When the refugee camp at Moria caught fire, 17- year old Nour from Syria asked her mother to leave her there to die. But she is not the only one. Child refugees as young as eight are also expressing no desire to live.
Situated at Lesbos, Greece, and locally referred to as “Hell for refugees” because of its abysmal living conditions. Moria is now suffering the wrath of the pandemic.
According to BBC’s report, the original facility was built for about 3,000 people. Still, in July 2020, the total headcount was nearing 17,000 refugees, forcing the remaining 14,000 to live on the periphery of the camp.
In September 2020, a harrowing fire burnt down Moria, rendering 13,000 people homeless, which included 4,000 children starved of food and water.
Photographer Vincent Haiges recalled the aftermath of the fire to The Guardian as
“Feeling estranged” as he walked through the ashes of – what used to be – The largest refugee camp in Europe.
“Though this feeling of estrangement was not caused by the overwhelming presence of destruction but rather the absence of sound. The chattering of voices, the clattering of dishes. All gone. Now you could only hear the birds and the rustling of cats strolling through the remains of the camp,” expressed Vincent.
The destruction caused by the fire received plenty of media attention and brought global focus on the crisis. Multiple public declarations promising ‘No More Morias’ and a new joint EU-Greek Taskforce were established to devise a sustainable living solution for the refugees.
But despite the promises, the inhabitants were moved to another shelter situated at Kara Tepe, known as Moria 2.0, which has been reported to have less water, even less food, and shelters that get easily battered by the wind.
As per RSA’s report, the new facility does not have showers forcing people to wash with a hose-pipe or in the sea, leaving no scope of privacy for women or social- distancing.
“I don’t have a place to bathe, so it has been many days since I washed myself, and I feel very dirty,” said Sarah, a migrant from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).
The new camp is located very close to the sea, forcing the inhabitants to endure unbearable and extreme weather conditions.
“There are not enough blankets. We do not know how we will go through this winter… What breaks our heart is that we do not have humane conditions, they perceive us as animals“, voiced Saeb, an Afghan migrant living at Kara Tepe.
In December 2020, a Human Rights Watch investigation revealed a case of lead poisoning at the site of Moria 2.0. As per their report, the Greek government had used a repurposed military firing range as the new place of shelter, which was apparently contaminated with lead from munitions.
The matter is of grave concern. Thousands of asylum seekers, United Nations aid workers, Greek and European Union employees are at risk.
On 23rd January 2021, the Greek government responded to Human Rights Watch, accepting the presence of dangerous levels of lead in Lesbos’ soil. Still, it claimed the test samples of the residential areas are below relevant standards, withholding crucial information, such as the exact location of the samples collected, or the outcome of the soil test results.
According to the World Health Organization, there is no such thing as ‘safe levels of lead concentration ‘in blood. Even inhalation of lead particles can be potentially dangerous for children and adults. Coma, convulsions, mental retardation, behavioural disorders, and even death could result in children exposed to constant and high levels of lead poisoning.
Psychologists in the camp have reported to SPIEGEL International that some children are pulling their hair out, or cutting their arms with razor blades, knives or scissors. An eight-year-old tried to hang himself. A pregnant woman set herself on fire. Since the fire at Moria, many children have begun sleepwalking, with some even making their way down to the seaside. Some parents have resorted to tying their children to the bed at night.
Medicines Sans Frontiers (Doctors without Borders), a humanitarian medical organisation currently providing mental health relief at the camp, has frequently published about suicidal tendencies and self-harm among children, declaring a ‘mental health emergency’ in all the Greek refugee camps.
Laleh (name changed), an eight-year-old Afghan girl, is one of the thousands who cannot cope with the trauma of the fire. “During the day, she just lies down and closes her eyes, sometimes something as simple as climbing steps can be difficult and overwhelming for her”, shared Hawa, a 29 year- old mother struggling with her daughter’s declining mental state, with Aljazeera. She blames the hostile environment of Moria, where Laleh had witnessed a violent fight while waiting in a queue for food with her father. The child since then was hospitalised because she stopped eating. “Laleh had a psychogenic [non-epileptic] seizure, and she fell down, everyone was shouting and running. It was a very difficult time,” said Hawa.
Thibaud Agbotsoka-Guiter, Mental Health Activity Manager with MSF at Lesbos, describes a feeling of frustration among professionals for not being able to reach the quality of care they wish to achieve.
“We are working well, but the problem with anxiety and depression is the living conditions. They are close to inhuman and more complicated during the pandemic. We can mentally stabilise the patient but sending them back to the same surroundings does not help!”
Since the beginning of this year, MSF has seen ten suicide attempts and several signs of trauma related disorders that are likely to turn into lifelong distress as these children will grow older.
“You have to understand something, those kids do not have any activities, other NGO(s) bought in some educational programmes, but since the lockdown it has stopped. There are no more activities for those kids. They really have nothing to do all day long, it is very terrible from a professional point of view, which is thwarting the kid’s development”
underlined Thibaud, concerned about NGOs not being able to continue their educational programs, or send help to children of Moria due to Covid-19 restrictions.
Between April to September 2020, Germany and other EU nations opened their doors for unaccompanied minors (refugees below 18, who are not accompanied by their parents or guardians) residing in Greek refugee camps, recognising them as ‘vulnerable’.
But as per Emma Musty, the author of The Exile and the Mapmaker and Editor of an online refugee publication ‘Are You Serious?’, there are many unaccompanied minors stuck in Greece’s refugee camps only because they have not been able to prove their age.
“When an unaccompanied minor arrives on the shores of Greece, he is received by a front desk officer who registers their age. There are times when the officers refuse to believe the minor and record their name among other adults, even when they are only 15 or 16 years old and have an identity proof.”
Her research on the lives of unaccompanied minors with Refugee Rights Europe, explores the subjectivity and bias these adolescents have to endure at the hands of the Greek authorities as soon as they arrive in the country.
“Many such minors have a tough time coping with their mental health as they are segregated from people of their age group and have to live among adults. They find it hard to get their age changed on papers and navigate the legal system. The fact that they are registered as an adult, takes away their hope of applying for unification with their family in future. As a result, many fall victims to smoking marijuana, self-immolation and suicidal tendencies as they find it impossible to see their future.”
But the worst part is, this is not where the misery ends for underage refugees. An investigation conducted by The Guardian and Lost In Europe found 18,292 child migrants missing between January 2018 and December 2020, nearly 5 children each day.
In the year 2020 alone, 5,768 children disappeared in 13 European countries, highlighting the failures of the child protection system across the EU. According to their data, 90% were boys and under the age of 15, suspected to have been forced into child labour, sexual exploitation, forced begging and trafficking.
In times of trouble, we tend to find assurance in words like “There is light at the end of the tunnel”, but for these children ‘hope’ unfortunately has started sounding like a fictional concept, as there seems to be no end to their tunnel of despair.