I have recently returned from volunteering at Moria Refugee Camp in Lesvos, Greece, a hot spot in the European refugee crisis. I went to Lesvos because I felt that I could no longer watch passively as the crisis unfolds. Moria is ‘borderland’ space that, to me, encompasses the full spectrum of humanity: in a given hour, you will witness scenes of despair, hope, tragedy and inspiration. As Johnson and colleagues (2011, p. 62) remind us, “rather than neutral lines, borders are often pools of emotions, fears and memories.”
I worked during the day with I Am You, a Swedish non-profit organisation dedicated to coordinating volunteer relief operations. I Am You partners with the Danish Refugee Council in the coordination of Refugee Housing Units on the official camp. Some of these 60 or so shelters have electric heating reserved for especially vulnerable people and families, but in most cases refugees are exposed to temperatures that can plummet to near freezing. Some days it snows. Conditions are such that, as one doctor concluded dejectedly, “all of the children are sick.”
The official camp, overseen by the government, is based on the site of an old detention centre, with concrete walls (bearing graffiti with messages like ‘no one is illegal’ and ‘freedom of movement’), barbed wire fences and guard booths. Inside are the offices of international organisations like the UNHCR, Médecins Sans Frontières, Oxfam and Save the Children. Though I Am You is an exception, ad hoc NGOs that grew in response to the crisis typically function in an area called the Olive Grove. The Olive Grove was established in late 2015 by the non-profit organisation Better Days for Moria on private property beside the official camp.
The daily operations on the Olive Grove – administering tents, meals, clothes and shoes, hot tea, medical services, a nondenominational prayer tent, toilets, a children’s area and more – are all managed by small NGOs composed entirely of volunteers. As the political winds shift around Moria, these NGOs concentrate their efforts on supporting refugees in a climate of precariousness. It is astounding to witness the responsiveness of the volunteers and to see people from all backgrounds and cultures come together for a common mission. It is also humbling to see the selfless work of some refugees: some are very motivated to help with interpretation, coordination, and distribution of provisions – sometimes after having arrived by boat themselves only the night before.
The camp, with its official site in the former detention centre and unofficial site on the Olive Grove, has been functioning apace since roughly November 2015: there is now even free Wifi on the camp. But there are still many challenges. There is a shortage of medics and interpreters and supplies like backpacks and boots, but in this context and many like it, donations are more useful than gifts in kind – for a few reasons. The camp is often muddy and wet. Sometimes refugees arrive by the thousands, and overwhelm the camp to the extent that many people must sleep out in the open. When thousands of people are pushing to line up for registration, the police can become tense and yell or slam on metal barricades. Occasionally conflicts erupt. Despite the conditions, one Iraqi man with a young family told me, “I know one thing – we will never go back to Iraq. Never.”
There is a diversity of migrants and refugees arriving to Moria. While most people arrive from Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq, I also met people from countries like Iran, Pakistan, Morocco and Nigeria. In January and February 2016, 38% of new arrivals were children, according to the UNHRC, and 22% women: a different demographic profile than is usually portrayed in public discourses. 79% of Syrians and 44% of Afghans are reported to have a secondary, high school, or university degree. There are families, pregnant women, elderly people and people with disabilities. During my first few days of volunteering, one woman went into labour while staying on camp.
Of the 860,000 people who reached Greece by sea in 2015, 500,000 of those arrived at Lesvos. From January 1 to March 1, 2016, according to the UNHCR, Lesvos received approximately 1,200 people a day. This pales in number to the previous October, which saw 4,400 people a day.
In addition to day shifts, I also volunteered some nights on the shores, supporting the volunteer lifeguards with incoming rafts from Turkey. Each night, volunteers position themselves along the coast (in front of the airport, for example, whose red lights serve as a beacon on the water). When rafts approach, we rush to help them land safely, provide medical attention, water, food, emergency blankets, and sometimes soft toys to the children. Ambulances often arrive for the severely ill. Hypothermia is common. There can be so much turmoil that sometimes I have had to restrain myself from simply standing there. Volunteers help wrap up and soothe crying children, or change people’s wet socks into warm, dry ones. Once everyone is cared for, UNHCR busses help transport people to camp.
Refugees cross the Aegean Sea through a sophisticated network of smugglers, who, refugees have told us, charge around 800 to 1,200 Euros per person. When they arrive at the Turkish shore and realise they will be crossing in inadequate rafts, some people resist, and smugglers often force them onto the rafts at gunpoint. The smugglers might dip the babies’ pacifiers into gasoline or whiskey to stop them from crying. They frequently sell life vests that are not buoyant and actually absorb water, adding weight and increasing the likelihood of drowning. I am certain that Ai Weiwei’s art installation of a Berlin concert hall draped with 14,000 life vests from Lesvos comprises many fakes.
Working the shores can be a surreal, emotional experience. On my first night the lifeguards I accompanied were notified of a raft on the Turkish side that was sinking. Family members of those in the raft sent us voice messages they had received, and we listened to the recordings one after another. With each message we heard the caller become increasingly anxious as the raft sank lower and lower. In the haunting last recording, we could hear the caller’s panic as he declared the boat was going down and this would be the last message, we heard a boy in the background calling out for his mom, and we heard the water. Most thankfully, through communication with the family members, the lifeguards managed to transmit the raft’s coordinates to the Turkish coast guard and it was found. The last I heard, however, was that a mother and a child were still missing.
While there is sometimes tragedy, there are also incredible acts of humanity that happen on the shores. Among the volunteers, some of my heroes are those from the non-profit lifeguard organisation ProemAid. The team is incredibly organised, acts swiftly and competently, and is present at the shores every night, regardless of the conditions.
Arriving to shore is not always a sombre event, but is often a cause for celebration: upon landing safely, people often take selfies, sometimes with the volunteers. They may pray or kiss the ground. They hold their children tight.
I have many memories from my experiences on Lesvos. Most of these are of events on camp, rather than of stories from the refugees (as we generally did not share a common language). The interpreters, however, often provide emotional support to refugees: they offer comfort through a familiar language, play a critical role in emergencies and listen to hundreds of distressing stories. Their work is invaluable, and their burden can be heavy and humbling, as it is for the people volunteering as medics, team leads, beach cleaners, cooks, infrastructure managers, distribution volunteers, and for those helping give a dignified burial to victims of the crisis.
When I think back on my experience, a couple of moments stand out for me. On one of my last days, I took a walk to the Olive Grove. Within a couple of minutes, someone pointed me towards a young boy who had been separated from his mother. He was about two years old. He stumbled along, whimpering from having cried for so long. Some interpreters offered help, but the boy wouldn’t respond to any language. Another volunteer helped me bring the boy to the medical tent, which had staff available to watch him while the two of us went out to search for his mother. Before we left, a doctor cautioned me: “You may not find the mother – in a place like this, when mother and child are separated they are not often reunited.”
After some desperate searching, someone pointed us to a woman who said she was missing her son. Her expression did not have the angst I would expect of a mother missing her child, but what I saw instead was exhaustion. I wonder with deep sympathy at how much a mother must endure for exhaustion to overcome her distress at losing a child. As we introduced her to the boy, we watched closely for signs that this woman might not be the mother, as human trafficking is a regular occurrence. But while the mother did little more than sit down and open her arms, the boy’s response was unmistakeable: he stopped crying and rushed into her arms, where he began wailing from relief.
On my last day, I received warm hugs and small gifts from some of the young children I had spent time with. A girl of about five gave me a drawing: a picture of a raft in the ocean. Another girl of eleven from Afghanistan gave me a handmade gift, a warm hug and a beaming smile as I left. Her positive spirit is something I hope to always remember. I helped arrange shelter for her parents on the official camp. As we walked they thanked me for spending time with her. They told me about their dream of settling in Sweden, but as in many countries, an increasingly large portion of asylum seekers are turned away. Borders are closing. As I write, the Greek town of Idomeni near the Macedonian border verges on a crisis as Macedonia has closed its border with Greece and the number of stranded refugees swells.
It has been a few weeks since I’ve left Moria, and I am still processing my experience. A fellow volunteer observed recently that Moria is a place where inhumanity and humanity collide, and I agree. Elaborate business networks, often relating to human trafficking, thrive off of this humanitarian crisis, and at the same time thousands of volunteers give so much of themselves to help others. I am incensed by the political protectionism and buck passing that is costing lives daily, and I am moved by the resilience of the refugees, the children in particular.
Efforts from volunteers and international organisations on the ground are not enough: people will continue to travel and be displaced for years. There are three basic options, argues Dr. Alexander Betts, for people who are displaced: encampment (with bleak conditions and few prospects), urban destitution in a neighbouring country, or dangerous journeys. But these options are the only ones available because of a collective assumption that refugees are a burden to society.
The refugee crisis is constructed. One factor enabling its construction is Europe’s asylum policy, which in practice requires that one must arrive spontaneously (as through dangerous journeys) to seek asylum. Shifting our collective beliefs about refugees as individuals with aspirations, virtues and the desire to make a valuable contribution to society, in tandem with policies more responsive to the needs of refugees – like the humanitarian visa proposal by Dr. Betts – would save lives. No matter how far we are from the crisis, we do not have to accept its continuation. We can engage with it and dig deep, reflecting on the ways we have been passive and in which we can resist it, so that refugees can not only survive, but also receive the life of dignity they deserve.
Johnson, C., Jones, R., Paasi, A., Amoore, L., Mountz, A., Salter, M. and Rumford, C. (2011) Interventions on rethinking ‘the border’ in border studies, Political Geography, 30(2), pp. 61-69.
Editor’s Note: Jessie Bryant recently graduated with distinction from the Graduate School of Education’s MEd programme where her programme focused on policy and international development. She has been an active member of GESF’s Reading Group and the GESF Centre, and recently presented a seminar in GESF’s series on conflict, security and borders. For further information please contact email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org