5 days in Lesvos – The Situation
When I came home from our first trip to Slovenia I was an emotional wreck, all I wanted to do was cry. I wrote a blog to try and work through all the emotions I had. I’ve been home from Lesvos for a little over 24hrs and I feel numb.
I’ve spent the journey home and today trying to work out how I feel, i’ve been trying to think through the best way to tell the story of Moria to share with you an honest account of my experience. But quite honestly i’m struggling with the words…
I think it will take some time to tell all of the stories from Moria but first I think it would be helpful to set the scene, explain a little about the process and how volunteers like us are able to make an impact to the refugees, so this blog will share with you what i’m calling the situation.
Our first day was spent understanding the geography of the Island, we were staying in the North, it is where a lot of the boats arrive from Turkey, it is here that the distance is the shortest, but it is still incredibly dangerous. The shoreline is very rocky and isolated. This is one of the first areas volunteers are having a big impact, there are volunteers at lookout points with binoculars and others ready to jump into rescue boats to guide boats in or to pick up boats that have already started to sink.
Over and over we heard from refugees about how these boats were overloaded with people and boats with motors that didn’t work properly. We met men, women and children who had been in boats that had capsized, families whose children had been underwater for long periods of time, in the confusion and panic babies had been used as floats.
As we drove along the coast we could see the debris of the past days arrivals, the rubber from the boats, the discarded life jackets, clothes and shoes.
Once they land they then need to make their way to a transit camp, we saw a UNHCR camp that is being built at the bottom of the winding road, we were told it will be open in a few weeks, a number of tents will have heating and supplies so they can get out of wet clothes, rest before making their way to registration. For now though they make their way to Skala or Oxy. We stopped at Oxy for some time to see if we could offer any assistance, it was a quiet day they were cleaning up and getting ready for the next influx. They try to give people dry clothing, blankets and food whilst they wait for the transit buses. Here they are sorted into Syrian Women and Children, Syrian single men, Afghan, Iraq, Pakistan etc. etc. The registration camps are in the South it is about 1hrs 20mins drive. Syrian families head to Kara Tepe, Syrian, Moroccan and other African nation men to one side of Moria and all the other go to the Afghan Hill side of Moria.
When the buses arrive on the Afghan hill side everyone has to walk up the hill to the gate and get a ticket, with the date and a number.
Further up the hill they are invited in to be registered in batches. How long they have to wait depends on how many people are on shift, when we first arrived this was fairly quick, only slowed down by the sheer volume of people.
On our last day it was incredibly slow, with no explanation. Everyone is at the mercy of the authorities.
On the Afghan side, the large presence of volunteers has meant that the refugees are getting better care than they were. The conditions are still filthy, the hill has no proper drainage where people use the hill as a toilet this then flows down when it rains.
But there is a kitchen tent, serving chai and noodle broth, distributing water, crackers and sometimes fruit. There is a clothing tent for men and a separate one for women and children, there are never enough shoes but the volunteers try their best to make sure everyone who is wet can get something dry to wear. There is a medical tent and whilst we were there a children’s art tent was created, much needed and much appreciated by the families. Gravel was laid on the mud whilst we were there meaning that it is less muddy when it rains and a tent was being put up which will offer better shelter for supplies and medical help. Another community tent was erected and a UK team of volunteers were boarding the floor to make it weather proof.
Once the refugees have their ticket they are then left to their own devices to figure out how to spend their time at Moria. Pop up tents were distributed a few nights before we arrived, as people vacate them, new refugees move in. There are some tents at the bottom of the registration hill including some container type shelters, there are some toilets and showers there too. These shelters are mostly reserved for families volunteers are able to assign families to these shelters, unfortunately this can be a difficult process as you have to open each one up and hope you find an empty one especially when you have the expectant family following you.
Finally there is some accommodation in the prison, this is managed by a couple of NGO’s and it is a complete mystery to me how this space is managed. No one on the outside is clearly informed about how much space there is and who can be let in – it is guesswork. On the days we could get through the gap in the fence we would head to the entrance and ask if there is room, depending on who was on the door really depends on whether your vulnerable case would get inside.
Throughout the day different groups of volunteers distribute food and water, at about 8pm one group arrives with a hot meal.
On the Syrian side things varied drastically, when I first arrived I’d heard rumours that the process on the Syrian side was very quick they didn’t stay around very long and were first tracked on our final day we found this not to be the case and the Syrian side was in a serious mess. Firstly families should be able to go to Kara Tepe but for some reason families were falling through the cracks and would end up in Moria. Moroccans and other African nations were also being processed on the Syrian side, unfortunately for some reason the authorities had slowed the process right down. They don’t have a ticketing system so people are forced to stay in line. There are two stages, queue outside of the “cage” and the queue inside the “cage” on Monday some of the people inside the cage had been in there for 6hrs + the challenge is there is no toilet, no access to food or water and as it got colder they had no access to blankets. Once they are processed they are free to then head to the port.
Once they have they’re papers all refugees can take a bus for a couple of euros or a taxi for 10 Euros to the port. They then need to purchase a ferry ticket which will take them to Athens. There is a night ferry and one at 7am. A lot of families who have funds will head to the port to find some accommodation and get a shower and some sleep. Others can choose to fly to Thessaloniki where they then head to the Macedonia border to start the route north through the Balkans.
Over the coming days and weeks I will share more of the people’s stories so that you can better understand who the people are we met. I hope this gives you a clear understanding of the situation in Lesvos and how the system works and please feel free to ask any questions i’m more than happy to try my best to answer them.
Thank you so much for writing this blog, and for your work volunteering for refugees in Europe.
If you have a moment, I was wondering if you could offer your informed opinion on my potential trip to Lesvos.
I’m a 23 year old visual artist and performer from Nova Scotia, Canada, residing in Toronto. I’ve taken this term off school to spend time with my grandparents in Scotland. Since the refugee crisis began, and particularly in the past year, my sister and I have felt such pain and a desire to help refugees fleeing ISIL. With us both being closer to Greece, and better being able to justify the cost instead of putting the travel cost to better use with lifeline Syria, we decided to go to Lesvos for a month next month to volunteer.
Unfortunately, my sister’s work can no longer permit the time away. Which leaves me wondering if I could still make the trip on my own. My sister is a doctor, and could offer essential medical care, whereas my skill set would be less essential, being able to hold art sessions, and drama, improv, and music activities for kids and adults. Or just putting my body where it’s needed; cleaning, cooking, handing out supplies etc.
Outside of being a less essential volunteer, my family and sister in particular are extremely worried about my safety if I were to go alone as a single female. It was in looking for security risks in volunteering in Lesvos that I came across your blog. Would you consider it too unsafe for a young, single female to volunteer on her own?
I personally find it very hard to make a decision based on safety, considering that these people don’t have the privilege of that choice. But I know I am young, perhaps stubborn, and maybe I feel that unrealistic feeling of invincibility that young people purportedly feel. I don’t want to underestimate the risks, and my family is very against me going.
I apologise for sending such a long message, and I really, really appreciate you reading it. We don’t know anyone who’s volunteered, and the pamphlets handed out by various NGO’s weren’t specific on security, particularly for single travelers. Your opinion would be greatly appreciated, and thank you again for your time and work regardless.
Hi thank you for reading and good for you for volunteering. There are a couple of options, firstly the situation in Lesvos is very different now but there is still a need for volunteers. This group on facebook is the best option https://www.facebook.com/groups/informationpointforlesvosvolunteers/
When I was in Lesvos I worked with this wonderful grass roots charity, if you’re flexible on where you can go in Greece I would thoroughly recommend them especially if you’re on your own as they are a wonderful charity. https://www.facebook.com/betterdays.ngo
On the safety point I was a volunteer with 3 other women, I never felt unsafe and we were were in some tricky situations (managing crowds mostly men) I never felt threatened and I was 9 weeks pregnant. However that said it is always good to be wise and make contact and have people you can look up when you arrive because you have to put your safety first. There are some AMAZING locals on Lesvos (and elsewhere in Greece but I can only speak for Lesvos) who are in the thick of it and have been long before it made the news and long after it has stopped hitting the headlines. The two FB pages above should help you for sure and i’m happy to chat more.