Guest Viewpoints

Moria Refugee Camp, Lesvos: The Clock is Ticking – Part 1

September 1, 2019
Dr. Alexander Kitroeff

Moria is a small village on the Aegean island of Lesvos with just over 1,100 inhabitants, and the place where a spectacular section of the island’s 2nd century Roman aqueduct is still standing. But the village has become known around the world for a 21st century phenomenon, a large and crowded refugee camp which is situated nearby.

Six months ago, the camp was described as the most crowded place in the world, while the British non-government organization OXFAM condemned the European Union for the camp’s inhumane conditions. At the time, the harsh winter conditions of the northern Aegean had made life unbearable and dangerous especially for all those living in tents outside the camp’s perimeter.
There was a short respite when the weather improved in the Spring, but the summer months have brought a continuous stream of new arrivals.

I had the opportunity to make three authorized visits to the Moria camp in late August 2019. My knowledge of Europe’s refugee issues stems from a course on that subject that I teach at Haverford College. Not nearly enough to prepare me to witness first-hand the results of how Europe is dealing with the current influx of refugees: throw money at Greece and hope it can cope by keeping them within its borders.

To say the camp is bursting at the seams would be inaccurate, it has already burst. Built on the site of a disused army barracks and designed to house about 3,000 persons the camp’s inhabitants now number close to 9,000 – to be precise 8,772 on August 20th. Presently about 70% are from Afghanistan, and about 10% from the Democratic Republic of Congo and Syria. About 60% have arrived as families.

A tent city has sprung up in the olive groves that ring the camp’s perimeter. By the end of September, judging by the numbers crossing daily from Turkey, even with the strong summer winds, that number might reach 12,000. No one is sure how the camp will deal with such an influx.

Under a deal agreed between the European Union and Turkey in March 2016 to reduce the number of people arriving into the continent, refugees seeking asylum on Greek islands have been forbidden from leaving “hotspot” camps to travel to the mainland.

The measure is supposed to deter refugees and the human traffickers who bring them over. But that means the refugees are stranded on Lesvos, which is the Aegean island that has received the largest number of asylum seekers, migrants, and refugees who cross the Aegean waters from Turkey and come over to Greece, in the misguided hope they will be able to move on to one of wealthy northern European countries.

Director Giannis Mpalpakakis and assistant director Dimitris Vafeas struggle to make the best of a difficult situation, getting the best from their overworked staff and inadequate resources. In late August, the camp’s contract with the Hellenic Center for Diseases Control and Prevention ran out. The Center, known by its unwieldy Greek acronym KEELPNO is the public authority that provides doctors for Moria.

Medical screening is an integral part of the process of receiving and identifying new arrivals, not to mention providing treatment which is badly needed by all those living in the camp’s overcrowded conditions. Last November physicians working at the camp had resigned, protesting KEELPNO’s half-hearted inefficient provision of medical care at Moria. Requests made in March 2018 that KEELPNO offer better salaries to attract doctors, nurses, psychologists to Moria have yet to be fulfilled, even though the European funding is available.

Needless to say, the crowded conditions of the camp, the past experiences of war and uprooting experienced by most refugees, the fears of asylum requests will be turned down and the uncertainty of what the future holds all cry out for systematic psychological care.

There have been many incidents of violence and vandalism that threaten the security of the refugees themselves and all those who work at Moria. With medical screening, the asylum cases which if positive, would enable persons to move out of Moria and off Lesvos to the mainland if they so choose. Sadly, Patric Mansour, a seasoned expert on dealing with refugees attached to the Norwegian Refugee Council, who is a pragmatist but cautiously optimistic about many things, says he is pessimistic about the chances that Moria will acquire the necessary medical infrastructure any time soon.


As the problems of medical care indicate, the problems that plague the Moria camp are longstanding. Mansour is working next to the Greek officials who are running the camp.

He arrived at Moria at the height of the crisis in 2015, when the island was overwhelmed by incoming refugees, deployed to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees. He has poignant memories of burly Greek policemen and coastguard officers breaking down in tears as they struggled with threadbare means to rescue those arriving and, worst of all, trying to comfort parents of children that had drowned during the crossing.

Having worked in countries in North Africa and the Middle East, Mansour assumed that measures that needed to be taken at Moria would be much easier to get approved and implemented. But instead he came face to face with the slow moving labyrinthine Greek bureaucracy. And he discovered that it is more difficult to get things done in Greece, because while developing countries are only too happy to cede authority to agencies such as the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, Greece invokes its sovereignty and gets involved, which means results come slowly, if at all.

The new Greek government that emerged from the national elections of July 7th has signaled its intention to deal with the refugee issue on Lesvos and elsewhere in Greece. Only days after the election, the Minister for Citizen Protection Michalis Chrisochoidis visited Moria, and a few weeks later there were visits by Deputy Foreign Minister Antonis Diamataris and the Alternate Minister for Migration Policy Giorgos Koumoutsakos.

This show of commitment has filled the camp’s officials with hope that the longstanding problems the camp is facing will be addressed.

Less than a week after his visit, Koumoutsakos received a memorandum from the camp’s staff, signed by the president of their association Vasilis Ntavas, outlining the issues. They listed the problems they faced including the abysmal working conditions due to the increased influx of refugees, the lack of security in the camp because of the inadequate size of the police force on the site, the lack of medical staff, and the lack of translators.

They characterize the situation as urgent. Looking ahead to the winter, when the weather on Lesvos turns cold and damp with frequent rainfall, Patric Mansour is also concerned about the delays in the provision of so-called winterization supplies.

These include blankets, heaters, hygiene items, warm clothing, funding to repair heating units and run the generator that provides electricity to the tents. This was something else that the previous government apparently mishandled.

The European Union had provided the previous Greek government with sufficient funds to procure all necessary supplies for the upcoming winter, but there has been no word from official sources that anything has been done. The cost of those supplies ranges from 700,000 to one million Euros. Mansour says that something drastic needs to be done and is proposing that stocks available in United Nations and International Red Cross warehouses be sent directly to Greece.

Dr. Alexander Kitroeff is Associate Professor of History at Haverford College.


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