“There is no peace, no safety, no dignity in Moria. It’s worse than jail. We are not treated as belonging to society, as human beings,” Roula, a Syrian mother of two small children told me. She was among dozens of people I interviewed in late September about conditions in the so-called Moria hotspot, a refugee reception and identification center on the Greek island of Lesbos. An Afghan woman with diagnosed depression told me, “I can’t handle this [Moria]. Sometimes I think it would have been better to have been killed in Afghanistan.”
All I needed to do was to enter Moria to understand what they were describing. When I visited in September/October, nearly 5,000 asylum seeking women, men and children lived in a facility designed for 2,000. Summer camping tents, designed to accommodate not more than two people were holding families of up to seven. Today, the situation is even worse: more than 6,000 people live in the same facility, exposed to the cold, the damp, and the rain. And because of the crowded conditions, many women don’t have access to a separate, protected section for single women.
Since the EU-Turkey Statement entered into force in March 2016, and a containment policy has blocked asylum seekers from moving to the mainland, the Greek islands of Lesbos, Chios, Samos, Kos, and Leros have become places of indefinite confinement. Thousands of women, men, and children are trapped in devastating conditions, with many denied access to adequate asylum procedures. Some have been there for more than 20 months.
Every day, I would see little children shivering in their underwear as their mothers poured water over their heads, in a desperate attempt to keep them clean and safe from lice and scabies.
It was nauseating to go to the restrooms and showers, where the stench of urine and human excrement was overpowering. Feces were everywhere.
People I interviewed told me access to running water is limited to 30 to 40 minutes, three times a day, and there is no hot water. One day, I watched as the water tap was turned on. Children as young as four were running barefoot over rocks with bottles in their hands struggling with 5,000 other people to secure water.
Accessing the showers and toilets is particularly difficult for the many people in the camp with disabilities. A 22-year-old man in a wheelchair from Afghanistan told me, "Other people here complain about having to wait in line for food. And for me, I can't even access a toilet." He hadn't taken a proper shower in three months.
For women and girls, going to the toilet or shower often entails overwhelming anxiety about security, worsened by verbal harassment they experience from some men in the camp. A group of men hangs out outside the women’s latrine.
Every person we interviewed told us of fights among asylum-seekers each night and of police standing by, doing nothing to stop it or protect other people. A woman with a high-risk pregnancy told me: “We all have difficulties sleeping. Single men get drunk, they start fighting.”
I saw men, women, and children sitting on the pavement, waiting for another day to pass. I asked Abdulrahman, a 26-year-old Syrian who had been a student in Damascus before the war, what he does all day. He y became silent, turning his gaze away. He looked back and said, "Nothing. I do nothing."
Many people have attempted to end their lives due to the extreme distress and emotional pain they experience. In October, Medecins Sans Frotieres (MSF) reported that between June and September an average of six to seven people per week arrived at their clinic on Lesbos for mental health consultations following suicide attempts, incidents of self-harm, or psychotic episodes.
Mohammed, Roula’s husband, told me that the difficult conditions create a hostile environment: “The pressures from all these stuff in here, they [the authorities] are doing it to push you to do something illegal to yourself or others. They make us have a lot of hatred against each other. It’s a ticking bomb waiting to explode.”
Earlier in 2017, Human Rights Watch documented health professionals’ accounts about the deteriorating mental health of asylum seekers and migrants on Lesbos. We went back in September and October to see whether the situation had improved. We found that it has worsened. The European Union and Greece have taken no steps to address the conditions driving this mental health crisis despite numerous reports from non-governmental organizations.
During a hearing in the Greek Parliament in early-October, where a colleague and I testified about the conditions we witnessed, the parliamentary committee on people with disabilities said they would conduct an official visit to Moria to investigate. They should follow-up on their promise.
More immediate action is needed, though, to end the inhumane and harmful conditions for asylum seekers trapped in hotspots on the Aegean islands. Greece has a responsibility to protect the human rights of people arriving on its islands, and ensure that people with disabilities have equal access to services and protection.
Almost every day since I’ve been back from Lesbos, I receive WhatsApp messages from people I interviewed telling me “The situation has gotten worse. Winter is here now.”
The European Union and its member states need to act, too. Pushing Greece to force asylum seekers to remain in conditions that violate their rights and are harmful to their wellbeing, health and dignity to deter more asylum seekers from coming into the EU through Greece, cannot be justified.
The Greek government with the active support of EU member states and the European Commission, should put an end to the containment policy and immediately transfer asylum seekers to the mainland where their needs for basic services and protection should be urgently met.
Otherwise, the risk of the situation exploding into deeper misery is too great.