In 2015, a half million people made the desperate journey across the Mediterranean Sea to the Greek island of Lesbos, fleeing war-torn countries like Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq for the relative safety of refugee camps and European Union countries.
As a Uruguayan photojournalist covering stories of migration, I had heard about the thousands reaching Lesbos in overcrowded and unsafe dinghies, but I didn’t know much about what happened after they arrived.
In 2015 borders within the EU were open, and within three days of making landfall refugees would get their papers, go to Athens and continue their journey, applying for asylum elsewhere in the EU.
That changed in March 2016, when the EU and Turkey signed a deal aiming to stop the flood of refugees into Europe and instead divert them through Turkey. In theory, for every refugee that an EU country returned to Turkey, the EU would resettle someone processed there. In reality, the deal increased border controls and deportations and resulted in few resettlements. In addition, it forced asylum-seekers who arrived in Greece to apply for protection there, and dictated that refugees couldn’t leave the island on which they arrived until their asylum request had been accepted.
People still make the perilous crossing, and when they land on Lesbos or other islands, they face a humiliating process that can leave them waiting years in what is essentially an open-air prison. As of last summer, there were more than 60,000 asylum-seekers in Greece, and according to the UN Refugee agency, today there are 5,100 refugees living in Lesbos’ Moria camp, where the capacity is just 1,700.
The 2016 deal created hotspots in landing locations where refugees are expected to apply for asylum and live while awaiting an answer. Moria is the largest such camp in Lesbos, and inside its razor-wire walls conditions are dire. People sleep in summer tents, there is rarely running water and there’s no trash or sewage system. Residents escaping conflict zones get sicker once they arrive due to the poor conditions, and the overpopulation and endless waiting create conflicts, which sometimes escalate to fights that affect the entire camp.
“There’s no reason why 5,000 people in a camp in Europe cannot have access to basic shelter, health care, toilets and hot water,” Aria Danika, Lesbos field coordinator for Doctors Without Borders, told the Washington Post.
The Qias family is originally from Afghanistan, but moved to Iran during the last decade due to Taliban threats. In Iran they had few rights. As refugees, they couldn’t attend university or own property, and as the situation deteriorated in their home country, they decided to make the trip to Europe.
Twelve members of the family, including two babies and one elderly woman, arrived on Lesbos in a dinghy late one night in August 2017, but they were dismayed by what they found: flimsy tents as housing, stinking, pit latrines, long lines for food and a violent environment. After being caught in a confrontation between Afghans and Arabs inside Moria, they started a protest in Lesbos’ main square to demand better conditions and the chance to leave the prison island. Two weeks later, the demonstration escalated into a hunger strike.
I met the Qias family and other protesters and documented their demonstration during a visit to Lesbos in October and November 2017.
Moria was the first hotspot to be created in October 2015 and is the largest and the most crowded. Like all the hotspots in Greece and Italy, it’s located far from the city, sequestered on a hill surrounded by olive trees and where it’s out of sight for local residents and tourists. Today the population far exceeds its capacity, and there’s not enough space or resources. “We only get two liters of bottled water a day for everything, and there is almost no running water. The food is little and very bad, and it’s all very dirty,” said Ahmed, a Syrian refugee living in the camp.
Only 3 miles of sea divide Lesbos and Turkey on the north part of the island, making it one of the most popular routes to Europe. After the EU-Turkey deal was signed in 2016, arrivals decreased, but did not stop. In 2017, 12,742 people made the crossing to Lesbos, and in the first four days of 2018, 251 people arrived on the island.
A child and a young pregnant mother stand in front of their tent just outside of Moria camp. When they arrived they were placed next to one of the bathrooms, but they were getting sick and couldn’t sleep because of the smell. So they took their tent and moved outside of the camp’s razor-wire walls.
Sadegh from Afghanistan sleeps in Sappho Square. The main square in Mytilene, the capital of Lesbos, was occupied for almost a month by a group of protesters demanding better conditions for asylum seekers on the island. There were not enough tents for everyone, so the men slept outside in the square, even during cold nights.
Adele Qias is 16 years old and dreams of studying physics. She and her three sisters moved to Europe in the hopes of continuing their education and finding work, but inside Moria they still feel like second-class citizens. “We came to study, to be better, to get our rights, but we are getting sick emotionally and physically in Moria. This is not the Europe that we came for. Where are the rights of asylum seekers?”
On November 1, after two weeks of living and demonstrating in the square without answers to their demands, the Qias sisters and other asylum-seekers launched an open-ended hunger strike. They demanded better living conditions in Moria, a faster asylum application process and freedom of movement in Greece while applying for protected status.
The four Qias sisters lasted the longest on the hunger strike. After 28 days, with their health deteriorating and no progress in response to their protest, they stopped the strike but continued to fight.
The protesters had occupied the Sappho Square for three weeks when the commemoration of Lesbos’ liberation was celebrated on November 8.
Early that morning, police violently brought down every tent, and when the parade for the holiday started that afternoon, police surrounded the protesters. In this picture, Qasem Qias and his 1-year-old daughter hold a sign that says, “We are refugees, not criminals … Open the island.”
Fifteen-year-old Ely Qias demonstrates in front of Moria camp, joining chants of “Moria, no good” and “Freedom! Freedom!”
With winter approaching, residents sleeping in summer tents were worried and angry, reminded of last winter when six people in the camp died because of the cold. “Here the time passes slower. We just wait, see fights, make a line, wait again for food, get cold. There are not enough blankets for everyone. Moria is no good,” said Ely.
Every month, the asylum-seekers on Lesbos go to the European Asylum Support Office to renew their immigration cards. If they get a blue stamp, they can move to the mainland, but many of the protesters have gone more than 10 times and received the red stamp that restricts them to the island at every visit. Simultaneously, deportations back to Turkey are increasing. In some cases, asylum seekers wait more than a year on Lesbos only to get deported.
Karim Qias, 14, holds a picture of Hesam Shaeri Hesari, a fellow protester and hunger striker who was taken to prison and placed on the deportation list after 12 days of his hunger strike.
On November 15, demonstrators outside Moria called for the release of all the refugees stranded on the island and a stop to Hesam’s deportation process. Hesam is a poet and activist who was a political and ideological prisoner in Iran before escaping and fleeing to Lesbos. Since his arrival, he has been protesting the situation at Moria. Thanks to the resistance of his fellow protesters, he has not been deported back to Iran yet, where he could face torture and prison, but remains in custody and on the deportation list.
Iman Alidoosti was a playwright in Iran, where he wrote a controversial play that resulted in his arrest and torture. On the way to his trial Iman escaped and managed to get to Lesbos by the end of the summer. Since his arrival four months ago he has been protesting for better conditions and against the containment policy.
Fifteen days after this photograph was taken, demonstrators in the square were violently evicted by the police, forcing the refugees to find somewhere else to sleep.
Today, Iman, Hesam, Sadegh, Ely, Adele, Qasem and many other asylum-seekers are still fighting for their basic rights, their dignity and to be liberated from the open-air prison of Lesbos.
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