Asylum Seekers in Greece

Emina Ćerimović and photographer Zalmaï investigate the
mental health crisis facing asylum seekers on the island of Lesbos.

The psychological impact of conflict, exacerbated by harsh conditions, uncertainty and inhumane policies, is not as visible as physical injury. But it's just as life-threatening.

behind the curtain of secrecy

Lesbos, a postcard-perfect vacation island in the northern Aegean Sea, is a haven for people fleeing war in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan. It symbolizes the hope that somewhere in Europe there is refuge. It is also a graveyard for the countless corpses that have washed ashore on its beautiful coastline. And it’s hell for the thousands who are trapped there, victims of the European Union’s determination to stem the tide of asylum seekers and other migrants by sending a message that they are unwelcome.

For all of its natural beauty, there is much fear on Lesbos. Fear caused by the traumas of war, violence and displacement and of harsh camp conditions, insecurity and uncertain futures. Fear of rejection, detention, and deportation. Fear of going to the toilet in the dark at night, or not eating after two hours in a food line. Fear of lice and scabies. Fear of winter, cold and damp.


The Olive Grove is a separate makeshift camp outside the gates of the Moria hotspot on Lesbos, where hundreds of people live without any security, electricity, showers, or running water. Dozens of families, single women and children lived in summer tents in the Olive Grove by early December 2017.


Ali, a 22-year-old Afghan asylum seeker with a disability, living in Moria camp, on the beach in Lesbos, Greece. He told Human Rights Watch he can’t access toilets and showers in the camp and sometimes tries to wash himself in the sea.


Three Congolese asylum seekers share food in ‘The Olive Grove’ camp adjacent to the Moria hotspot on Lesbos, Greece. There are no showers or kitchenettes for the more than 220 men who lived in ‘The Olive Grove’ in October 2017, and where access to food is difficult.


Since March 2016, when Greece, with the support of the European Union, began blocking asylum seekers from moving to the Greek mainland as part of a deal with Turkey that aims to return most asylum seekers from the Greek islands to Turkey without first hearing their refugee claims, the Greek islands of Lesbos, Chios, Samos, Kos, and Leros have become places of indefinite confinement and misery.

Thousands of women, men, and children are trapped in horrific conditions, at risk of physical and psychological harm, with no end in sight. Their lives are on hold: home is a tent, a squat, or if they’re lucky, a container to share with 20 others. Children don’t go to school, and adults live out the days waiting for the asylum interview that keeps getting re-scheduled, with nothing in the interim to do.

For more than a year, I’ve been visiting Lesbos to investigate what is happening to refugees with disabilities, peeking past a heavy curtain of secrecy. Greece’s Ministry of Migration limits access of independent human rights monitors and journalists to its reception and identification facilities, EU-funded centers known as “hotspots.” So, we mostly talk to asylum seekers outside the gates. On rare occasions though, we are allowed to enter – as happened in September and October, but our movement was restricted.

Once inside Moria, I began to understand why there had been so much secrecy and, I hope, shame, for how people escaping violence, persecution, and economic distress are being treated there. Thousands live crammed together in overcrowded and sagging tents, with limited access to food, water, shelter, sanitation, and health care. Security has increasingly deteriorated, putting the most vulnerable, including children, people with disabilities, and women, in danger.

“There is no peace, no safety, no dignity in Moria. It’s worse than jail,” Roula, a Syrian mother of two told me. “We are not treated as belonging to society, as human beings.” Another woman from Afghanistan who I met inside a tent that she shares with 17 other people, including an infant, said, “I can’t handle this. Sometimes I think it would have been better to have been killed in Afghanistan.” She told me she has had depression since her daughter died a few years ago.


Amal Adwan, 47, a Palestinian asylum seeker from Damascus, Syria in the Moria hotspot on Lesbos island. Asylum seeking women and girls trapped on the Greek islands are often forced to share tents and containers with unrelated men, putting their safety at risk.


Zahra Mosawi, 28, from Afghanistan is trapped on Lesbos, Greece. Despite being a survivor of gender-based violence and in need of psychosocial support, she’s been unable to find help in the camp.


Abdulrahman, a 26 year-old victim of torture, who fled from Damascus, Syria lives in a tent with 12 other people in the Olive Grove, a makeshift camp outside the gates of Moria facility, Lesbos, Greece where hundreds of people live without any security, electricity, showers, or running water.


The government says almost 15,000 asylum seekers are trapped on the Greek islands, living in extremely harsh, overcrowded conditions as winter sets in. The vast majority fled fighting in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan. They seek freedom from fear and violence, hoping to find a place where they can work and send their children to school. None of these hopes have come true on the Greek islands.

Dawud, 22, was injured by shelling in Syria and is unable to walk. He couldn’t use the bathrooms unless his brother Ahmed carried him up the hill to the only toilet with a seat – the rest of Moria’s facilities are squat toilets that cannot be used by someone in a wheelchair. "I lost a lot in Syria. I came here to find a safe place, make something for me - that's what I hoped to find here. In Syria the situation is awful; blood everywhere,” he told me. But when he got to Moria, he said, he still didn’t feel safe: “There were fights and shouts every night, it's a horror. I would get startled, scared, and my whole body would shake." He started trembling and stopped talking. Fortunately, after a month in Moria, Dawud was transferred to another site that is more accessible to people with disabilities.

I met two other men who use wheelchairs and live inside Moria: Ali, 22, from Afghanistan, and Mohammed, 45, from Syria. They each told me that smugglers forced them to leave their wheelchair behind before boarding the boat to Greece. "How would you feel if someone asked you to [leave] your feet behind?” asked Ali. “My wheelchair is my feet.”

Living In Squalor

Living in overcrowded squalor with little access to services is a key factor contributing to fear and distress. These hotspots were designed as registration and transit centers where people would stay for short periods, not as places of indefinite containment.


Moria in September 2017


Moria in September 2015


When I visited in September, nearly 5,000 people were living in Moria, a facility with a maximum capacity for 2,300. Today, nearly 7,000 people live there. I was horrified walking through a large tent housing hundreds of people, crammed in tiny spaces, each family separated only by a hanging blanket. Running water is rare: taps are turned on for 30-40 minutes three times a day, so people use plastic bottles to collect water in a frenzied race against thousands of others in need. There’s never any hot water to shower or do laundry. Even the official in charge of Moria agreed the camp was horribly overcrowded and said he had asked in vain for people to be moved out before winter.

I saw 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.

Waheed, Halima, (they asked me to use pseudonyms instead of their real names) and their three small children share a tent with three other families, down a hill by a narrow road that separates single men from a family area. The showers and toilets are close by – which would be desirable if not for the overpowering smell of sewage. Halima led me to the bathrooms: no locks, no water, feces everywhere. For women and girls, going to the bathroom often brings fear of assault, worsened by the verbal harassment they experience day in and day out from men who hang around just outside the women’s latrines.

Waheed put down extra blankets before I sat on the floor so rocks beneath wouldn’t hurt me. “As you can see we have nothing but these blankets,” he said by way of apology for the damp ground after the previous night’s rain. Halima, who was pregnant, added, “Most nights I can’t sleep. We all have difficulties sleeping. Single men get drunk, they start fighting, there are many fights. The tent can’t protect us from these fights.” Halima fears for her kids. “We don’t let children go out of the tent. Every day there are fights, throwing rocks. The fights are never between two people, but many people fighting.”

Mohammed, Roula’s husband, told me the difficult conditions create a hostile environment among asylum seekers: “The pressures from all this 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,” he said.


The Moria refugee hotspot on the island of Lesbos. Inadequate living conditions and overcrowding, with poor access to basic services and protection, fuels fear among asylum seekers trapped there.

Warning: Keep out

Europe has built walls and adopted policies to keep people out of mainland Europe. The EU deal with Turkey is designed to trap people on the Greek islands so that they can be sent back to Turkey. But why is it necessary to trap people in conditions that clearly put them in danger and cause distress and harm? Hundreds of millions of euros have been spent to address the refugee situation in Greece. So why don’t people have access to basic human needs like clean water, adequate shelter, and sanitation?

The answer seems to be that it sends a deterrent message to other refugees making the risky journey to seek safety in Europe: don’t dream of coming here.

In 2015, hundreds of thousands risked their lives crossing the Aegean sea to escape war in Syria and other violent conflict.

In July I reported on the deteriorating mental health of asylum seekers and migrants on Greek islands, speaking to therapists, lawyers, and asylum seekers about self-harm, suicide attempts, anxiety, and depression. Most people who make this hazardous journey are already traumatized – leaving home, losing loved ones, and surviving bombardment, persecution, and torture at home or along the way. Life in Moria and other island hotspots just makes everything worse – the overcrowded squalor, frequent fights, lack of running water and privacy, and above all, not knowing when things will change for the better.

While the traumas of war and displacement can trigger emotional distress, medical professionals in Greece say that the mental health of asylum seekers and migrants has been harmed by factors related to the EU-Turkey deal, including harsh camp conditions, insecurity, lack of access to services and information, detention, fear of being rejected and deported, and feeling useless.

Nearly everyone I spoke with has waited for hours in front of the asylum office on their appointed day, only to have their asylum interview rescheduled. And it’s happened over and over again. They don’t know when the interview will take place, or how long they will have to stay on the island. “When I went to ask for asylum cards, they said nothing. I want to know - will we receive it in one week or two weeks? Why don’t they tell us?” asked Waheed. “We went to the asylum office and asked how long will we have to stay. They said, ‘maybe five months, maybe six, or a year.’”

I live in fear

Abdulrahman, a 26-year-old Syrian from Damascus, texted me a few days ago. “Fear is much worse than the cold and bad life here,” he wrote. “I live in fear every day of rejection. This is a great horror for me. I do not want to go back to Turkey and I do not want to go back to war and destruction.” When I met Abdulrahman in the Olive Grove section of Moria in September, he had been living in a tent with 12 other people for 2 months. He continues to live there three months later. The Olive Grove is a separate makeshift camp outside the gates of Moria facility, where authorities placed hundreds of people without any security, electricity, showers, or running water. Dozens of families, single women, and children were still living in summer tents in the Olive Grove in early December.

Mehdi Aziz, an Iraqi Kurd with children ages 3 and 4, was arrested at the end of September, 11 months after arriving in Lesbos and detained in the detention pre-removal section inside Moria for three months. The Greek asylum office and Appeal Committee decided Turkey is not a safe third country for Mehdi and his family but found that Iraq is safe, so denied them asylum.

I met Mehdi during his detention. A police officer brought him to meet me. He was trembling, his eyes red from sleepless nights, but he was hopeful. “I’m in jail, I don’t feel well, I have two children, I want to be with them. I didn’t do any problem for myself or anyone else. Why am I here?” he asked, tears in his eyes.

“My daughter just called and asked ‘where are you, baba?’” Mehdi continued. His voice broke off and he started shaking. “I told her I am at a friend’s house – I cannot tell my children I am in jail. They are too little; I don’t want to harm them.”

Mehdi was finally released on December 13 and reunited with his wife Hawar and their three children who live in a volunteer-run camp on Lesbos.

Since we couldn’t interview people freely inside Moria, we visited the One Happy Family Community Center where some families go for counselling, English classes, tea, an escape at least for a few hours. I met Roula and Mohammed there, and a Yezidi family from Iraq: Majed, Susan, and their two youngest of six children.

Finding a quiet place is difficult for those trapped on Lesbos – finding a place to interview people in privacy is nearly impossible. I ended up listening to Majed and Susan inside an impressive old minibus van, with shelves filled with hundreds of books in Arabic, Kurdish, Farsi, English, French, and German. As Majed and Susan told me their story of fleeing Mount Sinjar in Iraq, I watched their 2-year-old daughter fall asleep. She fought against it at first, then closed her eyes and collapsed to the floor after just a few minutes inside this rare quiet place. It was a heart-wrenching moment. I put her on my lap and she slept through my interview with her parents, oblivious to the uncertainty and insecurity of Lesbos.

Many have attempted to end their lives due to extreme emotional distress. The aid agency Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) reported that between June and September, six to seven people arrived each week at their Lesbos mental health clinic following suicide attempts, incidents of self-harm, or psychotic episodes.

Zahra, single mother of a 9-year-old girl, told us she keeps living only because of her daughter. “If I knew she would be safe, I would end my life just to stop all of this,” Zahra said. She added that doctors in Moria turned her away, not recognizing she needed help. “My heart is beating very fast. The doctors said I am fine. But my hands are shaking. I need medication to help with how I feel.”

Emina Ćerimović and her minder in the Moria camp.

During my most recent visit to Lesbos, I was allowed to spend an hour inside a section of Moria for single women and children traveling alone. My ability to interview people was greatly restricted by two security guards who followed me and stayed so close that I could hear them breathing. And that’s when I saw Amal – which means “hope” in Arabic – standing in the corner, tightly holding two books. I was concerned about speaking to anyone in front of the minders, so I gave her my phone number and hoped she would text me when she felt safe to do so.

Men at risk

According to Greek law, many of those I met are considered ‘vulnerable’ – including people with disabilities, pregnant women, children, survivors of torture and sexual violence – and should get special protection. They’re supposed to be exempt from the EU-Turkey deal, and should be given an asylum card and allowed to move to the mainland, where they could find services including UN housing for vulnerable groups.

Single young men are usually excluded from the category of vulnerable people. They are also often ignored by humanitarian agencies and most at risk of being trapped for a very long time – some men that I’ve met have been on the island for almost two years. As a psychologist on Samos who provides mental health counseling to asylum seekers there told me: “Single men as a rule do not fit these criteria and are therefore left behind and are at risk of being trapped on the island the longest.”

Afghan asylum seekers at a squat in an abandoned building on Lesbos, Greece. Single young men often face the prospect of being trapped for a very long time on the islands.

The psychologist explained the consequences: “They are annoyed, feel like they have been left behind, they have trouble sleeping, a sense of helplessness, anger towards themselves, anger towards the system around them.” She spoke about a Syrian man who threatened to set himself on fire if he was rejected for asylum. “Whether or not he will do that… it’s hard to know, but what is clear, they are feeling like they have no voice, no power to affect their lives now and their lives in the future. They have no self-determination, they worry they will be sent [back to conflict and] to the front-line and killed. They have nothing left to pull them back, if they are not given any option or see no future.” Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), which provides medical care on the islands of Samos and Lesbos, reported a significant increase in self-harming behavior, attempted suicide, and depression this year.

Winter is here

Four families totaling 18 people, including an infant and a 70 year-old woman, live inside this tent in Moria

After one visit to Lesbos I testified in October at a hearing in the Greek Parliament about the conditions we witnessed in Moria. The parliamentary committee on people with disabilities promised to conduct an official visit to Moria and investigate the situation. At the time of this writing they have yet to conduct an investigation. But an investigation is even more important now after Ioannis Mouzalas, the minister for migration policy, brushed off evidence of the growing mental health crisis.

It was clear in September that the situation had actually worsened over the summer, and that neither Greece nor the EU have taken any steps to address the dangerous living conditions or to prevent psychological harm. For a third year running, the Greek government is taking ad hoc measures in an attempt to prevent a catastrophe. Last winter, three men died on Lesbos  in the six days between January 24 and 30. Their deaths have been attributed to carbon monoxide poisoning from makeshift heating devices used to warm freezing tents. In late 2016, a blast likely caused by a cooking gas container killed a Kurdish woman and her young grandchild, also sleeping in a tent in Lesbos.

Human Rights Watch and other human rights and humanitarian organizations have repeatedly alerted Greece’s Prime Minister, Alexis Tsipras, and European Union leaders to the deteriorating situation on the islands and urged Greece’s government to move asylum seekers to appropriate shelter on the mainland by December 21st, the official start of winter. Greece and the European Union should end this policy of trapping people on the islands who are in desperate need and who have a legal right to protection from persecution.

On one of my last visits to Lesbos, we flew in before dawn. It was still dark when we landed. Too early to find a coffee shop open, we sat in our rented car watching the sun rise in the East, facing the coast of Turkey. I wondered how so much suffering could exist in such a gorgeous place.

I left Lesbos at the beginning of October. But I keep documenting the horrible conditions of asylum seekers there. Abdulrahman, Amal, Majeed, Hawar, Mohabad, and many others call or text me to report on an asylum rejection, on another rainfall ruining their tent, on another fight that erupted. Often they send photos and videos of what is happening. I don’t have to imagine the distress these conditions cause and the potential consequences. I’m Bosnian. I survived the conflict in the former Yugoslavia and became a refugee myself. I know the trauma of war and displacement. I know what it is to live at risk, to feel unwanted and fear being sent back. And I know these feelings never really fade away.

On December 7, the Greek government promised to move 5,000 people to the mainland by December 15. Only 2,130 asylum seekers, mainly those identified as vulnerable and their families, were transferred to the mainland and Crete. This is an important start. But more is needed, including real support from the rest of the EU governments to make sure that the thousands who remain don’t spend another winter in freezing tents.

If you’ve read this far, please help by sharing the campaign to End the Asylum Crisis on Greek Islands so that Greece moves people onto the mainland where they can get help. #OpenTheIslands