The World

“I Don’t Want My Life to Be Like This”

The Moria refugee camp was the last option for many migrants. Then it burned down.

A family sits on a mat in front of a blue tent.
An Afghan family takes shelter along the road in Lesbos on Sept. 11, days after Moria refugee camp was destroyed by fire. Annelise Mecca

ATHENS, Greece—Zainab has spent the past two years living in refugee camps. The first one was in Iran, where she and her husband spent a month after having fled family violence in their home country, Afghanistan. While living there, she had a miscarriage in the fourth month of pregnancy. “It was a very bad situation and the baby couldn’t survive,” she says.

Zainab, who preferred to give only her first name, was devastated but had little time to mourn the loss as she and her husband had to keep moving. Their next stop, several months later, was the Moria refugee camp on the Greek island of Lesbos, where they had been living for the past year before it burned to the ground in the early morning hours of Sept. 9.*

Now, Zainab’s home is a small, blue tent that her husband pitched on the side of the main road running in front of where Moria used to be. As the fire engulfed the main structures of the camp, many asylum-seekers headed for the hills and have been staying in the surrounding olive groves ever since. But most ended up on this one-mile strip of road, blocked on all sides by the riot police, where they sleep on pieces of cardboard and whatever blankets they managed to salvage before the fire destroyed everything.

Before it burned to the ground, Moria had become synonymous with the failures of the EU’s migration policy, which aimed to stem the flow of asylum-seekers from the Middle East, Afghanistan, and parts of Africa after the surge in arrivals from 2015 to 2016.

During that surge, nearly 1 million people arrived on Greek shores fleeing war, persecution, and economic devastation. Most continued onward into central and Northern Europe, but as recently as six months ago, 20,000 people remained crammed into a space built for less than 3,000.

The cramped and unhygienic conditions of the camp put it at serious risk for an outbreak of the coronavirus. At the time of the fires, and following the first positive coronavirus case in Moria, 2,000 of the remaining 13,000 people living inside Moria and in the surrounding olive groves dubbed “the jungle” had been tested for the coronavirus. Of those 2,000 tested, 35 tested positive for the virus. About 7,000 people had been relocated to mainland Greece earlier this year to avoid an outbreak, and at the time of the fire, the camp had been under lockdown for the past six months, something that caused great frustration and led to frequent protests by camp residents.

These frustrations are, some witnesses say, what eventually led a handful of residents to ignite a fire in an area where several families were being quarantined in containers after testing positive for the coronavirus earlier that week. The fire quickly spread to the rest of the camp. On Tuesday, six Afghans suspected of starting the fire were arrested. All were between the ages of 17 and 24.

What Zainab fears most is what home comes next: the new camp whose construction started just days after Moria burned. Hundreds of U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees tents now sit on stony ground just meters from the water’s edge. With winter around the corner, aid organizations are worried that these structures won’t be adequate enough to properly protect their inhabitants from the elements.

A girl with beads in her hair holds a baby.
A young girl holds her baby sister near her family’s tent inside a supermarket parking lot in Lesbos on Tuesday. Annelise Mecca

According to Stella Nanou, a spokesperson for the UNHCR, the new camp is only meant for temporary needs. “It’s functioning as an emergency site meant to cover the immediate and urgent needs of the population that has been affected by the fires in Moria,” she explains. As for the future of the camp, she says it’s still unclear what the Greek authorities have planned.

“We do support its use as an emergency situation,” she continues, “but what may be deemed adequate in an emergency situation in terms of shelter and services, may not be regarded as adequate in more permanent structures.” Moria, too, was meant to be a temporary facility, but as is often the case with setups that are supposed to be temporary, they often become permanent.

Zainab, now pregnant for a second time, isn’t thinking of winter just yet. She’s thinking about her freedom and the six-month coronavirus lockdown she endured at Moria. “I’m so scared to go there to the new camp, because I don’t want to stay [locked in] like in Moria,” she says. “I don’t want my life to be like this in the new camp.”

Her fears are not unfounded. The new camp, which is expanding daily to accommodate all 13,000 left homeless by the fires, will be a closed facility with ID checks for anyone wanting to enter or exit. And that movement would only be allowed once the threat of a coronavirus outbreak has subsided.

“This situation had been left unattended for a long time, problems have grown and I think it’s very understandable that both refugees and local communities have lost their trust, have lost their confidence that solutions can be found,” explains Nanou of the current fears of another indefinite coronavirus lockdown for asylum-seekers in the new camp.

Ever since the center right–leaning New Democracy party came into office in July 2019, it has been aiming to turn Moria into a closed detention center. The coronavirus pandemic, and now the fire that destroyed almost the entire camp, is making that goal a reality.

“Some [people] do not respect the country that is hosting them,” said a government spokesperson, Stelios Petsas, in a press briefing on Sept. 10. “They thought that if they set fire to Moria they would leave the island indiscriminately. Whatever those who set the fires had in mind, they can forget it,” he continued. “They are not going to leave because of the fire, except the unaccompanied minors who have already been transferred.” 

Within 24 hours of the fire, 406 unaccompanied minors had been transferred off the island, on their way to other European member states. The rest of the 13,000 stranded asylum-seekers, however, will eventually have to register at the new camp, taking a rapid COVID-19 test before being allocated a tent and some basic amenities.

A woman pours water from a plastic water bottle onto a child.
A mother bathes her child Tuesday in front of a Lesbos gas station, where they have been sleeping for nine days. Annelise Mecca

Like Zainab, Mohammad Reza Shafaei, an asylum-seeker from Afghanistan, does not want to enter the new camp, despite being forced to live on the side of the road with his wife and three children in a two-person tent for the past eight days.

But his reasons are different. Earlier this week, he and his wife initially decided that they would move into the new camp with three of their children. (Two of their other children, a 10-year-old daughter and a 19-year-old son, have already made it to Finland and Austria, respectively.) But the next day, Shafaei found his wife lying on the ground next to their small tent vomiting.

“I saw my wife laying down on the ground and throwing up,” he says. “I asked her what happened and she told me she had eaten something. I asked her what she ate and she showed me a yellow bottle.” That yellow bottle was Clorox, typically used for heavy-duty cleaning.

Shafaei wanted to ask her more, but she couldn’t speak, so he picked her up in his arms and quickly rushed her to the hospital. Not until he returned to his tent and spoke to his youngest son, who had bought the Clorox to his mom, not knowing what she intended to do with it, did he fully understand what had happened.

“For these [past] two months she really changed her behavior and she’s been crying so much, especially when she’s alone and after our daughter left,” he explains. Still, because she hadn’t said anything to him about her suicidal thoughts, Shafaei was in a state of confusion for several hours after he left her at the hospital. “I was thinking that [maybe] because she had a lot of stress, she drank that [Clorox], but she never said anything to me.”

That was three days ago, and he hasn’t been able to see her since. He’s tried multiple times to see her at the hospital, but each time he goes, he’s turned away and told that he must first register at the new camp. Only then will he be allowed to see his wife.

But he worries that if he enters the new camp, his wife won’t know where to find him once she’s released and will return to the area on the street where they have been staying since the fires at Moria destroyed their only home. “Right now, if I go to that other camp, maybe she’ll come here to find me,” he says. Soon, he might not have a choice. In the early morning hours on Wednesday, riot police started corralling people from the street and surrounding olive groves into the new camp.

Realizing that resistance is now futile, Omar, a 29-year-old asylum-seeker from the Golan Heights, knows that he and his wife must also eventually make their way into the camp. Having fled an imminent prison sentence in Syria—his crime: working as a photographer for the humanitarian organization the White Helmets—Omar didn’t expect to find himself in a new kind of detention in Europe.

“I know that I’ll [have to] go to the new camp, but when I go, I won’t have anything, I won’t have freedom,” he says.

Additional reporting and photographs by Annelise Mecca.

*This article originally misstated the date of the Moria camp fire. It was Sept. 9, not Sept. 3.