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.