Author: Friends of Europe

In a small valley covered with olive trees on the Greek island of Lesbos sits the Moria detention centre, where 2,800 asylum-seekers are locked inside a grim complex that has capacity for only 2,000 people. Behind grey concrete walls is first tall and rusty barbed-wire fencing, then newer fences topped with coiled razor wire. Riot police are gathered around a bus outside. I take some photos at the side of the camp – two policemen jump out of an ordinary car and tell me to delete them.

The only shiny, new thing visible at Moria is the incongruous brass plate stating that EU funds paid for the sanitation system in this “pre-removal detention centre”. This label rather gives the game away on the pretence that all here can have a fair asylum hearing. As the first returns got under way this morning, those still waiting their turn at Moria face a difficult, stressful time. One young Afghan asylum-seeker tried to commit suicide on Saturday night.

Michele Telaro, who is on Lesbos for Medecins sans Frontieres (MSF), tells me “the main problem now is the capacity of Moria; all the vulnerable cases are there – old people, those with chronic diseases, psycho-social problems, pregnant women, kids”. Minimum humanitarian standards are not being respected, says Telaro.

Women and children have made up 63% of arrivals recently, and there are babies and toddlers locked inside the camp. UNHCR spokesman Boris Cheshirkov says all those who arrived after the 20th March deadline (from the EU-Turkey deal) go to Moria, including a 93-year-old woman, 17 pregnant women, and women who are breast feeding.

There is a second camp on Lesbos; an open, well-serviced camp at Kara Tepe, currently with plenty of capacity – up to 1,500 people. So the overcrowding at Moria is an EU choice, not a necessity. Nor is there any requirement that asylum-seekers be locked up, not to mention in such conditions, before their requests are even made let alone processed.

The overcrowding at Moria means people are sleeping outdoors but within the fences, on blankets, on the ground. There is not enough food, and one asylum-seeker I talk to through the fences shows me footage of a big group fight, which he says took place over food last Thursday.

UNHCR has withdrawn from providing services in the camp – along with other big NGOs – in protest at the mandatory detention, which they oppose in principle, but they maintain a presence there 24 hours a day. Spokesman Cheshirkov confirms that bouts of violence have broken out – both between individuals and groups. He says “many of these people have faced horrendous war, many could have post-traumatic stress and this sort of closed environment is like a punishment and could bring back symptoms”. He adds the obvious point that seems to escape the EU decision to incarcerate people in Moria: “these are people seeking asylum, even if they arrive irregularly, it is not a crime”.

The UNHCR has asked that all vulnerable people, including children, should be accommodated in the open and better-serviced camp of Kara Tepe – but so far just 8 families have been sent there, and children and other vulnerable adults remain in the deteriorating conditions of Moria.

According to the UNHCR, 2,000 people out of the 2,800 at Moria have expressed a wish to apply for asylum. I manage to talk through the fence at the camp to some of these asylum-seekers. One tall, well-spoken middle-aged man from Syria says so far he just has a number, no interview, no information. He is appalled and outraged that the EU would treat asylum-seekers in this way – locked into this overcrowded camp. A group of people from the Democratic Republic of the Congo tell me they learnt at school about the EU and human rights, and now ask how the EU can behave in this way. A Syrian woman I talk to is shocked that Syrians may be sent back to Turkey, and barely has words for how the EU can lock asylum-seekers up in such conditions.

The UNHCR, as they are not participating in the returns, does not have full information on how the asylum procedures will be implemented. MSF spokesman Michele Telaro suggests that some could perhaps apply for family reunification, but he is unsure if that will be allowed. In essence, what may happen is that asylum-seekers locked up in Moria, even those with close family members either elsewhere in Greece or in other EU member states, will be sent back to Turkey and put at the back of the queue. The EU is not being forthcoming with information about this, and asylum-seekers in the camp seem the least informed.

Until now, the Greek asylum service does not have the capacity it needs, and the promised EU reinforcements have yet to arrive in any number. There are said to be just 3 asylum case workers at Moria, and the asylum service does not work at weekends. Telaro says “it is very difficult to see how they can send Afghans and Iraqis back to Turkey who have applied for asylum in Greece”. He says Turkey is the only country in the world to apply geographical limits on asylum – essentially only available for Europeans, with Syrians allowed to apply for temporary protection but Iraqis and Afghans not able to apply for international protection there.

The EU clearly wants to show it is within the law in how it manages asylum claims, and that each individual will have a right of appeal. Whether this will happen in any genuine way is an open question for now, when the known intention is to declare almost all applications inadmissible. It will at best be lip service in terms of legality. I put this to regional UNHCR spokesman Babar Baloch. He said the whole strategy “will be a burden on the EU’s conscience”. The question remaining is, perhaps, whether the EU has a conscience any more.