07 Jan 2018 18:48 IST

Lost in Lesvos

For refugees crowding this island, another winter adds to the agony of an endless wait for asylum status

First the putrid smell hits you as you climb the small hill adjacent to the camp of Moria on the southern part of the Greek Island of Lesvos. At least 6,000 people fleeing some of the most violent and ongoing conflicts from Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, Pakistan and various African nations are still crammed into a camp meant for only 2,330 heads.

Having covered large-scale displacement in India’s western Assam districts over the past several years, nothing prepared me for what I was about to witness on the edge of Europe. Especially at Moria, where you’re greeted with some of the worst living conditions for refugee camps. At the very entrance is the graffiti ‘Welcome to Prison Moria’, but the high barbed wire fence and edgy police guards represent a detention centre more than a haven for the displaced.

Many have moved out of the camp area and are living on its peripheries, since there is no more space inside. But in winters, living outdoors is much more difficult than jostling for space inside an area which has 800 toilets for 6,000 people. The wind is biting cold and even those inside tents feel the chill in their bones. The snowfall between December 2016 and February 2017 claimed the lives of five refugees.

A 2016 European Union-Turkey deal meant to discourage refugees from crossing over to Europe means that ones on the island and those who are still arriving must stay put until their asylum requests are processed. The wait can be long and tedious. People have been stuck here for years now and the approvals are hard to come by. Some of the more vulnerable cases are being transferred to the mainland but those are few and far between.

Another hell

Deportation to Turkey is just not acceptable, says Denis (30), an African escaping persecution in Cameroon. His first application for asylum was rejected and now he’s awaiting his second hearing. I meet him wandering on the outskirts of Moria. “If you think the conditions at this camp are horrible, then Turkey is hell, man. I would rather die than be deported to Turkey,” he adds.

David (27), also escaping the anglophone crisis in Cameroon, describes his mental condition thus: “I eat my own shit, I often sleepwalk, and my friends here think I need psychological help.” Meeting me again at the Fish Eye Café at Epanoskala, not far from the Moria camp, he describes in great detail how he became a political target in his country. He adds that his mother, who was raped, died in custody as authorities tried to get him to come overground. He fled after being tortured for days. On reaching Turkey, trying to make his way into Europe, he says he was picked up by a police duo who took turns to rape him. He claims he let them do it rather than risk being deported back to Cameroon. “I have serious issues, man, I almost didn’t come to see you today,” says David.

In Mytilene’s central square, I meet Afridi, a Pakistani who’d made his way through Iran, walking across the Iranian border into Turkey. “Yeh mote mote chhaale pad gaye the pairon mein (I had such huge blisters on the bottom of my feet),” he says. In Turkey, he was held captive by smugglers who demanded money from his folks left behind in Pakistan. Afridi has been on Lesvos for almost two years now, after making a perilous journey across the Aegean Sea with more than 40 people onboard a boat that broke down more than twice mid-sea.

My meeting with Afridi, at a café called Hausbrandt, is rudely interrupted by a waiter, a Lesvos local most likely, who announces that he won’t serve us. Upon enquiry, we are told that it’s their policy to not entertain refugees. Such behaviour is not uncommon in Mytilene as well as other parts of the island. The anti-refugee sentiment is growing stronger by the day, as is the the bias against people of colour who are not seeking asylum. I find more proof of this during an anti-racist rally through the streets of Mytilene where some local residents and many refugees came together to voice their concerns over Lesvos’s growing intolerance of those who seem to be stuck on the island. Afridi and I eventually move our conversation over coffee to an establishment called just P — probably one of the last places on Lesvos to welcome refugees.

At Camp Pikpa, one of the better designed camps on the other side of the island, I meet Shwan, a 36-year-old Kurdish man of an intimidating build. Smoking a rolled cigarette, in the kitchen, he uses broken English to say that he’s picking up the language at the camp. “I think ISIS is better. If they say kill this man, they kill him; if they say release a man, they release him. Here the law never means what it says.” Shwan was a basketball player in Sanadaj, Iran, but his Kurdish descent and his Left ideology made him a target . Apart from reading English, he gives basketball lessons at the camp. Shwan spent most of 2017 awaiting news on his asylum application.

At a concert in Inforos Winery, a cultural hotspot across Kara Tepe, one of the three refugee camps on the island (Kara Tepe means ‘dark mountains’ in Turkish), guitarist Dimitris Mistakiois likens the Greek attitude towards refugees to the American’s behaviour towards Greek migrants as they fled to the US in the early 20th century.

A gateway

In November last year, to protest the unliveable conditions at Moria, some refugees set up tents in the centre of Mytilene, in a place called Sappho Square. Few even went on a hunger strike. When the police forcibly removed them, Qarime Qias (17) and her three sisters — Adele (15), Ely (16) and Shafigheh (21) — were asked to “f*** off” to their own countries. Qarime, who has been on the run with her siblings for the last six years, claims that nowhere has she been treated with such harshness. The Afghan sisters’ European dream has been blown to smithereens. Their next best hope is a life in Canada but even that has to wait while the four wrangle with the authorities for better living conditions. The Qiases are one of the families to have occupied the office of the Syriza — Greece’s ruling party — after the police evicted them from the city centre.

Until things get better — no one can say when that will be — Lesvos, now the gateway to the West for many escaping death and persecution, has to be more patient. You sit anywhere on the island and the movement of refugees is hard to miss. You will rarely see any of them taking the local bus, or a taxi — they have no money for transport. In and outside the cafés in Mytilene, you may find them asking for cigarettes as they shiver in the cold. And when it’s time for meals, it’s also time for scuffles in the queues. David says that the food is still decent but the counter shuts for the day when there is a free-for-all. He looks hungry as he talks about the meals. A fight had broken out that morning.

So whether it is Surgul from Iraq, Fahd Qasim from Syria, Arif Mohammadi from Afghanistan, Ouedraogo Osmone from Burkina Faso or Kanga Jean from Cameroon, Lesvos and Europe just aren’t what was promised. Things look bleak as another unforgiving winter drives home the message that there is no homecoming, yet.

(First names have been used in certain places to protect the identity of the refugee. Vivek Singh is a documentary photographer and journalist based in Delhi. The article first appeared in The Hindu BusinessLine.)

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