Hidden away on the beautiful Greek island of Lesvos lies a terrible truth and Eoghan Scott volunteered there earlier this year to learn more
We flew out in the early hours of New Year’s Day. It’s late October now as I write this, so almost a year has passed since I, alongside three others, went to the Greek Isle of Lesvos to volunteer at Moria refugee camp for two weeks; and I’d like to say now that a lot has changed. I’m proud of the time we spent there and of what we did, and I really do think we made a difference, however minor it may have been.
Have things improved though? That’s hard to say. Last I heard, about a month ago, riots broke out in Moria. Apparently this was due to people’s obvious frustration at the notoriously slow pace at which asylum requests are being processed. We were there for just under two weeks and I can unequivocally say that it was one of the hardest experiences of my life; the sheer emotional toll that it took towards the end cannot be underestimated. Which only makes it all the more distressing to think about those who cannot leave, those who are stuck there indefinitely with no place else to go.
When we arrived in Lesvos, I’m sure none of us really knew what to expect. We were venturing into unknown territory and no amount of preparation could ever really prepare us. Moria, the refugee camp, lies in stark contrast to the rest of the island. The city of Mytilene is beautiful to behold, surrounded by hills and furnished with beautifully constructed, neoclassical buildings. And positioned on the same island, Moria is exactly how one might imagine a refugee camp to be.
Thrown into the deep-end from the moment we got there, we did anything from handing out dry clothes to soaked travellers to delivering supplies across the island or laying down gravel around the camp following a severe storm. As a completely volunteer-run camp, there was nobody available to hold our hands all the time; if we wanted to help, we had to do things ourselves or nobody would. Like ourselves, most of the volunteers were short-term and as a result there is massive turnover from week to week, and you have to learn to adapt and take charge quickly if anything is going to get done.
Moria itself is in fact a registration camp. This means that, for the most part, the refugees do not stay there permanently; or at least, they aren’t supposed to. If all goes well, somebody might stay for two, three days max during the winter (six or seven over the summer). However, we found that this was not always the case.
The registration process was tricky. Each refugee was divided by their nationality to register; Syrians and Iraqis go one way, Afghans and everyone else go another. However Moroccans or Algerians had nowhere to go. Fresh from surviving the perilous journey just to get there, they are then faced with the uncomfortable reality of not being granted asylum and are forced to remain on the island indefinitely. As a registration camp, Moria is not suited for long-term inhabitants and it’s no surprise to hear of riots breaking out in such conditions. Sooner or later, those who are stuck will usually attempt to leave the island for mainland Greece or Spain, or anywhere at all which might have the promise of work available. These journeys will be attempted by any means, even if dangerous or illegal.
I know what I’ve said thus far doesn’t sound too positive, and that’s true because a lot of it wasn’t and it’s pointless to deny that. Even so, there was positivity that cannot be denied. It was, and it remains, truly inspiring to see people all around you that are out to make a difference, to help and be part of something bigger, something that really matters. Of all the people I met, from fellow volunteers to refugees, I don’t actually recall a single negative interaction. For people living in such dire, hopeless circumstances and battling against such incredible frustration, it’s amazing to think back on that aspect.
Syrian, Iraqi, Afghan, Moroccan, Algerian, Irish. Like a modern-day Tower of Babel, it could’ve been easy to get bogged down in the differences between us, like sadly so often happens in the world. But everybody there was human, everybody was one. I’d like to say things have improved since then. I really would. However, with the first child refugees arriving in the UK from Calais being greeted with xenophobic accusations and scrutiny over their age, and with Ireland yet to even scratch the surface of the 4,000 migrants it had previously pledged to relocate, it looks like we still have a way to go.