“On the Greek island of Lesbos one of the main gateways for refugees who want to enter Greece and where more than 25,000 refugees are now trapped, a few refugees showed me their HIV+ certificates. They told me that they had slept with an HIV+ individual to get the HIV virus so that they can get a certificate of ‘being in danger’ and leave the island. An HIV+ trans man said that some refugees come to him and tell him that, in exchange for money or something else, they want him to have sex with them so that they will be infected with the HIV virus. I met others who told me the same story.”
This apocalyptic picture does not match with the images of Greece that some other refugees have formed in their minds. “Greece is the gateway to the European Union,” one says, “and when you get there you are practically halfway there. Beyond Greece the going is easier because the borders are not so controlled. Now, if we have to wait in Greece for a while, it is not much of a problem. It is not worse than where we are now.”
We hear this familiar story from many refugees who are trying to get to Greece; and from Greece, to a European country that admits asylum seekers. But this image does not correspond to the reality of refugee life in Greece – nor to the hardships of a long and forced stay in refugee camps on its three refugee islands. For a refugee who has not experienced this reality, Greece means waiting a few weeks or at worst a few months in Athens.
Arriving as a refugee in Greece overwhelmingly means being sent to the camps on the three islands of Lesbos, Samos and Chios. For refugees, leaving these islands is difficult; still more difficult are the days, weeks and months of waiting in the camps, so much so that the refugees trapped in these camps call the islands a “Greek Hell.”
Aida Ghajar, an IranWire journalist, has covered refugee and migration for two years on IranWire. Ghajar recently returned to Greece to follow up on her earlier reporting.
“I was on Lesbos for a few days,” she says, “and the situation of the refugees is many times worse than before. The number of asylum seekers on these islands and in Athens and other Greek cities has increased. But the facilities have remained at the same level; and what is more, the new Greek government has passed laws that work against the refugees.”
An Island Prison for Helpless Refugees
Ghajar adds that the refugees who reach Greece by sea arrive on one of these three islands partly because they are not far from Turkey. Lesbos is where most Iranian refugees end up.
Now the island has turned into a prison where the chances of escape are low.
“In 2016, the governments of Turkey and Greece reached an agreement with the European Union whereby all refugees and immigrants who reach these islands by sea would have to seek asylum in third countries from the islands,” Ghajar says. “The process can take up to two years.”
Ghajar adds that the new Greek government has decided to shorten the time it takes to process asylum cases. But this is actually to the detriment of refugees. The move has been criticized by human rights lawyers and activists because they believe that more refugees will be rejected and deported back to Turkey or their own countries without an adequate review of their cases.
More Refugees than Residents
A member of the Lesbos police told Ghajar that the number of refugees there exceeds the local population. “Greek statistics are not very accurate,” Ghajar says, “but to get a better idea of the situation, it helps to know that Camp Moria on Lesbos was designed to house 3,600 refugees but, according to unofficial police statistics, it now shelters more than 20,000 refugees. And on Samos, a camp that was designed for 700 people now houses 7,000 refugees. On Lesbos, Camp Moria is not the only problem. In the forests around the camp, there are many refugees who live under tents and their conditions are even worse than those who live in the camp.”
Children are among main victims of refugee life. Ghajar says child refugees suffer many hardships; they witness violence by human traffickers and police, their lives are frequently in danger, and even inside the camp they are harmed more than others.
Even their games reflect their painful experiences. Refugee children in the camps witness murders and fights every day and are deprived of most basic rights. “These children are deprived of education and schooling,” Ghajar says. “For instance, there are more than 2,000 children in Camp Moria, but only close to 50 of them attend part-time classes outside the camp, set up by human rights groups. And … they are used to distribute illegal drugs, ruining their lives.”
In these refugee camps, women suffer disproportionately as well. According to Ghajar, a small, guarded, part of the camp houses around 200 single women or mothers who are accompanied by their daughters. But this “does not protect woman refugees in the camp from sexual harassment and abuse. I have talked to many women in the camp who have been sexually abused. Rape threatens the women in the camp, so much so that for months some women do not leave women’s special sector where they enjoy relative safety, because they are afraid of sexual predators and even for their lives.”
Doctors without Medicine
Medical care and medication are another problem facing the refugees on these island. Ghajar says that although Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors without Borders, or MSF) has a tent at the entrance to the camp, it lacks the necessary facilities and personnel. Sick children, women and even those with broken bones because of fights are discharged without effective treatment.
“The refugees says that for any illness or pain they are, at most, given a few pills and, in many cases, are advised to drink a good amount of water,” Ghajar says. "A mother told me that her child was throwing up blood but the doctors said that it was nothing and the child would recover by himself. Another child died after drinking polluted water. Suicide and self-inflicted injuries are also very common in the camps. … The situation of the camp is like a city devastated by war where necessary services or facilities do not exist.”
One way of leaving the island and getting to Athens is to get a medical certificate, confirming that the person is suffering from a specific condition or an ailment such as HIV and cannot remain on the island because his or her life would be under threat. “In one instance,” says Ghajar, “I met a lesbian couple who were both deaf and mute and were, naturally, vulnerable; but it took them a year to get this certificate to leave the island.”
The tragedies of refugee life at Camp Moria are not limited to just these cases.
Ghajar explains that some refugees think getting infected by the HIV virus (that can become AIDS) is one way to prove one’s vulnerability; so they intentionally contaminate themselves with the virus.
“A few of [the refugees] showed me the lab result that certified they were HIV+,” she says. “They told me that they had knowingly slept with an HIV+ person so that they could get the certificate and leave the island … even though lawyers believe this might not work because they will be tagged as HIV carriers.”
They Had No Idea
Ghajar says that most of the refugees in Athens or Camp Moria with whom she spoke had no idea what was waiting for them in Greece.
“They have escaped war, repression or domestic violence,” Ghajar says, “but as human rights organizations admit, what they found in Greece was a full-fledged humanitarian disaster. In Camp Moria, the situation of hygiene, medical treatment, medication, nutrition, hot water and electricity is disastrous and the fighting among camp residents is non-stop. As a result, under the heavy pressure of living in this camp, alcoholism and drug addiction is rampant and violence is a daily occurrence. A child told me that he had seen with his own eyes a man whose throat was cut during a fight in the camp.”
Aida says that not these issues are limited to these islands. Even in Athens itself some refugees cannot find a camp that will shelter them and must sleep on the streets. Their asylum requests may ultimately be rejected by other countries or, even if they are granted asylum by Greece itself, they generally have to join the ranks of the unemployed in a bankrupt country.
Ghajar says that, in such a painful situation, perhaps people themselves could help each other. “I hope those Iranians who have [relevant] expertise and can come here, do come, and provide medical and psychological services and, if they can afford it, help these helpless people whose most basic human rights have been neglected. We ourselves must help ourselves.”
This report is a summary of one of the live interviews by IranWire, broadcast every Monday night at 10pm (Tehran time) on social media. Aida Ghajar, a journalist and one of our colleagues at IranWire, has been reporting from the field on refugees and immigrants for the past two years. In the past few days she has been to Greece to follow-up on her earlier reports. She gave this live interview on the night of Monday, January 28, providing us with many shocking stories about the life of refugees in Greece, particularly on the island of Lesbos where many refugees live a hellish life. (The full interview, in Persian, can be watched here.)
The War of Human Trafficking, 14 January 2020
Iranian Refugees in Zeebrugge: Desperate Dreams of Britain, January 11, 2019
Racial Conflict Ends in Devastating Fire at Greece’s Samos Refugee Camp, October 17, 2019
Refugees Fight Racism and Insults in Greece, October 1, 2019
Exposed: Ranko, the Crooked Human Trafficker, 18 September 2019
Using Social Media to Expose Traffickers, September 16, 2019
A Life Lost: Two Decades of Asylum-Seeking in Calais, August 30, 2019
Iranian Human Traffickers and the Journey Across the Balkans, August 19, 2019
Rape and Sexual Abuse is Common, August 8, 2019
The Saga of a Refugee Dervish in Greece, 25 April 2019
The “Hellhole of Athens”, 3 April 2019
Arash Hampay: Refugees “Taken Hostage” in Greece, 1 February 2019
Asylum Seekers in Greece: A Life of Fear and Suffering, 29 January 2019