On Lesvos

Julian Sayarer

In Moria camp on Lesvos, 9000 people are trying to live in a space built for less than 2000. Children as young as ten are reported as suicidal.

Sitting outside a cafe in Mytilene, UK Border Agency sailors seconded to Europe’s Frontex force drink frappés and talk about football, about a message to a girl back home that she has received but not replied to. In Athens, I had been told by someone recently returned from holiday on Lesvos that the arrival of the Royal Navy had suppressed the trafficker routes from Turkey, allowing the tourist island to return to a kind of normalcy. But the border officers – working two weeks on, two off – tell a different story: ‘Some nights it’s quiet, then there’ll be two, three rescues.’ I asked how long they’ve been stationed here: ‘Too long.’

When I got to Moria, two coaches were being boarded, with people tapping at the windows to wave goodbye. Médecins Sans Frontières, who have left the camp in protest at conditions, maintain a clinic nearby. A local volunteer there told me the buses were bound for Athens. I tried to clarify a rumour that the camp is to be evacuated and closed. ‘Four hundred leave, six hundred arrive,’ the volunteer said. ‘It is like this.’

Both the UNHCR and local volunteer organisations report that hundreds of Afghans have arrived on Lesvos in recent weeks. The cause of the sudden arrival is unknown, but their likely holdup on the island will expose again the hierarchy of the region’s refugees, where Syrians have a twisted sort of advantage in coming from a conflict the world at least recognises. Afghanis, like Iraqis and most others, are left to plead cases from countries it is expedient for western nations to proclaim safe.

NGO and border staff are bracing for a large new wave of refugees from northern Syria, where a fragile Russia-Turkey peace deal is all that stops regime forces retaking Turkish-backed rebel territory in the Idlib region. In brokering the deal, Turkey may be seen as having sold out its anti-Assad, Islamist proxies in Syria; revenge attacks inside Turkey are possible. Meanwhile, Kurdish groups are still restive, and the Turkish economy is moving fast towards hyperinflation, which makes the hard currency of the 2016 refugee deal with the EU ever more critical to the Erdoğan government.

On Lesvos, five miles across the Mytilini Strait from the Turkish coast, the new normal of the crisis has at least created ground for some green shoots to establish. The One Happy Family community centre, run by predominantly Swiss volunteers working with refugees, is three miles from Moria camp. A local currency, the drachma, circulates in the centre, helping refugees pay for the services of a barber, a tailor, or to buy toiletries. The plastic from old lifejackets and inflatable boats is being recycled into wallets or bags for sale. A van has been converted into a multilingual library. Volunteers run bicycle, yoga and swimming classes. A chef from Myanmar runs a kitchen with a woman from Zimbabwe.

Among the busiest facilities are a gym and fitness centre. Outside a boxing class, I met an Iranian and his new friend from Yemen. ‘All Africans are brothers,’ one man in the gym reassured another, who seemed nervous about sharing some of the equipment. In Moria the previous night there’d been a fight between Somali and Congolese residents, eventually dispersed by police with tear gas.

On my last visit to One Happy Family, I spoke with an Afghan saxophonist who was giving guitar lessons to groups of children. His main complaint was that they all too often wanted only to pose with a guitar for Instagram photos, rather than taking the lessons seriously. Having received his travel documents, he plans to head to Portugal, ‘the European country that most loves refugees’. It’s an open question whether this will prove to be a hope fulfilled, or one more dashed this winter on the borders of Europe.


  • 27 September 2018 at 10:32pm
    KimMalcolm says:
    I am grateful for your personal account on what has been recently called "the worst refugee camp in the world." I was on Lesvos for several months in 2016, and later in Athens working with refugees. I have written a book about the experience called "A Country Within."
    Thank you