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How a Greek island refugee camp handles the never-ending flow of migrants to Europe

Every month, several thousand people land on the Greek islands near Turkey

ISLAND OF LESBOS /Greece/, October 14. /TASS/. Every day brings more news of how Europe tries to cope with the incessant influx of refugees. The issue receives extensive coverage on TV and in the printed media, but far from all reports tell the stories what has happened over years to those who had escaped artillery bombardments, massacres and famine to reach the promised land, what conditions these people have to exist in today and what they cherish.

Migrants from the Middle East, Africa and Asia flock to Italy, Spain, Germany, France, Belgium and Denmark, but the country on the top of the sad list of recipients is Greece. Several thousand migrants set foot on the soil of Greek islands near Turkey every single month. The flow intensifies each time a conflict flares up in this or that part of the globe.

The situation in the refugee camp Moria on the Greek island of Lesbos is disastrous. Originally designed to accommodate 3,000, the camp has grown far and wide, as makeshift shelters mushroom around it. An estimated 12,000-15,000 have taken refuge there. The real number of migrants is impossible to count accurately. People carrying backpacks, tents and matrasses or nothing at all keep walking towards the camp day in day out. They clear land, cut olive trees and settle down.

Hundreds of hungry migrants with little children line up for food being distributed by charity organizations. They live outside the camp’s perimeter fence and have no chance to count on official food rations and meager cash donations. The harsh realities of today these people have to put up with are one toilet per one or two hundred, one bottle of water per person a day, sewage running down the slopes, dirty matrasses and no chance to take a shower. The refugees, most of them from Syria, Afghanistan and Africa, say the situation around the camp is very uneasy, to say the least. Interethnic conflicts flare up frequently. Rape, suicide and drug trafficking are commonplace.

Yet, most people never lose hope and try to take care of themselves and their daily needs with the scarce essentials still available to them. They put up tents, get cooking pots, bake bread on campfires, wash children’s clothes with water from an extra saved bottle, and make toys from sticks and old clothes. Self-styled street artists adorn dirty walls with graffiti, often with landscapes of their faraway home countries. On a large dustbin a local wit spray-painted these words of wisdom: "Don’t worry, be happy."

"We try to carry on and hope," says a female refugee from Syria. "Possibly we will be able to join my sister in the main camp."

Entering the camp is easy, but staying there on legal grounds is practically impossible. The refugees know every single hole in the perimeter fence and dozens of ways of sneaking past the guards unnoticed as well as the places where to buy flour and other food. The camp is packed to capacity. Not a square inch of land is vacant. Dense pedestrian flows move along the camp’s alleyways in both directions past the rows of tents and cabins placed wall-to-wall and back-to-back. The Greek authorities do their best to provide the people with essentials under a program for aid to refugees, but the conditions are far from ideal: there are not enough shower cabins and toilets, containers with food are often looted, and bad weather, in particular, in the autumn and winter, damage supplies and cause disease.

Second exodus

Refugees at the Moria camp say the Greek authorities’ permission to move to the Kara Tepe camp is a stroke of fortune and a real blessing. Situated two and a half kilometers northeast of the island’s capital city, this camp, run by the local municipal authorities, is believed to be one of the safest in the whole country. The conditions there are in stark contrast to those at Moria: 260 temporary shelters equipped with solar panels or diesel power generators, tandoors in the yard for cooking food and water reservoirs.

This camp is for families with many children and single mothers. Currently Kara-Tepe accommodates about 1,400 - 70% of them Afghans. Also, there are some refugees from Syria, Iraq, Somalia and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

The authorities, volunteers and UN personnel have been working hard to keep the camp in perfect order, to the maximum degree the current conditions allow for. There are playgrounds, a childcare center, a school, language courses and music classes, where music students are taught to play the guitar and synthesizers. Medical assistance is available round the clock. There is a street caf·, barber’s shop and clothes distribution center. All of their services are free. The residents themselves volunteer to do some jobs in the camp, especially those who in their home countries were nurses, university students and teachers…

"Do I want to return to Afghanistan? If life gets normal there - yes, I do. At the moment we are waiting for permission to go to France or some other place," says a teenage refugee girl from Kabul.

"We arrived here not by ship, of course," another girl explains. "We came here by boat, a very small one. First, we went from Afghanistan to Iran and then to Turkey. From Turkey we moved to Greece. We’ve spent eighteen months in this camp waiting."

Getting permission to proceed to the mainland and then further to Europe may require six months to two years, depending on the case.

"Yes, we’ve been trying to help the people, to let them feel happier somehow," says one of the camp’s woman administrators. "It is a rather daunting experience to spend a long time waiting on a tiny plot of land. It is very hard for them psychologically, although they are free to leave the premises and walk about the city."

Under a special EU program food trays are distributed three times a day. The head of the family is paid 90 euros a month and another 50 euros per each relative. Many have work permits. Some have used this opportunity, but finding a job on Lesbos is not easy at all. So most of the refugees do not work but just wait.

The islanders’ attitude to the situation varies, but most of them react to the constant influx of refugees with understanding.

"Who can do anything about this? Life is life and war is war. We understand," local Greeks say. "Too bad we see far fewer tourists these days. Visitors are not so eager to come to our island as before. This harms the economy."

Road to Athens

In Athens, tourist crowds are as big as always, but refugees in this region are many, too, both inside the city and its environs. On a wall in the very heart of the ancient capital somebody wrote in big black letters: "If you know about Guantanamo, don’t forget about Moria."

The Ritsona refugee camp 75 kilometers away from Athens is overseen by the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. Representatives of Greek government ministers and volunteers work there. At the moment the refugee camp accommodates about 800. Most of them are Syrian Kurds. Children are many.

More cabins with kitchens and showers are being built. None of the older type shelters have this convenience. People there are less eager to talk than in Kara-Tepe. Many agree to say where they come from and may offer you a cup of fresh coffee, but prefer to keep quiet when asked about the situation in Syria. Some do not speak other languages, while others, although the meaning of the question is very clear, just stay curtly: "It’s hard. We have relatives there," and turn away.

"There is a school for children where they are taught foreign languages, but we have not started the academic year yet. We are still waiting for the teachers, who will be visiting the camp on the daily basis. We do hope that we will have everything settled in a couple of weeks," says an Education Ministry official. "There are classes for adults, too, but few are eager to attend them. For grownups studying is not so easy."

Refugees are free to leave the camp’s premises and even to invite visitors after asking for special permission. The nearest community is one hour’s walk away.

"We just stay here and wait," says a Kurdish refugee from Iraq who arrived in the camp a week ago.

Many have been trying to preserve their home country’s ethnic flavor among the Greek pines and olive groves. One would turn to the maximum a loudspeaker playing Syrian music. Another can be seen clinging to a tiny radio receiver listening to a prayer. A third runs an Arab street shop selling bread, cigarettes and essentials. There is a man who drinks coffee with cardamom only from a cup brought from home. And some write the names of Syrian communities on the walls.

What is next? What country will they get to in several years’ time, if at all? Where will they be working, if they really wish to get a job? Will they be able to get accustomed to the European lifestyle? No simple answers to any of these questions are at hand for now. Meanwhile, children who have been deprived of normal childhood, barefooted, with matted hair, and wearing dirty clothes, will remain children. As always, they will be eagerly embracing the camp’s personnel, laughing, kicking cans and racing each other on battered scooters. Hopefully along a path to a better future.