Tents swamped with mud and rain. Not enough shelter, not enough food, not enough of anything.
More than two months after the Moria refugee camp on the Greek island of Lesbos burned down, living conditions for the refugees that resided there have only worsened. Half of the 13,000 refugees who lost their housing in the flames were detained in Kara Tepe, a replacement camp to the east of Moria. This camp is close to the sea, subject to wind and bad weather coming from the ocean. With winter arriving, rain and cold will pose great problems.
In case of rain, refugees must dig trenches so that water runs off and does not remain between the tents. Moreover, most tents are not equipped to bear low temperatures, leaving residents freezing. The camp is in darkness from 5 p.m. due to a lack of lanterns and electric lighting. Refugees report that the few sockets in the camp are constantly over-crowded by people trying to charge their phones or heat water for tea. Add to this the lack of sanitary facilities and warm water, and it should be clear why the refugees in Kara Tepe are in danger this time of year.
All of this is happening within the borders of the European Union, and under its jurisdiction. The Dublin regulations prescribe that a refugee’s case is to be processed in the first EU country in which he or she registers. This is a comfortable way for many EU countries to keep refugees away from their territories and stall them in Greece, Italy, Malta, or Spain – all countries reachable with boats. Still, EU members carry the joint responsibility to ensure that asylum seekers anywhere within the Union live under adequate conditions.
The failure of the EU and Greece
The conditions in the new camp are not acceptable and pose a threat to the health and well-being of refugees, many of whom are children. This would be problematic enough in any year, but with the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic it amounts to criminal negligence to detain humans under such conditions. Since November 7, the new Greek lockdown forces refugees to stay within the camp at all times. Police enforce that all residents wear masks, which seems misguided and impertinent, given that refugees barely have access to toilets, electricity, and medical treatment. Volunteers also report an increase in mental health issues among residents as the lockdown continues.
In Kara Tepe, the EU is violating a number of human rights, written down in various global and regional treaties: the right to the highest attainable standard of health, the right to education, the prohibition to detain anybody arbitrarily, and the right to adequate housing. Clearly, the EU is either unable or unwilling to secure these rights for Lesbos’ refugees.
The Greek state actively makes matters worse for refugees who had found some safety in alternative projects, such as the Pikpa camp. In this camp, the Lesvos Solidarity initiative provided shelter to the most vulnerable groups, like children, and persons with disabilities, illnesses, or traumas. Pikpa offered schooling to children, as well as medical care and sanitary treatment. On October 30, armed police forces evicted the camp, forcing residents to move to Kara Tepe. The operators of the camp have been threatened with a fine of more than 2 million euros because they do not have a legal claim to the ground the camp is built on.
Quick action is necessary
It is obvious that the Greek state is not able to provide refugees with acceptable living conditions and protection from the Covid-19 pandemic. But it also destroys the functioning safe havens that actually exist. Aid agencies like Oxfam, Doctors without Borders, and the UNHCR agree that if Europe wants to prevent another humanitarian catastrophe on the Greek islands, it has to act quickly now and provide the refugees in Lesbos with the food, shelter, electricity, and water that allows dignified and safe survival. It is the very least they can do.