Steven Heighton’s most recent book is Reaching Mithymna: Among the Volunteers and Refugees on Lesvos.
If I’ve never considered the word “homeless” to be a relative term, it’s because I’ve never considered it carefully enough. At the start of September, a kilometre from where I live in Kingston, around 30 homeless people who’d been forced from public shelters by the pandemic were redisplaced when their encampment was demolished by the police. A week later – and on a totally different scale – some 8,000 adult and 4,500 child refugees on the Greek island of Lesvos became even more homeless overnight when fires obliterated Europe’s largest refugee camp, the infamous Moria. Meant for 3,000, it had come to hold up to eight times that number, making it one of the most densely populated settlements on earth.
People who’ve followed developments in Moria since it opened in 2015 – a year when almost a million Syrian and other refugees rafted from Turkey to Lesvos – have repeatedly warned of impending disaster. This year, the nature of the warnings changed, focusing on the coronavirus, which seemed certain to rip through a place where the notion of “social distancing” was a ludicrous impossibility and where sanitation and medical amenities were drastically inadequate. Yet for half a year, the well-managed Greek lockdown, and the disciplined efforts of aid workers and the refugees themselves, helped keep the virus out of the camp. Finally, in early September, an outbreak began, yet in the end it was the fires – apparently set by refugees protesting even tighter lockdown measures – that destroyed the camp, though miraculously with no fatalities.
One of those people anxiously checking news sites for Moria updates this year was me. Having been in the camp just before Christmas in 2015, during a refugee-police standoff, I had some sense of the hellish conditions there and so recognized the gravity of the situation. I’d gone to Lesvos in late November after deciding, more or less overnight, to volunteer. I’d been between drafts of a novel featuring fictional Mediterranean refugees, and – in the light of actual events over there – my project now seemed hollow and frivolous. I was hoping my slender grasp of Greek, my mother’s mother-tongue, might make me useful on the landing beaches and in the camps (I was wrong: It was Arabic translators who were desperately needed).
When I saw Moria, it was still essentially a registration centre, not what it was about to become: an internment camp where refugees might wait several years for their asylum claims to be assessed. In late 2015, most occupants could still hope to proceed within a few weeks to Athens and then on to northern Europe. The crowding and squalor may have been shocking – everywhere families huddled around noxious fires made of plastic water bottles among a vast favela of pup tents – but at a kiosk distributing dry clothes, the cold, wet refugees radiated a stoic determination, even optimism. They were not just fleeing something, they were also pushing toward something new, stage by painful stage.
Then at sunset, on the far side of the tent city, several of us caught a glimpse of Moria’s future. About a thousand newly arrived Syrian refugees were lined up outside the camp’s fenced inner compound, waiting to register. Some had been waiting since dawn. The Greek police now wanted the crowd to form two lines – one for families, one for single men, so families could be processed and settled for the night first. A good idea, but the chief had no translator to explain it to the crowd. His repeated instructions were no more comprehensible through his bullhorn. A group of us volunteers had rushed over and were now scrambling, trying to mime the instructions, reassure refugees who feared that after hours in line they were being forced back and not allowed to register, and calm the handful of terrified-looking riot police pounding truncheons on their shields.
On all counts, we failed. A police charge triggered a stampede during which, somehow – as with the fires on Sept. 9 – no one was badly hurt.
There’s a sense in which Moria needed to be destroyed. And in different circumstances, that might have led to positive changes; for one, the European Union might have stopped viewing Lesvos as a kind of insular leper colony where unwanted people could be concentrated, marginally supported and forgotten. But the pandemic that pushed Moria fully out of the news, and that is now resurgent in Europe, makes it still less likely the EU will act in any way that is unified, sustained and fundamental.
To be sure, there have been some hopeful developments. Germany has offered to take in 1,500 of these people who – having arrived in Greece as refugees from their countries – now find themselves refugees also of Moria. Four hundred unaccompanied minors have finally been removed from the camp. And most former internees will now be granted refugee status and travel papers. But asylum seekers will continue to arrive from Turkey and, as the larger crisis slips back out of the news, other Morias may form, whether on Lesvos or elsewhere in Greece.
Further progress depends on the world’s ability to override its deepening attention deficit issues. How do we stay focused on a problem that discourages attention because it seems a tragedy of intractables, like the Israel-Palestine question? From a Canadian viewpoint, events on Lesvos have seemed remote, almost fictive, and have rarely been headline news as in Europe. But if charity – in its root sense of caritas, love for all – begins at home, we might start here by attending to our own, growing homelessness problem. While Greece is broke and not receiving enough help to accommodate and process its refugees, Canada has the resources to ensure that no one – whether born here or fleeing here – is doubly displaced.
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