A fire at Camp Moria on Lesvos island, Greece last night
A fire broke out at Camp Moria on Lesvos island in Greece.
According to UNHCR figures, as of September 13, there were 5,600 people seeking refuge on the island where there are facilities with a capacity for 3,500.
More than 94,000 people have reached Lesvos island, by sea, so far this year.
Last night, The Guardian reported:
Thousands of refugees detained at one of Greece’s biggest camps, on the island of Lesbos, have fled the facility amid scenes of mayhem after some reportedly set fire to it, local police have said.
Up to 4,000 panic-stricken men, women and children rushed out of the barbed-wire-fenced installation following rumours of mass deportations to Turkey.
“Between 3,000 and 4000 migrants have fled the camp of Moria,” a police source said, attributing the exodus to fires that rapidly swept through the facility because of high winds.
Approximately 150 unaccompanied children, controversially housed at the camp, had been evacuated to a childrens’ village, the police source added. No one was reported to have been injured in the blaze.
But damage was widespread and with tents and prefabricated housing units going up in flames, the Greek channel Skai TV, described the site as “a war zone”.
Readers may recall how, prior to March 20, refugees arriving on the Greek islands were registered at “hot spots” before receiving paperwork to travel onto Athens and continue their journey into Europe.
From November 2015, there were signs that this might change with some nationalities (people from Pakistan, for example) not being given the opportunity to register and continue their journey into Europe.
But for the vast majority, especially Syrian refugees, the process was relatively smooth and quick.
All that changed when the EU and Turkey struck a deal which caused outcry across many working in the humanitarian sector.
On Lesvos island, where there is almost 65% over capacity, the situation and conditions are dire and individuals waiting on Lesvos are desperate to leave the island and head to the mainland in the hope of better conditions and, eventually, continuing their journey.
This desperation has led refugees to risk everything they have, again, to try and make it off the island and onto the mainland.
Further to this…
Emma Hett, from Dublin, volunteered on Lesvos and, later the Greek mainland, from March to July this year. During this time, she worked with many people seeking refuge who had arrived on the Greek island from Turkey.
Some months after the March deal, Emma also spoke with several refugees who explained to her what options are available for those stranded on Lesvos without papers but who are desperate to leave.
Due to the high levels of checks and police on the water, people who wish to leave Lesvos are forced to attempt the process through established smuggler networks.
The smuggling rings in Lesvos operate in tandem with each other and so there is little or no conflict or tension between them.
The option of a travelling in a small dinghy from Lesvos to Athens, in the same way most travelled from Turkey to Lesvos, is not an option here.
Instead, refugees stranded on Lesvos, desperate to reach the mainland in search of better conditions, are forced to pay large amounts of cash to smugglers if they are to have any hope of leaving.
Finding a smuggler to help get you off Lesvos isn’t a problem. And you don’t even need to go looking. The short answer is one doesn’t find a smuggler, a smuggler finds you.
On Lesvos, the majority of smugglers are from Pakistan or Afghanistan. However, they are directed and controlled by Greek smugglers. The Greek smuggler operates through the Pakistani or Afghani smugglers who make direct contact with refugees.
They approach refugees in camps and anywhere where refugees may be gathered (in certain places around Mytilene or at the beaches). These smugglers usually speak several languages (Urdu, Greek, sometimes a little Arabic but usually not English). They operate in conjunction with other smugglers on the island, and throughout Greece, and are usually well connected.
Once the refugees have agreed to travel with the smugglers to the mainland, they are offered the opportunity to stay in one of the several smuggler houses in Mytilene. They usually pay roughly €100 per month to cover expenses while living there.
This is very appealing for many of the refugees who are living in either dire conditions in the Moria detention centre or outside in the forests surrounding Mytilene. According to Sami – a Pakistani refugee who was desperate to leave Lesvos and contacted a smuggling ring to help him do so – in one house, there were over 100 people resident at one time.
Yet, for many, this is better than staying in Moria, illustrating just how poor the conditions are in Moria.
To buy a ferry ticket allowing people to leave the island, you must show your identification paperwork. Refugees can buy identification papers for roughly €200.
These are always original papers, usually from Syrian and Afghani refugees, and they are received from mafia contacts in FYROM (the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia).
The mafia source these papers from those already off the island and travelling on through Europe. In return for selling their papers, the smuggler takes these refugees the remainder of the journey across the border. These papers are then sent back to smugglers on Lesvos who can sell them on. Papers are sold on Lesvos for €200. For a family of five, the cost is significant.
In addition, some local residents in Mytilene have sold their resident papers (Greek papers) to refugees to allow them to travel on a ferry to the mainland.
It’s worth keeping in mind the desperate situation local people on Lesvos are facing with, first, a hugely damaging economic crisis, immediately followed by the refugee crisis which has forced many, who are dependent on tourism, into financial difficulties.
Some hotels in Molyvos, in northern Lesvos, have reported that hotel bookings are down 95%, forcing some to close for yet another season.
Most registration papers that are bought are from Syrian and Afghani nationals who are generally the first nationalities to be registered and moved through the system quicker than people from other countries.
For some nationalities (Iranian, Pakistani, etc) these papers can be difficult to use (aesthetically, they look very different). Another option open to those desperate to leave the islands is to buy “Protection Papers.” These are papers that are given to individuals on Lesvos who have lodged asylum claims and have received the first acceptance (allowing them to travel throughout Greece). These are referred to as “White Cards.”
Two years ago, these were coloured red but have more recently been printed in white (International Protection Application Card). The going price for these cards is €90. These are given to all nationalities so they have the added benefit of appearing more authentic.
While registration papers and white cards are relatively cheap for those travelling solo (maximum €200), they are also known for being unreliable. Port police scrutinise the papers and look out for those travelling on somebody else’s papers.
Another option available is to buy a “Red Passport”, an EU passport, which, while prohibitively expensive for most at €1,000, stand a better chance of not being scrutinised at the port.
The €1,000 passport option is a one-off attempt (if you are arrested then the problem is yours and the smugglers will not provide a second “free” attempt, as is the case with some €200 registration paper “deals”).
Obviously, the cost of being smuggled is high and it is done only in cash-in-hand transactions. This can lead to a vulnerability for smugglers who could be caught being handed large quantities of cash.
However, they have found a solution to protect themselves. Money is transferred globally to those who need cash for these transactions via Western Union. When the refugee agrees to travel, via smuggler to the mainland, no cash is exchanged on Lesvos. The smuggler network in Athens operates the cash transfer.
For example, a cousin or friend of a refugee on Lesvos, wanting to travel, will meet a smuggler contact in Athens, at a secret location, and hand money over that has been sent to them via Western Union. This way, the smuggler ring on Lesvos never has to handle any cash.
Once confirmation of the transaction carried out in Athens is received by the smuggler in Lesvos, the papers are handed over.
It is the responsibility of the refugee to buy the ferry ticket themselves. From Lesvos, there are two ferry operators; Blue Star (Government) and Hellenic Seaways (private). In order to buy a ferry ticket, you must show valid identification to the tour operators/ticket sellers.
So, prior to buying a ticket, you have to have either bought or faked registration papers or some form of identity card.
The first step to getting onto the ferry, and off the island, is to present yourself with your papers at the port. The police then check the papers and they give permission for you to buy a ticket in the kiosk in the port area.
The local shops in Mytilene which also sell ferry tickets are more risky for refugees and they have been known to call the police from the Moria detention centre when a refugee has presented themselves to buy a ticket and they feel the papers are fake.
Therefore, it is safer for the refugees to buy their ferry tickets in the port.
Sometimes, when someone attempts to buy ferry tickets in the kiosk, the operator will not issue the ticket based on the presumption the papers/ID are fake. When this happens, the refugee phones the smuggler who, in turn, phones the agent and resolves the issue, after which the ferry ticket is issued.
Most of the Pakistani and Afghani smugglers operating on Lesvos, have been living on the island for a long time, speak fluent Greek, and can communicate with the kiosk agent directly.
While a smuggler is on the phone sorting out this issue, it is out of sight of the port police, so there is no risk to the refugee being caught at this time. In addition, there is no risk to the ferry operator getting into trouble from issuing the tickets and they receive extra money for issuing the tickets from the smugglers.
Once the refugee has been issued their ferry tickets (approximately €45, from Lesvos to Athens), they can attempt to board the ferry. Some are successful and board the ferry and travel to Athens. Others are stopped when trying to board and are arrested by the police.
There are also a large number of plain-clothed police officers in the port area so, until the ferry departs Lesvos, the refugees are on edge.
If arrested, they are usually handled very violently by police. The police then rip up the papers and ticket, bundle the refugee into a waiting police van and, once the ferry has left (and any other suspected refugees have also been arrested and placed into the van), they are taken into a closed detention facility inside Moria hotspot.
There is no formal punishment for refugees, for this offence, but access to facilities is decreased (i.e. less food) when held in the closed detention facility. They are usually held here for two to three days, before being released. For the majority of refugees, this is not a deterrent. It just forces them to find another €200 and try again.
Many people have also tried to travel to Athens in shipping containers. Some are successful but the majority are not. This shows the risks some are willing to take, out of desperation, to leave Lesvos and the dire conditions they are faced with.
The smuggler mafia network on Lesvos also has contacts within the Greek police force. This is appealing to refugees as it increases their confidence that they are more likely to be successful.
There is the option of paying an additional €1,800 to the police, via the smugglers, to ensure they aren’t stopped when attempting to board the ferry. For many though, this isn’t an option as it is too expensive.
Instead, they attempt it without the insider support of the police force and, if they are unsuccessful, they are forced to save up again and attempt the journey for a second or third time.
But for those who have travelled this way, with the support of the police, they have been successful. For others, they take the risk and attempt to board the ferry without bribing the police. What’s clear is that if you have the money to bribe the police, you are more likely to be successful in being smuggled off the island.
This summer, there was another alternative being offered to refugees stranded on Lesvos. A single police officer (operating independently of other police officials) inside Moria, with mafia contacts, was offering to smuggle refugees to Athens for €700.
During one particular week in June, 10 people from Pakistan successfully travelled this way. This is particularly appealing to Pakistani refugees who have, in some cases, been stuck on Lesvos since December and are now desperate to travel to Athens. They are also already significantly indebted to smugglers for their journey from Pakistan to Greece.
They also, aesthetically, don’t look like Syrian refugees and are generally stopped more often and, in some cases, are on first name terms with the port police, thwarting any chance of future attempts with fake papers.
Some of the Pakistani smugglers on Lesvos, who have lived on the island legally for many years and have EU passports, are married to Greek women. These wives have also become involved with the smuggler operations and travel with a male Pakistani refugee – to make it look like they are a couple. These refugees travel with fake identification cards while the Greek wives travel with original, legitimate paperwork, strengthening their legitimacy.
What is clear, is that the EU Turkey deal has not stemmed the profits being made by the smugglers across Europe. If anything, prices have increased, and refugees, especially those travelling as family units, are sinking further and further into debt in order to travel on and try and build a future.
It all comes down to money, the more you have the more successful your chances are of getting off Lesvos. The less you have, the more desperate and vulnerable you are and therefore the more likely you are to be taken advantage of. As options became more limited for refugees after the EU/Turkey deal in March, the options became more dangerous.
This summer, smugglers offered refugees who had little or no money left another option to fund their journeys, drug smuggling. Refugees were given the option of distributing drugs (on Lesvos this was mostly heroin and cocaine) between the refugee camps on Lesvos to other refugees.
Many have taken up this offer, especially those from poor families who cannot depend on their families to send them additional money to fund their onward journeys. For many, the cost of the journey to get as far as Lesvos has put huge financial pressure on their families at home.
After several failed attempts with faked papers, they are forced to enter the drug smuggling option. This option is also being offered to the unaccompanied minors in camps on Lesvos. This group of refugees are particularly vulnerable and are easy targets for smugglers.
The money made from selling the drugs within the camps is split 50/50 between the smuggler and the refugee. This is a way for the refugee to make money in order to fund their journey ahead.
However, the risk is high – if refugees are caught with the drugs, they are arrested and brought to jail in Mytilene. This would also impact their future chances of gaining asylum in Greece.
Thousands flee as blaze sweeps through Moria refugee camp in Greece (The Guardian)
Pic: Humanity Crew