Moria 2.0: Trapped refugees at the mercy of winter

Two and a half months after the creation of the temporary reception and identification centre (RIC) in the area of Kara Tepe (Mavrovouni) on Lesvos island, serious gaps persist with regard to basic needs such as access to sufficient electricity, heating and hot water. Despite government assurances on the improvement of reception conditions, coupled with the second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, low temperatures and increased humidity, refugees, including hundreds of children as well as many people belonging to vulnerable groups, live in tents during winter, without knowing whether and when they will be sheltered in containers.

Currently, more than 7,250 refugees live in the temporary camp that has an official capacity for 10,000 persons. According to the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR),[1] more than 2,400 (33 % of the camp’s population) are children. There are 880 family tents, each accommodating 6 to 8 people, and 10 rubhalls.

Despite consistent reports of deficiencies in reception conditions by NGOs, the improvement of living conditions in the Kara Tepe temporary camp is moving very slowly. Meanwhile, the new ‘closed/controlled’ Reception and Identification Centre (RIC) announced by the authorities is not expected to be ready before fall 2021. According to UNHCR, gaps remain in water, sanitation, hygiene and health services. Until mid-November, 9 containers had been placed in the temporary camp for use by administrative services.

Unbearable cold

The camp’s location leaves it particularly exposed to north winds. Tents are at the mercy of weather conditions and are unstable when there is wind. On one occasion, a tent where Reception and Identification Service (RIS) staff was working was blown by the wind into the sea!
“At night, when the wind blows the tent is shaking and we are not able to sleep”, says Hassan*, a refugee from Afghanistan.
The refugees we spoke to reported that the cold and humidity in their tents, especially during the night, are unbearable as they have not been given enough blankets and warm clothes.
“My main problem is the cold. I try to get dressed as warm as I can in order not to feel the cold. Before the lockdown, some organisations distributed clothes. Trousers, shoes, but all of them were for summer. After the lockdown, they did not distribute again, and we do not have clothes for winter”, says Fatiha from Syria.
Saeb, a victim of torture from Afghanistan, underlines: “There are not enough blankets. We do not know how we will go through this winter… What breaks our heart is that we do not have humane conditions, they perceive us as animals”.

Refugees resort to makeshift constructions to protect their tents from weather conditions.
We put sandbags at the entrance to prevent the water from entering. The tents do not have a floor, all they have are some pallets, nothing else. Some have tried to construct a ‘wall’ of soil but it is not possible to protect the tent from (flooding)”, says Saeb.
Others place tarpaulins over the tents to prevent water from entering. Also, those who have not yet received mattresses use blankets to sleep on. According to UNHCR, insulation and wooden floors had been installed in all family tents as of the end of November. [2]

In some of the rubhalls, there are no beds and people use small tents to create a private space. The situation there is particularly difficult for single men, as rubhalls do not have insulation and a wooden floor, similar to the family tents.
“At night, the tents do not close and it is very cold. There are blankets, but it is cold, nonetheless. I have clothes but there are people who don’t. Organisations bring clothes but single men find it difficult to get them”, says Zaher from Afghanistan who shares a tent with 150 other people.

Continuous power cuts

Refugees reported significant problems with electricity, as it is available only at certain times of day and night.
The voltage is low, we just charge our mobiles”, Fatiha stresses. There is particular concern about the safety of the electricity cables. “Outside, there is a socket for 8 tents and there is risk of short circuit when it rains”, says Saeb.
Often in this area, there is tension and overcrowding from people who try to access the sockets to charge their mobile phones or to heat water.

Insufficient number of showers and lack of hot water

Self-made shower outside of a tent

At the end of October, 46 bucket showers were installed in the camp and another 152 were expected to be installed in the coming weeks. In essence, these are plastic boxes, in which people usually take a shower with cold water. According to reports, kettles (!) have been installed in the showers intended for women to warm water since there is no supply of hot water in the camp. UNHCR stated that these showers are a temporary solution because the site is not connected to a water supply system. Also, a recent UNHCR briefing highlighted the need for more showers with hot water and lighting to increase security.

Some refugees point out that showers have yet to be installed in the area where their tents are located.
“I carry water in bottles and go and wash myself in the tent. We have created a space inside the tent and we wash ourselves there”, says Fatiha.
The number of showers is not sufficient for all residents so some do not have access thereto.
“I don’t have a place to bathe so it has been many days since I washed myself and I feel very dirty,” says Sarah from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).
Some of the men continue to bathe in the sea, as was the case at the beginning of the camp’s operation.

Conditions are reported to be particularly poor in the toilets, despite the fact that more have been installed in recent weeks. According to UNHCR,[3] on 20 November and according to available data, there were 418 chemical toilets, of which 371 are intended for use by asylum seekers staying in the camp. Several of those have already been put out of service.

According to reports, the flushes in the chemical toilets do not work. Since the tents are located far away from the toilets, residents create makeshift toilets with blankets, cloth and wood.

The number of water taps installed has also increased. However, refugees say that the water is being transported there by water tanks and they have not received any information on whether or not it is drinkable.
“We fill empty bottles to carry water to wash hands, dishes, clothes”, says Saeb.

Inevitable overcrowding

Queues for the use of sanitary facilities and for the supply of water and food have decreased considerably compared to the past. Reportedly food is distributed twice a day.
“Food is distributed in three parts of the camp. One person from each tent goes and waits in the queue to get (food) for everyone. Every tent has a single card for one of the residents to go to the queue”, says Saeb.

Nevertheless, overcrowding in the camp is inevitable due to the large number of residents. Distribution of antiseptics and masks is mainly carried out by organisations. Refugees say that police are handing fines even inside the camp for improper use of masks. Although medical services have been organised, access thereto is not always easy according to reports as to get there one essentially has to go through a checkpoint and provide proof that they have a medical problem, which is not always possible.

In mid-November, 14 people were in the quarantine area of the new camp. Out of those, nine had been diagnosed with COVID-19. A woman we spoke to reported that, when she was transferred to the temporary camp of Kara Tepe, she was placed in the quarantine area along with infected residents, even though she did had not tested positive for COVID-19.
“I was placed with two other women who had tested positive. While I was in quarantine, we weren’t examined by a doctor. No one was coming in”, she stresses.
According to reports, the quarantine area is very close to the beach and the tents are even more exposed to the winds. There is also no permanent presence of staff there, therefore in case of emergency there is no easy access to assistance.

Protection of vulnerable groups

Sarah, a victim of gender-based violence and torture in her country of origin, was identified as belonging in a vulnerable group as a single woman. Following the destruction of the RIC of Moria by fire, she was transferred to safe accommodation for her protection. However, two months later, she was transferred to the temporary camp in Kara Tepe under conditions that do not meet her needs and vulnerable state of health. It is noted that the camp has no separate area for women victims of gender-based violence, as was the case in Moria camp. Meanwhile, the lack of lighting reinforces the feeling of insecurity. As Sarah points out, she lives in a space with other women, but there are no separate areas for men and women.
“They only gave me a small blanket when I was in quarantine and I don’t even have a sleeping bag”,
she says.

At the same time, in the midst of a pandemic, a significant number of vulnerable refugees – whose health continues to deteriorate day by day due to the conditions – continue to live in tents. Among them are elderly people, victims of gender-based violence and people with disabilities. Decongestion of the population on the island in recent weeks has been slow.[4]

Significant impediments to lawyers’ access

As regards access of legal assistance actors to the camp, the lack of a designated and adapted workspace to meet their clients poses major difficulties. In the absence of other alternatives, and given the need to meet tight deadlines, meetings between lawyers and asylum seekers take place in tents, in the presence of other persons, or outdoors. This jeopardises both confidentiality and protection from COVID-19. Moreover, constant changes in administrative practices in the asylum procedure exacerbate uncertainty for refugees and create risks of vulnerable groups remaining in the camp for prolonged periods under difficult conditions.

Gaps in activities

Reportedly no recreational or integration-related activities are organised in the temporary camp.
I want to learn some things, but there is nothing anymore and there is no also no place for exercise”, says Zaher.

According to UNHCR, some small-scale educational activities are carried out in the camp by organisations (UNICEF partners), mainly in outdoor areas and organised by small groups of children. External educational activities in schools operated by NGOs have been halted due to COVID-19 restrictions. According to articles and reports by refugees, makeshift schools are organised by the refugees themselves in tents.

Following the general lockdown imposed on 7 November, it has become more difficult for refugees to exit the camp. According to the measures currently in force, residents are allowed to enter and exit the camp only on substantial grounds and only for a few hours a week.

Refugee Support Aegean reiterates its call for the immediate transfer of refugees from the islands to dignified living conditions on the mainland and for their relocation to other European countries. It is unacceptable and dangerous for thousands of people to be forced to survive without heating, hot water, adequate electricity, and sanitation facilities in the midst of winter and the pandemic. The European Commission, on the basis of its commitment to co-manage refugee reception structures on Lesvos, as well as its core institutional responsibility to monitor compliance with EU legislation, should actively contribute to the immediate improvement of the dire conditions prevailing in the camp and to guaranteeing people’s basic needs.

*All names have been changed for the protection and safety of refugees.

Notes

  1. Written response to RSA, 27 November 2020
  2. Oral response to RSA, 27 Νovember 2020
  3. Written response to RSA, 27 Νοεμβρίου 2020
  4. Since the destruction of Moria RIC and until mid-November, only 2.900 persons had been transferred from the island to the mainland.

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