As I left Greece in March, Moria refugee camp on Lesvos was trying to prepare itself for coronavirus.
With sporadic running water, little access to soap and severe overcrowding, everyone is worried about what will happen if the virus hits.
‘We will be wiped out,’ Baqir, a 17-year old who made the journey to Europe alone, told me. ‘We can’t even wash our hands here.’
I had met Baqir and some of the other unaccompanied minors in the camp – there are 10,000 – through Elena Lydon, an Irish nurse who supports over 300 of these children.
As she went about her work, I tagged along, interviewing people for a radio documentary, and meeting with many of the international volunteers, refugees, and local Greeks who work together to improve the situation.
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Although I was shocked by the horrendous living conditions, it struck me that even in the heart-breaking struggle to survive, there is a huge amount of solidarity and a desire to help make things better for others.
As the pandemic drew closer, refugee residents quickly formed into two new groups – The Moria White Helmets and Moria Corona Awareness Team (MCAT).
Alongside other organisations, such as Stand By Me Lesvos, they helped set up hand-washing stations, cleared a huge amount of rubbish that had gathered in the camp, and distributed supplies.
They knew that with only a skeleton staff of 20 medics in the camp to provide support and medical aid to 20,000 people, they were effectively abandoned to their fate.
To make matters worse, access to funding from the UN Refugee Agency was suspended until ATMs could be installed, which left everybody short of the tiny amount they were given each month.
The ATM was finally built this week, ‘a new place for us to wait’, as one person noted. And the huge queue here – like the food queues, and shower queues – make it impossible to socially distance.
A full lockdown of the camp has now been enforced, and while this is necessary, the living conditions have still not improved. The policy appears to be to contain refugees, but not to support them.
‘I came from my own country just to be safe,’ Baqir said. ‘I don’t feel safe.’
Leaving Baqir and the other people I had met was difficult, but I had to get back to my own family before travel restrictions came into force.
He has kept in contact since then, and told me how other children and teenagers in Moria are finding the lockdown particularly difficult.
So far, less than a hundred minors have been flown out as part of an EU plan to take 1,600 people. Fifty people arrived in the UK thanks to a family reunification programme – a welcome move – but there are many more children and unaccompanied minors still stuck there.
The people in the camp aren’t able to leave, they are scared and it’s hard to live there as the situation deteriorates on a daily basis.
In April, two refugees were injured when they were shot at by a local on the island. This is on top of a spate of fascist attacks in late February/early March, which led to many medics and volunteers leaving the island. With Covid-19, these numbers have been reduced further, and people in the camp are more isolated than ever.
On 1 March, the immigration service, EASO, which issues exit documents, closed up – meaning refugees couldn’t move off the island. It has just reopened, but for several weeks anyone who arrived on the island could not claim asylum as this registering office was closed. Many people were forced to live outside, along the coast, with little shelter or support.
One of these people, Shadia, is terrified of going into the camp, especially as she has a young child. In April, a 16-year old boy was murdered in Moria, and despite his mother campaigning for the arrest of the perpetrator – and several protests by camp residents – no arrests have been made.
At the moment, Shadia is trying to survive outside Moria. Her husband is trying to find work in the olive groves, but everything has stopped. They worry all the time, but can do nothing but wait and hope that things will open up again.
ReFocus Media Labs, a refugee volunteer media organisation, has produced several videos showing conditions within the camp – and highlighted the fact that residents don’t have the facilities to protect themselves.
Along with other organisations, they have started a #LeaveNoOneBehind petition calling for the immediate evacuation of Moria and other camps in Greece to safe accommodation within Greece or to other European countries.
As things slowly start to get back to normal, now is the time to radically overhaul the asylum system in Europe, and examine what exactly ‘normal’ means in camps like these.
If a global pandemic can’t get us to treat refugees with respect and empathy, what can?
Bairbre Flood visited Moria refugee camp to produce a radio documentary, ‘Against The Wire’, with the assistance of the Simon Cumbers Media Fund.
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