Lesvos Burning

Yiannis Baboulias

On Monday night, a group of refugees in the Moria camp on Lesvos started a fire that blazed throughout the night and destroyed most of the camp. A storm hit the island the next morning and finished the job, mixing cinders and gravel into dark sludge. The 4000 people staying in the camp were displaced and most of them, including 100 unaccompanied minors, had to sleep rough that night.

The protest was sparked by a rumour that hundreds were to be sent back to Turkey. According to the UNHCR, more than 94,000 refugees have arrived on Lesvos (population 86,000) so far this year, and more than 38,000 on Chios (population 32,000). The camps on Lesvos and Chios – both EU-designated 'hotspots' – are overcrowded to breaking point. They currently hold more than 7000 people, twice as many as their official maximum capacity.

Last year, the stream of refugees making the cross from Turkey came during a healthy tourist season. But Lesvos had a financially catastrophic summer this year. The locals, who showed a great deal of tolerance and solidarity for the refugees in 2015, are getting nervous. The vast majority still show understanding for the refugees’ predicament, but extreme voices are getting bolder as the situation worsens.

On Chios, where 3500 people are stuck, 2000 of them live in hastily set up tents. Last Wednesday, a protest organised by locals was hijacked by far-right groups, who decided to march on the hotspot. The police intervened and broke the demo up using tear gas. Refugees inside the camp threw rocks at the protesters. A journalist was attacked by a local representative of the Golden Dawn.

A reporter who tried to approach the Moria camp on the night of the fire witnessed an attack on four women who had escaped the blaze. In a post on Facebook, she describes a 70-year-old local man shouting ‘These whores need to go!’ before attacking her too.

Things are desperate. Through a combination of cumbersome bureaucracy, denial and ineffective disbursement of funds to the Greek state and NGOs (whose handling of the situation has been far from exemplary), Europe has left the refugees, and the local inhabitants of the islands, to rot.

As Jeremy Harding reported yesterday, only around 500 refugees have been sent back to Turkey under a deal agreed between Ankara and Brussels last year. Of the 160,000 people who were supposed to be relocated from Greece and Italy to other European countries, fewer than 6000 have been so far. The refugees from Moria will be housed on a passenger ferry while the camp is being repaired. Greece is being asked to create permanent structures with decent living conditions for refugees, while pretending that they are temporary.

Other facilities across the country are in better shape. But they are hosting people who don’t want to be there. Drugs have made an appearance in some areas, violence is endemic (there have even been murders inside the camps), children are prostituting themselves to survive, and anger is growing.


  • 23 September 2016 at 9:23am
    IPFreely says:
    Al Jazeera seems to be the only TV programme that regularly reports on the situation and also gives reports on the numbers of refugees crossing by boat. Well worth tuning in if you can.

  • 23 September 2016 at 11:44am
    RobotBoy says:
    There are still many people in Europe who must remember how they suffered as refugees being shoved back and forth across newly drawn borders. However, far too few of them seem to have much empathy for these new victims, nor do they seem to have communicated the misery of those displacements to their children and grandchildren.

    • 23 September 2016 at 4:56pm
      IPFreely says: @ RobotBoy
      The point you have raised is very important and complex with many answers. The latest arrivals have found jobs, homes, started families and may fear that the new arrivals could endanger their precarious safety. It doesn't matter to them how needy the refugees are, they make demands, they need help, houses, jobs and will work for less than you if they get the chance. (Take a look at the situation at Calais and you will see how desperate these people are.) The 'welcome culture' has evaporated - if it ever reached there. The refugees from what was the Soviet Union or from what was Czechoslovakia have settled, some are prosperous, but their memories have faded. They don't identify with the newest arrivals. The older survivors of the treks from the east in 1945 know what such an experience means and do what they can to help, but they are old, there is little that they can do except give advice, give some furniture or household equipment. So each of these groups reacts in different ways. With rejection or with help. Very few are neutral or indifferent to the situation, but there is no normative response to this crisis.

    • 26 September 2016 at 2:49pm
      Rikkeh says: @ IPFreely
      The lack of empathy is very disturbing.

      When I was at university (2002-2005), Syria was where the arabic language students went to study for their year abroad. Not only did the locals speak what was regarded a fairly standard version of the language (i.e. one comprehensible to other countries' arabic speakers, rather than being rendered unintelligible by dialect words or thick accents), but it was stable and safe. I say this to show how quickly, on the scale of a person's lifetime, things can go south.

      It is not inconceivable that in my lifetime, or in the lifetimes of my children, the UK will no longer be stable and safe and people will have to flee. But will people be even more reluctant to take these homeless British in, remembering how we (or our parents behaved) when we were the ones being asked to provide a safe haven?