Another year in the camp

2021 on Lesvos in a nutshell

2021 started with a stronger attempt from the Greek authorities to censor NGOs and make working with asylum seekers, migrants and refugees more difficult. OHF had to handle this hurdle and re-register in Greece, but luckily thanks to the hard and detailed work of our volunteers in Switzerland and on the ground in Lesvos, we did it successfully. 

Mavrovouni, the tent camp which was “temporarily” erected after Moria burnt down 14 months ago, is still the main camp on Lesvos. Shortly after the fire, the establishment of closed controlled centers was announced. The first and only controlled migrant camp opened on Samos in September. Most organizations working with refugees consider these camps an inhumane alternative for people to be kept in until they receive their asylum decision. In contrast, one of the few dignified housing options for refugees on Lesvos, the family camp Kara Tepe, was closed at the end of May and around 600 people, including children and vulnerable people, were moved to Mavrovouni as well.

In addition to the difficult living conditions in the camp, Covid-19-restrictions and the poor health infrastructure was an extra burden for the people living there. Devastating mental health problems especially amongst children in the Mavrovouni camp were diagnosed by MSF in the first quarter of 2021. Vaccination became accessible for people in the camp in June, six months after it became accessible for Greeks. On Lesvos, Covid-19 cases are rising again in December.

The loss of vital social services provided by the Greek government such as ending HELIOS rental subsidies and cash transfers for people who lived outside the official refugee camps added to the desperate situation of many refugees across Greece this summer.

According to UNHCR data, the highest number of arriving people per day was 376 people on October 31 2021. In comparison during October 2016, more than 4’000 people arrived daily. In 2021, the number of arrivals to Greece was generally very low. Many humanitarian organizations say the drop is due to the systematic and illegal pushbacks of asylum seekers to Turkey by Greek authorities, including Frontex – the European Border and Coast Guard Agency. 

In the third quarter of 2021, the number of illegal pushbacks rose to the highest ever recorded. On average, there were more than 35 illegal push backs per month in 2021. In August and September these numbers doubled, taking away the right to seek asylum for more than 2’200 people in September alone. According to IOM(International Organization of Migration), more than 30’000 refugees have been intercepted and returned to Libya. About 1’500 people are recorded to have drowned on the central Mediterranean route in 2021. The latest incident recorded was on December 27th, when 27 refugees washed ashore in Libya. This is just a few days after at least 16 people drowned off the coast of Paros at the beginning of December.

In 2021, the Refugee Convention turned 70 and the EU-Turkey deal 5 years old. 

Numbers, Arrivals and Push Backs

Currently, there are around 2000 refugees registered in Lesvos, and around 400 both on Samos and Chios. In the last three weeks until December 19th, 48 boats with 1036 people were illegally stopped. 288 people arrived on the islands during that same period.

Afghanistan is still the main country of origin of the sea arrivals, representing 26%. People from Somalia make up 15% and people form the Democratic Republic of Congo as well as from the State of Palestine account for around 9%, according to UNHCR Data.

Covid-19 in Greece

Like in much of the world, the new covid variant Omicron is present in Greece. Masks have now been made compulsory in both indoor and outdoor areas. While travelling or visiting a supermarket, a double mask or a KN95 mask will be required. 

Pope visits camp

The Pope visited the camp at the beginning of December, but this visit left very mixed feelings. As with previous visits by “important” people, the camp was cleaned and improved in advance. But this too was only in select areas. In addition, a kind of grandstand was apparently set up. According to one of our community volunteers, the single men’s area was blocked by two rows of MAT police, and they were not allowed to leave the camp during the whole visit. 

So we asked ourselves: Did the Pope know all this? Is he aware that the days in the camp before and after his visit are very different, and that the people live in different conditions than those presented to him?