors. Human rights organizations do their best under these primitive conditions, distributing tampons, diapers, clothing, and sometimes medicine. Most of the women I spoke to said, “The only thing we want is to be delivered from this hell.” And there can be little doubt that everyone in or near the camp feels this way.
There are also many women in the camp who live with their own families, but this does not necessarily make their lives much better. One woman told me that her husband took out the frustrations of living in Camp Moria by beating her. Another woman was asking for help to get a certificate saying her husband had a “nervous ailment” so that they might be allowed to leave the island. And a woman who had arrived on Lesbos with her only daughter pleaded with me: “Can you teach me everything you know? I promise to learn it well and work for you.”
Most of the time, when the women trapped on this island tell me their stories, they do so through tears. They start to talk, but soon their chin begins to tremble and their eyes fill with tears. They all hope to come across an “angel of rescue.” Like other refugees trapped in Greece, they complain about the politicians. They don’t understand why they have to suffer these conditions for months and even years.
In 2016, the European Union, Greece and Turkey signed an agreement that specified that refugees that arrive on the countries’ islands must remain there until their asylum applications are processed. If their application is rejected, they must be returned to Turkey and, in exchange, the European Union will give asylum to the same number of refugees accepted by Turkey. However, Turkey has objected to the plan in practice and this agreement has not been carried out.
On the other hand, according to the police and to refugee rights activists, the number of refugees on both of these islands and in Athens, all of whom are trying to get to Western Europe, is increasing day by day. Some lose their lives along the way, some simply lose their way and some are arrested and have to spend several months in prison and detention centers where, sometimes, life is even worse than in the camps.
Now the new Greek government has promised to cut short the time that it takes to process applications for asylum, close Camp Moria and turn it into a detention center. Human rights activists, however, are afraid that this might hurt the chances of refugees because their asylum applications might not be processed with adequate care and, as a result, they will then be imprisoned in closed camps.
Meanwhile, it’s Getting Worse
In the meantime, the situation at Camp Moria is now worse than it was some months ago. Every day there are more refugees, but the facilities have remained the same. Greece itself has to deal with an economic crisis — there are many homeless Greek citizens on the streets — but, in line with agreements with the European Union, Greece must now shield Europe from what some term the “invasion” of refugees. It’s a task that Greek journalists, activists and lawyers do not believe Greece is able to carry out on its own.
In this theater of horrors, news reports and rumors are on the whole more frightening for women than for men. Not only are they are in constant fear of sexual assault, they are afraid that if the Greek government hears of their protests through the media, they can easily be deported to Turkey, or they will be sent back to the countries where they came from. Consequently, many of them avoid reporters and the media and believe that nobody can or will help them. It feels to them as if the walls of the refugee world are pushing on them from every side, especially on the Greek islands.
Despite these fears and pressures, on January 30, hundreds of female refugees from Camp Moria went into the city to protest against the conditions under which they live. They protested against the absence of medicine and hygiene and the increasing violence in the camp that has robbed them of their peace. They say that it is this peace that they risked their lives for, crossing the sea, often on small sailboats or dinghies. Now they are trapped among tents, shipping containers, trash, pollution and neglect. On the day of the protest, and every day, what are they asking for? Escape from Moria.