By Amanda Blanco
For those trapped inside of the place known as Moria, razor wire doubles as clothesline. Jeans and t-shirts drape over barbed spindles, and makeshift tents crafted from blankets use the fence as support.
Located on the Greek island of Lesbos, Moria was established in late September 2013 as a registration site for refugees who arrived on its azure shores seeking asylum. Greek officials meant it to be a short-term home and temporary sanctuary, not a long-term detention center. But since the signing of the EU-Turkey agreement in March 2016, that has become its destiny.
In the past, asylum seekers left Moria as soon as they were registered. The process took a few days at most.
“There was a good flow when the borders were still open,” explained Illektra Koutsoumani, a spokesperson for the French charity Médecins du Monde (Doctors of the World), who has worked at Moria since December 2015.
As she spoke, Koutsoumani sat in the shade of a food truck, opposite Moria’s main gate, absently sweeping her brown hair into a bun. The movement revealed a group logo emblazoned on her khaki vest: A dove holding an olive branch in its beak. The dove’s wings were spread, giving the appearance of a first-aid cross. The vest doubles as her admission ticket past the security guards and high fences that surround the camp.
Koutsoumani explained how the EU-Turkey deal, which barred migrants from continuing on along the refugee trail to northern Europe, sparked radical changes at Moria.
“The biggest problem we had in the first few months was the lack of communication,” she said. Newly arrived refugees did not know why they were forced to remain inside the camp, or when they would be released.
After a series of recent disturbances, camp authorities began allowing residents detained for 25 days or longer to leave the camp, but not the island.
“It seems a bit arbitrary, 25 days,” Koutsoumani said with a half-smile. “You get the impression that things are a bit random.”
Most of Moria’s residents, which now number more than 2,000, have been living at the site for three to four months.
Before the camp’s gates closed, a different French charity, Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), provided much of the center’s medical care. That changed in March, when MSF Head of Mission Marie Elisabeth Ingres publically declared the newly imposed system unfair and inhumane.
“We will not allow our assistance to be instrumentalized for a mass expulsion operation, and we refuse to be part of a system that has no regard for the humanitarian or protection needs of asylum seekers and migrants,” she said in a March press release.
Koutsoumani said that Médecins du Monde chose to remain at Moria for the sake of the refugees and now has two clinics there, with seven doctors and eight nurses.
“We felt that now their need would be even stronger,” she said. Although the United Nation High Command on Refugees also released a statement in March announcing that it was leaving Moria as well, Koutsoumani said the organization remains at the camp.
Even so, not all has gone smoothly, Koutsoumani explained, leaning suntanned arms on a plastic table. Just three months earlier, she said, a full-fledged riot erupted.
It was one week before Easter, she said, when Syrian boys began chanting “freedom” in Arabic.
“There were 180 teenagers locked up for over 60 days,” she recalled, adding grimly that reports were circulating at the time of alleged police violence against juveniles. “You could see that it was an outbreak of anger, a release.”
The camp became so violent that all charity workers fled for the night. Koutsoumani said she returned the next day and found that the situation had calmed.
“The injuries were extreme,” she said. “You could see brain.”
Despite all that the migrants have endured— war-torn homelands, human smugglers, drownings, rough conditions at Moria–Koutsoumani said the refugees have one greater fear: being forgotten.