Europe Politics

'It's a powder keg ready to explode': In Greek village, tensions simmer between refugees and locals

Key Points
  • Turkey said on Thursday it would no longer restrain hundreds of thousands of asylum seekers in its territory from reaching Europe despite a deal to do so reached with the EU in 2016.
  • Thousands of refugees are now on the border of Greece.
  • The Greek island of Lesvos is a holding station for refugees from the Middle East and Africa seeking asylum in the European Union.
  • Protests are erupting in the refugee camp and across the island of Lesvos as living conditions deteriorate and crime escalates.
A march in support of refugee rights held in the village of Moria in Lesvos, Greece on Feb. 25, 2020.
Photo: Jade Sacker

LESVOS, Greece Those looking from the windows of the Drop Center, a popular school and cafe for refugees in the Greek village of Moria, could tell the mood had turned on a warm morning in early February. Afghan mothers pushing strollers were heading back to the refugee camp, while young men were rushing in the other direction.

A morning protest by around 300 asylum seekers over their squalid living conditions had begun peacefully enough inside the camp, home to some 20,000 people from 64 different countries, including Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq and Angola. But clashes soon erupted with riot police after the group tried marching to Mytilini, the main port and capital of Lesvos. Now protesters were coming toward this small village, and its residents were mobilizing.

Thousands of refugees, migrants stranded at Turkey's border with Greece
Thousands of refugees, migrants stranded at Turkey's border with Greece

After a truck filled with locals stopped outside the center, continually blasting its horn through the usually serene town, workers inside hit the lights and pulled down the blinds. There was a message over loudspeakers calling for villagers to gather at the church. And it provided an opportunity for the staff to evacuate those inside two at a time.

After that day, the Drop Center was closed and staff moved elsewhere on the island. For the organization that ran the school, A Drop in the Ocean, it seemed their welcome had run out. Another NGO had rocks thrown through their windows. Later a group of local vigilantes went door-to-door looking for aid workers or refugees. "I understand that [the villagers] are tense. They live in an extreme situation. But it doesn't excuse their behavior toward us," said Ida Sorbye, a worker at the Drop Center.

If the Greek island of Lesvos is the frontline of Europe's refugee crisis, Moria is a no-man's land. The small village's population of around 2,000 is now dwarfed by the camp of the same name up the road. As many as possible are crammed into the main facility, designed to hold only 2,800, with the rest spilling out in tents and hastily-built structures on the slopes of ancient olive groves. Numbers have exploded over the last year as new regulations require refugees to apply for asylum at their first landing place in Europe. For many that means Lesvos.

Turkey said on Thursday it would no longer restrain hundreds of thousands of asylum seekers in its territory from reaching Europe despite a deal to do so reached with the EU in 2016. That means islanders are things to rapidly worsen. Thousands of refugees are now on the border of Northern Greece. The crisis poses the toughest test for Greece since a 2015 financial crisis.

The situation is worsening as crime escalates. There's been at least two murders at the camp, and reports of daily fights and stabbings between refugees. Doctors Without Borders said that rape is also common inside the camp, as high as one rape reported a week.

Asylum seekers on the Greek island of Lesvos are seen in the Moria refugee camp on Feb. 15, 2020. More than 20,000 are living in the camp, designed for 2,800, and the surrounding hills.
Jade Sacker

The European refugee crisis is now five years old. More than 120,000 migrants and asylum seekers arrived clandestinely in 2019, according to the International Organization for Migration, with the vast majority crossing the Mediterranean Sea. That's a big drop from the more than 1 million who arrived in 2015. Yet due to a backlog of cases and closed borders in the North, the Greek islands have never looked like this.

The local economy of Lesvos, largely dependent on tourism, has taken a hit. The home of archaic poetess Sappho, the island used to draw holidaymakers for its stunning blue waters, picture-postcard villages, sun-baked olive groves, medieval fortress and world-famous petrified forest. But tourism dropped by more than 50% in 2016 and, according to business owners on the island, hasn't recovered by nearly enough. Cruise ships are coming less often — only eight arrived in 2019 compared to 94 in 2011. Tourists that do step onto the island see refugee children reselling bus tickets and a constant flow of those making the trek between camps and into towns.

It seems the open arms that initially had greeted those coming ashore in Lesvos have finally closed. Thousands of island locals attended a protest for Athens to process or remove the refugees. General strikes have been called. "It's a powder keg ready to explode," regional governor Kostas Moutzouris told local news regarding the situation.

Demonstrators protest against the construction of new migrant camps in Mytilene, on the island of Lesbos, on February 27, 2020.
Aris Messinnis | AFP | Getty Images

Qais Azizi, from Afghanistan, has been in Moria camp for four months. The 26-year-old said that on the suggestion of his sister, and after witnessing two suicide blasts while studying in Kabul, he trekked first to Turkey and then to Greece. When he crossed the short but dangerous strip of Mediterranean — his first time seeing the ocean — he had no idea his journey would pause here.

When his sister calls, he can't bear to tell her the truth. "I am always lying to her, saying, 'After two months they will accept me ... and they will accept you also.'" After more time has passed, he lies again about another step in the application. "With this hope she is alive, I think." He is yet to have his interview for asylum.

Meanwhile, a city has grown around him. On the camp's market street, dozens of vendors sell their wares amid a hum of Farsi, French and English. Sellers fan hot coals under kebab skewers and display bread made from an Afghan tandoor oven.

Outside the main camp is the "jungle." Among the gray-green hills is a shanty town with narrow dirt alleys that flood in the rain. Garbage is piled in ditches. Greek locals sell wooden pallets to the newcomers for around 7 euro, although prices are rising, according to a man from Syria building a room for his family. It will cost around 300 euro total for his materials, he said. There's even a real estate market where prime spots are traded and sold.

Around midnight only a handful of guards are on duty. That's when most refugees don't dare leave their tent, said Azizi. There are daily reports of knifings and fights between the refugees. Rocks are placed at the ready near Azizi's tent in case a melee breaks out.

Conditions at the Moria refugee camp in Lesvos, Greece are deterriorating as overcrowding and crime become serious problems.
Photo: Jade Sacker

Like elsewhere in Europe, a center-right government was elected in Greece last year, led by Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis. The New Democracy coalition promised to resolve the backlog of asylum seekers. So far, nothing has changed, except the movement of more riot police to the island. Athens proposed building a new semi-enclosed camp to keep refugees from freely walking the streets. But this has been met by protests and strikes by islanders.

No other plans are in the pipeline. But if they were, it's unlikely they would be trusted by those in Lesvos. "People have lost faith in the government," said Mytilini mayor special advisor Tasos Balis.

Things are getting worse. They [refugees] cut the trees. They take the animals — the sheep, the goats. And we feel insecure.
Mikis Papadakis
local resident

The EU's solution has been to block onward migration to the rest of Europe from those that land in Greece. Their policy is that those that land on Lesvos must apply for asylum before moving on. If refugees move on without doing this, then they must return to Lesvos to go through the process. There's no change in policy moving forward, although there's plans to increase spending on migration management and border controls (total of 34.9 billion euro) for the next seven years.

Greeks on the front lines of the refugee crisis

On a windy night a few weeks after the unrest in Moria, a group of men and women stood huddled around a fire at the entrance to the village, stopping cars to make sure the passengers were local. Mikis Papadakis, 47, comes here every night after working at a butcher shop in Mytilini. "Things are getting worse," he said. "They [refugees] cut the trees. They take the animals — the sheep, the goats. And we feel insecure."

Today a march organized by a local antifascist group in support of refugee rights passed his store. Protesters handed out fliers that warned: "In these circumstances, social polarization is rising, and extreme-right ideology has found space among a section of local society."

"It's their job," Papadakis said, smiling. He thinks there is a lot of money involved with aid work on the island. A common complaint from locals is that a thriving NGO industry — no doubt helping refugees that come ashore — comes at the cost of their businesses as more are encouraged to make the journey.

A meeting was held the following day in Moria village to discuss the situation. Angry shouts and applause reached Takis Bokolis, 50, smoking a cigarette outside of the town hall. Bokolis works pressing oil from his family's olives. What bothers him most is the refugees cutting down the trees for firewood. "I want to cry. It's so painful. We've grown up with these trees. They are my kid's food," he said. Local authorities haven't intervened as refugees thin out the groves around Moria camp.

Panoramic general and closeup view from a hill of everyday daily life in Moria. Handmade tents on the olive grove hills of the slums or jungle or hell as asylum seekers called it, next to the official first Reception and Identification Center, Moria hotspot.
Nicolas Economou | NurPhoto | Getty Images

So it has come to this: neighborhood guards and town hall meetings, he explained. "The government has forgotten us," said Bokolis. He has bought three more dogs — big Greek shepherds — to guard against those from the camp that walk past his property. He said his neighbors are collecting weapons, sleeping with guns under their beds. No islander has been attacked by anyone from the camp. But businesses and homes were robbed. And Moria villagers, heavily outnumbered, worry about what will happen if things turn violent.

"There is a wall between Greece and the EU, and there is a wall between the islands and Athens." Now Bokolis wants a wall between Turkey and his island. He might get something close. A floating sea barrier was recently proposed by Athens.

Meanwhile, Sorbye, the worker at the Drop Center, is looking for a new location for the community center. She hopes to find something before an expected jump in arrivals during spring, when the temperature rises and the waves soften in the Aegean Sea.