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Moria Camp and its Prison on Lesbos Island

May 22, 2019
Aida Ghajar
14 min read
Tents and conex shipping containers used as shelters had been set up randomly everywhere, without any apparent order. One truck delivered food to the camp, a temporary home to more than 10,000 people
Tents and conex shipping containers used as shelters had been set up randomly everywhere, without any apparent order. One truck delivered food to the camp, a temporary home to more than 10,000 people

It was early morning when I landed on Lesbos island, at a small airport surrounded by open waters — waters that had been the asylum seekers’ path to their dream destination, but which had turned into a grave for many of them.

Refugees aren’t allowed to leave the island unless they have properly-documented permission, and it may take them years to get these documents and go on to Athens.

My taxi driver suggested that, rather than getting a hotel room, I would get a better idea of the island if I rented a room in one of the old houses downtown. We headed there, passing through narrow alleys and past old stores. There was an old woman waiting for us, who offered me a small room. I dropped off my stuff in the room and headed out for a walk on the beach since I had a few hours before my meeting. It was a clean street with restaurants and famous brand name shops on both sides, music was playing from everywhere and young people were enjoying each other’s company on the beach. There was no sign of asylum-seeking life until my contact showed up. He did not want to go to any of the restaurants and it seemed as though he tried to avoid any contact with the locals.

Right in front of the restaurant was a bus station, and we waited along with other passengers for the next bus. The bus ticket from the beach to the Moria camp was one euro. The waiting bus passengers consisted of men and women from all over the world. When the doors opened, people cut each other off and began getting onto the bus without any sense of order. I had heard about the regular nightly fights in Moria camp, but apparently the camp’s atmosphere could be felt beyond the site itself, with the sense of people fighting for survival spreading to the line for the bus.


Fights break out on a nightly basis in Moria Camp


After passing through hills, I arrived at the over-crowded camp. My contact took me in via a hidden path and not through the main gate. The amount of people there was astounding — people of all ages, including many children, with little room to move. Tents and conex shipping containers used as shelters had been set up randomly everywhere, without any apparent order. Only one truck delivered food to the camp, which was a temporary home to more than 10,000 residents.   

Moria Camp, Lesbos, Greece


My contact and I stopped by the area where Iranian refugees were staying so I could talk to people and arrange interviews. From one corner of that area of the camp I could see the inside of a tent. An infant was crying in a corner, and her father was doing his best to calm her down. I offered to help him with the baby and he handed her to me. She was exhausted from the heat and mosquito bites.

The door to a conex opened and I could feel the breeze of air conditioning. I stepped inside with the child in my arms, which helped her calm down a little. There were about 25 refugees inside the tent, mostly Iranians. They gathered around me and began asking me questions: “Who are you? Where have you come from? Why are you here?” and so on. I heard one of them say, “I think she’s a journalist.”  

A young Afghan boy brought me some tea.“What is going on around here?” I asked him.

Someone else answered the question for him.“We don’t have any peace at nights. We can even lock our doors, there is no lock. All of a sudden there is a brawl and they raid your room. Even the police do not interfere until the fight is over. They fight each other with everything, from wood logs to knives. The main fight is always between Afghans and Africans. Afghans expect us Iranians to support them in the fights but no one really asks — they open the door and come in and you have no choice but to be involved.”

The Afghan boy confirmed this account by nodding. Another refugee, who had been there for the past 21 months with his twin brother, continued the story: “One of our friends has been in prison for the last six months. He did not want to fight, but police arrested him anyway. No one has any update on him. We don’t even know if and when he is going to be released.”

Right outside the camp walls was Moria Prison, so the only thing separating refugees from criminals was that wall covered in barbed wire on both sides.

United Nations’ tents for sheltering refugees


Some of the refugees were lying on their beds. One of them came down to get some tea. Another guy pointed at him and said: “Look at him. See how anxious he is. This morning his wife and kid began their journey to join him but the coastal guards arrested them and no one knows what will happen to them.” The man made his tea and went back to his bed without saying a word to anybody.

Another refugee offered me his plate and said, “Just have some of this rice, it is impossible to eat. As soon as the fork touches the meat you’ll see worms coming out. What have we done that they’re keeping us here under these horrible conditions? We left our countries for a better life, now this is the food we have to eat. We usually cook the rice for a long time so it’s edible and throw the meat away.”

Another young man spoke loudly from his bed. “I have now been here for three months. The real problem is not food and fights, we just need someone accountable to come and answer our questions — how long we will have to stay here, why there is no one to answer us? My wife and kid are back in Iran waiting for an answer from me. Do you have any idea when we’ll be released from here?”

I had no answer to his question. I shook my head and said: “As far as I know, there is no rhyme or reason to it, it depends on luck. Some get out in a few months and some longer.”

Then I asked an open question, for anyone who wanted to answer. “When you started your journey with the trafficker, didn’t they tell you where exactly they were taking you? Did you have any information about Lesbos Island?”

One guy laughed sarcastically in the corner and another shook his head no. An older man, who introduced himself as a political activist, said: “No one gave us any information. My trafficker said we had a 20-minute ride on the sea and that we would enter Europe from Turkey. But as soon as we got off the boats, police arrested us and transferred us to this camp. I had to sleep on the ground for a long time until they gave me a bed. Currently, there are three conexes full of Iranians in this camp.”

And they had more questions. “What happens after this? Do you know anything about immigration laws? Now that we have been fingerprinted, what’s the next step?”


An Environment of Mistrust and Desperation 

I told the person who asked about immigration procedures about the Dublin Regulation, which states when refugees are fingerprinted in an EU member nation, no matter where they request asylum, they will be sent back to the country where they were first fingerprinted. I told them that Greece also recently joined the convention and will get more financial aid to deal with the refugee crisis in the country as a result. Several people I spoke to complained about their situation, saying: “Greece only abuses us to make money and deal with its own economic crisis. They don’t care about our situation.”

I told them more, and about immigration laws getting stricter in EU nations. They were shocked. One of them said. “So why are we doing this? We’ll be better off if we go back to Iran then. We can’t tell our families about the situation here. I sometimes go to the beach and take photos with luxury cars to post on Facebook and say we are having fun here. No one really knows what is happening to us here. Even if we die no one will ever find out.”

Another refugee who had been in the camp for about a year suddenly said: “Do you guys remember that African boy who died a few months back? No one turned out to help. We did not even learn where they took his body and what they did with him.”

The baby was still with me, and had been playing with my hands all this time. His father came to get her. I asked the people in the conex shipping container why they hadn't let the family with the baby move into the conex — she had suffered a lot because of the heat and sweat.

One of them said: “We actually did bring them in a while ago, they were living with us for a few nights. But then we found out that the mother is collecting signatures for a petition to get rid of single men in conexes and replace them with families. So we confronted them and after that, we thought if we let them stay, we would be out ourselves. They were so disrespectful.”

Whoever I talked to, they all had something bad to report about their situation. It felt as if I had landed on an island of misery in and everyone needed someone new to tell their stories to.

“We have nothing here,” one man told me. No money to go to the city, and if you want to walk, it’ll take you hours on a hard, hilly path. So we don’t go to the city. Instead, we go to a church that is half an hour away. Another half hour’s walk you get to a gym that is apparently built for us, but there is nothing there except a few weights. The point is no matter where we go, it’s only us and no one else. We are imprisoned on an island with no one to complain to.”

It was dinner time. Men were getting ready to go and join the line for food, but they were stressed out because they suspected they would see another fight tonight like every other night. “Just look at this line,” one of them said loudly.


Heading for the Border

I said goodbye to each of them and we exchanged numbers. I wanted to make sure we kept in touch after they got out of the camp. I left the conex, found my contact and started walking toward the line for food. It was growing fast. “Just keep your phone out of sight, if one of them even thinks you are taking photos or videos, they’ll beat the hell out of us,” my contact told me.

I put my phone in my purse and began observing the scene in silence. The line for food was as long as the eye could see. “We need to go, the camp’s officials are coming,” my contact said. "I’ll go ahead and you just follow me.”

We kept out of sight from the officials, hiding a few times, and finally we left the camp. I wanted to go to ground zero, the area of the island where refugees first set foot in Europe. There was a refugee traveling with us on the bus back to the city. The bus driver did not want to accept my offer to pay for the refugee’s ticket as well as my own. After a heated argument, he threw my money at me and berated me for making such a fuss over one euro. But it certainly meant a great deal for the hopeless refugee.

We walked around the city center, and I met and talked with many asylum seekers. We went to a cafe called Pi in an immigrant-friendly neighborhood with friendly, warm staff. It looked nothing like the restaurants on the beach. We waited until midnight to head for the border by taxi. The taxi driver shouted at my contact that we had to pay first before getting into the car.

The road from the city center to "ground zero" on Lesbos Island


I rushed to the taxi and showed the driver the money, and he calmed down. “I’m sorry, but these refugees, they get in and don’t pay.”

It felt like I was on another planet. Nobody here likes refugees —  everyone tries to avoid them. There is an enormous distance between the locals and refugees on this small island.  

After riding for an hour we got to the border and I got to see for myself the beach on which refugees first set foot. We could see the lights of Ayvalik in Izmir, Turkey clearly from there, and my phone service automatically changed over to a Turkish carrier. I could also see Turkish coastal guards' patrols.

We sat on the beach. A cafe was open and its owner was watching us. My contact began telling me his own stories. He got up and stood facing Turkey, staring silently at the dark water for a while. Then he turned to me and said: “I came right from this way to Lesbos two and a half years ago. Do you see that flickering red light? The trafficker boarded us on the boat without safety vests and told us to go toward that light until we reached Europe. Now I have been imprisoned on this island for more than two years.”

The cafe owner shouted out to us, demanding to know who we were and what we wanted. I went to talk to him and again he angrily asked where I was from. I showed him my business card and told him I live in France. He did not believe me so I began talking French. “I’ll call the police now!” he said.

I went back to our spot to wait for the police. After half an hour, a tall Iranian man wearing shorts and a T-shirt approached us. As soon as he got to us he said, “My bad, I was mistaken.” He was about to leave, so I asked: “Excuse me, are you a police officer?”

“No, I’m a volunteer helping stranded refugees in the water,” he told me.

“Why did this man call you then? He was supposed to call the cops.”

“It was a misunderstanding. He thought you were trespassing or looking for trouble. Around here, they usually call me. I’m a Swedish resident.”

“So, you are here from Sweden saving refugees?”


He did not want to continue the conversation and was anxious to leave. He turned and walked away from us straight to the cafe. By now it was around 3 am.

My contact explained. “All these cafe owners are in the business of human trafficking. They are in touch with their Turkish counterparts and as soon as they find a client, they introduce them to the trafficker. This man is probably a trafficker as well. Many of them are residents of other European countries, but there is money here. I think we being here made them panic and they probably are waiting for us to leave so they can tell their coworkers in Turkey to send the next group of refugees.”

We sat there until the morning and talked about human trafficking, Lesbos island, Moria Camp, volunteers, and everything else that concerned the life of a refugee. After what I’d seen and all our conversations, I even began to feel like I was in prison. I wanted to get off that island as soon as possible. I looked at my passport and recalled people in the camp looking at it and telling me: “Good for you” — thinking, when can I have mine?

We went back to the city center, and I bought my ticket. I did not have much time left and had to get back in time for my appointments in Athens. When we passed the port, my contact — now my friend — showed me the ships and told me how refugees often try to get on them secretly to get off the island. They usually get caught and sent back to the camp.

I went to the airport. Among all the scenes I saw and the stories I heard, there was one I could not forget for the whole journey back to Athens. When we were leaving the camp, we saw a homeless man with long hair and a beard and torn clothes, walking barefoot in front of the camp. One of the refugees pointed him out to me and said: “They say he has been here for five years. He has been arrested and released many times. They even say they gave him the required documents to go to Athens, but he tore them apart. He went crazy. No one approaches him anymore. Moria will drive all of us crazy eventually.”


Read more from Aida Ghajar's series on refugees and human trafficking: 

Hundreds of Iranian and Afghan Refugees Thrown out on the Streets of Athens, April 23, 2019

From France to Turkey: Human Trafficking and Asylum Seekers, November 13, 2018

“Caravans of Hope” in Turkey and Greece as Rumors of Open Borders Spread, April 5, 2019

The “Hellhole of Athens”, April 3, 2019





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