MORIA, Lesbos - Volunteers working at the notorious Moria refugee and migrant camp on the island of Lesbos said children - including babies and toddlers - were hit by tear gas fired by police who were trying to stop 2,000 protesters from reaching the island’s capital.
The demonstrators are angry over living conditions at the facility holding some 19,000 people in a place designed for only about 3,000, with as many as 6,000 more spilling over into an olive grove and outside, and with conditions said to be inhumane.
The British newspaper The Telegraph and Newsweek reported the children were affected by the tear gas with police frantically trying to keep the protesters at bay as conditions worsened and reinforcements had to be called in from the mainland.
Volunteers used Coca-Cola to try to wash the tear gas out of the eyes of screaming children after riot police fired tear gas canisters at the demonstration that the paper said was peaceful but which Greek media said turned violent.
Raw sewage trickles between tents and container accommodation, sacks of rubbish are left uncollected and scabies is widespread, the paper reported as two dozen human rights groups and activists have complained the situation is inhumane and dire.
Afghan and Syrian women held up placards which read “Freedom” and “Moria is a Prison for Refugees” as they headed from the camp towards Mytilene, about five miles away.
When police blocked them, some staged a sit-in on the road while others tried to go round the police lines by scattering through fields and olive groves.
“People were attacked with tear gas even though it was peaceful,” a British volunteer helping refugees on Lesbos told The Telegraph.
“Women and children were beaten by the police. We helped people who had been affected by the gas by giving them Coca-Cola to wash with. People were crying. People collapsed," said the volunteer, who did not want to be identified.
Franziska Grillmeier, a German journalist working on the island, said: “There was a lot of tear gas, it was constant. Fires broke out in the olive groves and firemen had to be called. Everybody who was there was tear gassed, including babies and small children.
“Children were crying and in panic – they couldn’t catch their breath, they had respiratory problems. The parents brought their babies and kids on the march because there are no safe spaces in the camp in which to leave them.” On Lesbos, “The vast majority are families from Afghanistan and Syria, over a third are children and many are living in tents and makeshift shelters without access to power, heating or hot water. It’s filthy. There aren’t enough latrines and showers,” said Boris Cheshirkov, spokesman in Greece for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.
The refugees and migrants are also frustrated over delays in asylum applications that can take two years and longer to process, which the New Democracy government said it would accelerate although the backlog is said to be nearly 90,000 cases.
In an interview with Newsweek, Cheshirkov said he had heard reports of migrants and asylum seekers being teargassed during the protests.
In a Twitter post, Grillmeier shared a video of a father from Afghanistan and his two children, aged 11 and six, with the family claiming to have been teargassed by police.
"I didn't come here for money, I came here for safety and for my kids to have an education," the father says, according to a translation provided by Grillmeier, as his eldest child can be seen sitting on the grass and crying. Both children, Grillmeier says, had been "heavily tear-gassed."
Children were seen fleeing armed police wearing riot gear, while other photos appear to show protesters throwing smoke bombs as fires break out outside the camp.
Speaking under condition of anonymity, a member of the Hellenic Police told Newsweek that the only thing they could confirm was police tried to stop protesters from making their way to the city center.
"Some people tried to go from the camp in Moria to downtown in Lesbos and some of them (wanted) to come in the center of the town," the individual said. "The police forces were in the middle of the road...but some of them finally got to the route downtown."