Observations of a Mennonite Peace Committee on the Island of Lesbos in September 2020

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Report live from Lesbos from the Mennonite Peace Committee study group (*)

A small group of the German Mennonite Peace Committee was present on the island of Lesbos from September 11-19, 2020. Until the last minute there was no certainty that this trip could take place. So we are happy that we were able to undertake this adventure, even though much of what we saw and experienced was deeply disturbing.

This is because we were able to observe very closely the failure of an entire system that keeps refugees in inhumane conditions on the island.  The burnt down Moria camp, a so-called “European reception centre”, was a horror. There was hardly any water there, food was inedible and made people sick; in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, it was impossible to keep your distance. An MSF (Médecins Sans Frontières) clinic outside the camp had to be closed for the small reason that there had been “urban planning violations” … and this was during the coronavirus era.

Since the fire, we have been to Moria many times, where there were always a few refugees digging through the charred remains of the camp. Some dragged their booty towards Mytilene. On the way to the town, we had to make a big diversion, as the main street was still “populated” by thousands of people six days after the fire.

It was difficult to get to where these people were because the police had set up a blockade. Two partners of Aegean Migrant Solidarity (AMS, the local team of Christian Peacemakers) managed to get there by secret routes. They observed police violence against people who were calling for freedom and did not want to be hidden in a second camp. They simply wanted to leave the island.

This Moria camp should never exist again

No one who lived in the camp regretted that it was destroyed. Interestingly, the majority of the local population – including right-wing extremists – are happy about it. Because nobody wants the island or any other place on the island to be used as a prison for asylum seekers. And most of the NGOs we have been able to talk to say, “We understand this:  Moria should never exist again and nothing like this should be built on its ashes.”

Only the politicians were uncomfortable. Because they now had to look for another solution for the more than 12,000 people. The United Nations Commission on Human Rights and the Office of the High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) had to accompany the transfer of the people to the new camp. They are talking about encouraging people to go. However, videos of this “encouragement” show people being dragged out of their tents. Tear gas is used to give them extra “motivation” to go to the new camp. People know what to expect there: a new Moria camp.

What can be done?

With AMS, we were able to provide some concrete help. The alternative camp, Pikpa, distributes food to unaccompanied minors. We also met a group of people sleeping on a beach north of the town. We were able to bring them food, blankets and warm clothes.
What to do? There is only one practical solution: evacuating the people from the island immediately is the only way to avoid a repetition of this chaos. And, of course, this must be an European solution. We are all being asked to advocate a change of policy. Germany in particular has benefited greatly by taking in one million refugees in 2015-2016. And has more than enough space to accommodate thousands more. The money is there to integrate them into society. Only the fear of a minority of inhuman voices prevents German policy from doing so. Since most politicians do not have the courage themselves to do what they know to be morally right and good, we must continue to put pressure on them.

(*) Taken from the Bulletin of the German Mennonite Peace Committee – one of the organisations of Church and Peace, of which the French Assembly is also a member. Translation by Gretchen Ellis

Link to the original article in German on DMFK’s newsletter website