the home of a syrian family in Thessaloniki, that I visit towards the end of the trip
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“Member States shall ensure that material reception conditions provide an adequate standard of living for applicants, which guarantees their subsistence and protects their physical and mental health.”
Reception Conditions Directive, Article 17
What should an EU refugee camp look like?
WITH FLIGHT CONNECTIONS READILY AVAILABLE in Europe, it’s too easy to forget the pleasure of bussing to places. My bus drives down from Amsterdam to Munich (10h), then to Sofia (22h) and from there to Kavala (7h). In each city, I heave my backpack – an oversized blue monstrosity with my camping gear and books – into the city to meet my host for the night, only to drag it back to the bus station the next morning.
It’s a useful reminder of long-lost high-school topography. I cross Slovenia, Croatia, Serbia, Bulgaria, and finally make it to Greece. I had already forgotten that Serbia is not part of the Union, or that Croatia is part of the EU, but not of Schengen. At the same time, the bussing makes me acutely aware of how close the heart of the refugee crisis actually is. It’s only a couple of busrides away.
Kavala is the last bus stop, from where I catch the ferry to Lesvos. Onwards from there, I will continue to Athens, Thessaloniki, and finally the North Macedonian border, in an attempt to catch a glimpse of the routes migrants take into Europe. Lesvos (also spelled ‘Lesbos’) seems like a good place to start. It’s a beautiful Greek island in the Aegean sea, and arguably the epitome of Europe’s current migration struggles. Lesvos serves as a major entry point into Europe, one of the very busiest, in fact. And it’s probably the most miserable. Useless bureaucracy detains people for months or years on end and humanitarian help has largely failed.
My layover is a little sea-side town. Its beaches are somewhat disappointing, but its boulevards are lined with tavernas, sailing boats are quietly floating in the port and seagulls complete the picture. I step out of the minibus from Sofia at midday, and grab the backpack from the back. I’m without a plan. My ferry only leaves the next evening.
A little aimlessly, I decide to secure a Greek sim card first and lift the backpack onto my shoulders. At the Vodafone shop, I ask the girl at the counter about local refugee camps. “Is there one you know of?” She points me to the bus stop down the road and tells me bus 12 can take me to Perigiali beach, the driver will know it. Across from Perigiali beach, there is a converted military base. That’s where the refugees are housed. It will be the first of four refugee camps I’m visiting in Greece, not counting the shelters and urban hotspots migrants stay in.
It’s early afternoon, but I haven’t found a place to stay yet. It leaves me no choice but to bring the backpack along as I board bus 12.
The entrance to Kavala’s refugee camp is open
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Perigiali refugee camp is easy to identify. When I get off the bus, I follow thick, high walls on my right, that clearly mark the lining of the former military base. On my left is the quiet rushing of the ocean, waves rolling onto a sandy beach. Kids are running, playfully screaming, and women with headscarves are pushing strollers on the sidewalk.
I walk on until I find the friendly main gate. A tree-lined road leads me into the camp. Much unlike the asylum centres I know from the Netherlands, there are no guards here. The reception is hidden in the far back of the camp. As I walk past converted barracks, I repeatedly interrupt tea gatherings to ask residents for directions. Eventually, I finally find the small, stone office, UN logos marking each entrance.
“Can I help you?” Asks a lady, as she steps out of an office, closing the door behind her. “Actually, yes. I’m just passing through. I have no appointment, but I was wondering if I could talk to someone.” I explain. She is friendly enough and answers some of my questions before asking me to leave the premises. Of course, I’m not supposed to be here without official permission.
As I leave the office , I find a young Iraqi leaning back against the outer wall. “What are you looking for?” He asks, interested. Sensing his open attitude, I turn to him. “Just someone to talk to. I’m trying to figure out how this camp works. Who lives here, exactly?” I let the backpack slide from my shoulders.
The guy introduces himself, grinning. It’s Yousif. As it turns out, he works there as a translator. Sitting in on appointments with lawyers or psychologists, at public announcements and much more, he is able to tell me a lot. Except that he doesn’t have time there and then. We arrange to meet for tea, after he is done with work.
Residents of perigiali camp spend the afternoon on the beaches across from the main gate. They invite me over for tea
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I find Yousif easy to like. He’s about my age, an adventure-loving young Kurd, with thick black hair and hipster glasses. And he’s full of energy. He offers me his couch to sleep on. That evening, he starts telling me his story over chocolate and tea. And more importantly, he’s the first to unravel Greece’s migration routes for me.
What do you think an EU refugee camp should look like? What kinds of houses should people live in, what should they do during the day and what should they eat? In the EU, camps are only meant for refugees who are in the asylum application phase. Once they have received the decision, they leave the camps. The number of people that live in camps therefore depends on the number of new people and how fast the application process is.
You can see for yourself what CEAS, the European rules, sais about the expected conditions in camps when you click on link below the quote at the top of the page. Over the course of the past years, many EU camps haven’t been able to meet these standards. Why was that?
On a yearly basis, tens of thousands of people enter Greece through Turkey without a Schengen-visa. UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, the world’s central refugee organisation) registered about 75.000 of them in 2019, more than in 2017 and 2018. The greatest spikes, however, were the years before that. 2015 counted as many as 860.000 (!) border crossings into Greece: the tall pyramid in the picture which records monthly arrivals. (Click on it, it’s worth seeing!)
That peak in the summer of 2015, that’s the start of what became known as the European Refugee Crisis.
There were more refugees than the EU could deal with and the conditions in which many refugees lived were horrible. Some analyses of this crisis will point out that perhaps we should blame the design of the system instead of the number of refugees. Anyone could predict that one day sooner or later a big conflict would erupt and many refugees would arrive at once. A ‘crisis mode’ could have been woven into the system so that it could respond flexibly to such an influx, but it wasn’t. And when it’s not clear who does what when so many refugees suddenly arrive, it becomes easier to understand why the conditions in many camps are poor. We will explore this further in later chapters.
The confusion around large numbers of refugees isn’t new. The inability to provide shelter to a large number of people was also famously visible in the Second World War, the Cold War and the Balkan wars, to name a few. Especially striking is the Evian Conference in 1938, where countries tried to decide on what to do with the many Jews seeking refuge. They, too, couldn’t come to an agreement.
However, we live in a different world now. Back then, there was no European Union (1993), no Schengen agreement with loss of internal borders (1995) and no Common European Asylum System (1999). So hopefully we can set higher standards for ourselves today.
The remainder of my first day in Kavala is spent with an Afghan family I meet on the beach. They show me around in the Perigiali camp and invite me in for home-baked cake and tea. They live in a container home, two containers stacked on top of each other to form a two-storey apartment. On the kitchen cupboards I find little notes with English sentences like ‘My foot hurts.’ and ‘I have a headache.’ followed by the Arab translation.
The homeliness forms a stark contrast with the tents I’ll be visiting in Moria.
A kid hangs around in the olive groove in Moria on Lesvos
Boarding the ferry. This photo is from boarding in Lesvos. former residents from the camp carry their children upstairs.
Just A Regular Street In Lesvos: My Host Lives On The Left.
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My boat to Lesvos leaves at midnight the second day. I rush to catch it after late-night icecream with Yousif. It’s a massive but nearly empty ferry, and in the quiet I get a good night’s rest. One of the things friends ask when I arrive on the island the next day, is: How is life there? Is it dominated by refugee politics? Pakistani camping at every shopfront and tourist shops out of business? It’s an image I hear more people have of the island that accommodates the notorious refugee camp Moria.
I am personally surprised by how normal life still seems in Mitilini, the island’s main city. There are only a couple of signs of Moria, although the refugee camp is located only a few kilometres away. As I walk along Mitilini’s boulevard to the gym in the morning, I am approached by an Afghan in his mid 30’s, a scarf wrapped high over his ears. “Moria?” he asks. He is selling the bus tickets, for 1 euro each. “20 cents commission.” He admits.
Over the next few days, Greek life appears ordinary. On my morning runs, I pass rows of fish-stands on the vibrant, colourful market in the main street. On Sunday, when the clock strikes 11, the cafe where I’m reading rapidly fills up with masses of elderly Greeks, enjoying their post-church get-together. The omnipresence of aid workers (at least those distinguishable by their young/Western profile or left-alternative look) is notable, though. And of course, there’s the constant news of extremist violence over the whole island.
Once I’ve dropped the backpack at my host’s, she invites me to join her to the camp. My host’s name is Hannah. She’s a regular there, teaching German classes. Otherwise, she has little to do with it. So on a weekly basis, she gets on her motorbike and drives the 20-minute seaside route. I get to join.
Hannah parks her bike across from the entrance of the main camp. It’s heavily secured and fenced off with a tall wire. If you want, you can take a minute and take a look at some spot-on photo-documentaries by van Gennip and Chapman, who depict the camp.
Moria is Europe’s largest refugee camp. It is meant for 2,000 people, who are supposed to live in container houses and access the camp’s facilities. A couple of years ago, the camp worked okay. Migrants would arrive, apply for asylum and be transferred to the mainland in a matter of days. As the crisis endured, the number of people in the camp started rising. By now, the Greek asylum system is so overloaded that asylum seekers have to stay on the island until they’ve received a decision on their status (refugee or not refugee), which commonly takes between 1 and 2 years. It’s a theme you’ll be hearing more often.
Regular post-church coffee on Sunday, only a few kilometers from the camp.
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With more people arriving than leaving, the camp has grown to house over 10 times the number of people it was designed for. Over 20,000 instead of 2,000. And it’s still growing. In September 2019, for example, new arrivals to the Aegean islands reached over 10,000, of which about half arrived to Lesvos. Departures, on the other hand, were about 5,000, a backlog of 5,500 people in 1 month across the Aegaen.
Since the main camp is full, migrants spread out between olive trees, a camp known as Olive Grove, where they build a life for themselves in makeshift huts and tents.
Hannah leaves her helmet inside the motorbike and locks it. I look around. A dirt road leads uphill on both sides of the gates. Small paths, with steps hacked into the earth like stairs, branch off between the masses of tents. We pass by the main camp and Hannah seems at ease. She walks with me for a bit to point out where I can find the best falafel place, where there are gaps in the wire in order to enter the otherwise secured Main Camp and how to identify bathroom containers. Then she leaves me to my own devices.
Over the next few days, I roam around from mid-day till evening. At night, the camp is a dangerous place. Women wear diapers to avoid bathroom walks. During the day, it’s reasonably safe for a foreigner. And I’m usually in the company of residents. Every once in a while I pass a stray journalist in the Olive Grove. Foreign aid workers and security mostly work inside the Main Camp. Around the Olive Grove management block, on the right border of the main camp, I spot some young Western volunteers. College students, T-shirts knotted around their waist while they drag around pallets.
On that first day, I spent much of my time inside a community centre, talking to an electrician and an interpreter. We discuss daily business in the camp, their journeys to the island and the camp’s administrative system, while the skinny young interpreter – only 18 years old he tells me – snatches a mushy, plastic-wrapped croissant from the shelve or an apple from the box below. Only when the light really starts dimming in the container do I excuse myself and walk back to the main road. By the roadside, a kid rushes up to me, eager to sell me a 1-euro ticket before any of the others get a chance. And after 20 minutes or so, I finally find myself in the midst of a tumultuous, jostling crowd, pushing to secure a seat on the bus.
What I find in Moria is in many ways a breach of the European agreement quoted above. Even though the language in ‘the book of CEAS’ is formal, difficult, it’s actually not that hard to understand. I’ve pasted some of its paragraphs below chapter titles, each containing some key legal background to the stories.
You can click on the links to see the original text!
This is what you need to know about CEAS. 2 of the 5 chapters in the ‘book of CEAS’ contain rules that directly apply to EU countries. These are called Regulations. You might have heard of the “Eurodac Regulation”: the rule that countries have to scan fingerprints of all asylum seekers or people who entered the country illegally, and send it to a central database: Eurodac. Every EU country can then see where in the EU the asylum seeker has been before, and if they’ve already applied. The other is the famous “Dublin Regulation“.
Other 3 chapters only contain general principles, like what you read below the chapter title. It’s then up to each EU country to create a system that follows these principles. You can recognise them by the name Directive. An example of one is the “Asylum Procedures Directive“. It roughly explains what the application procedure should look like. The other two Directives are the “Qualification Directive”, which covers how a country should decide who a ‘true refugee’ is, and the “Reception Conditions Directive”, which covers what life should look like for an asylum seeker in the EU. Importantly, when countries don’t follow these rules, there are no punishments.
This difference between Regulations and Directives means that the European asylum system isn’t only a hard law enforced on member states, and neither is it only a vague, free system. It can take either form, depending on the issue. The question is, which form is appropriate? When should you make it a law and when should you leave countries to decide for themselves?
There are a couple of good explanations of the Common European Asylum System out there. One is this brilliant, animated website by Casework EU. Another is the very effective explanation by the European Commission itself.
On the bus back to the city. We had just past the first stop and the bus had emptied a little.
“Moria, Moria!” Tickets to Moria are sold from the street. from here, I leave to the camp every day.