LESBOS, Greece — Just 48 hours before Pope Francis is expected to touch down on the Greek island of Lesbos, two men with a barrel of paint are busy whitewashing graffiti that says “no human is illegal” and “liberty and freedom” off the stone walls of the Moria detention facility. Four barefoot young boys wearing visibly dirty clothing sit atop the wall, leaning into the wire fence to watch the painters below. Above the curious boys, rings of sharp razor wire glisten in the morning sun.
The fact that the men are covering up something that, to even the most casual observer, would certainly not offend this pope is lost on everyone. “This isn’t because of the pope,” a guard tells The Daily Beast “It’s just a coincidence.”
And when the razor wire was temporarily removed when Angelina Jolie visited? Time will tell whether that will come down for Francis, too. But one thing is clear—the painters aren’t just whitewashing the graffiti off the walls, they are clearly brushing over the deplorable conditions that refugees fleeing war now face thanks to a contentious agreement between the European Union and Turkey. It involves a one-for-one exchange whereby refugees who entered Lesbos illegally by boat after March 20 are subject to deportation in exchange for vetted refugees who will be relocated elsewhere in Europe.
The Moria camp used to just be purgatory—a place where refugees who arrived from Turkey by rubber dinghy could stay until they recovered from the trauma or until they could catch a ferry to mainland Greece and try their luck getting to Germany or joining family elsewhere in Europe. Aid workers say the average time anyone stayed on Lesbos was about a week. It was never a great place, but the international aid agencies had all set up programs to provide basic amenities like running water, toilets, a change of clothes, and basic hygiene products.
Now, after the EU-Turkey accord, Moria camp has become a closed, guarded detention center, which is truly hell on earth.
“There is no running water here, no clothing, nothing. It is a prison,” a young 28-year-old woman from Afghanistan called Mahdia tells me through the fence around the back of the facility. “Look at my shoes.” The back of her right boot is completely missing, exposing her bare heel that is covered with scratches.
Next door to Moria, an open field was turned into a tent camp called Afghan Hills to hold the overflow. (The friendly yellow sign and a few tent stakes are all that’s left.) The refugees there could still benefit from the meals and aid worker donations, and they had access to showers, latrines and running water. But when the accord was implemented, all the refugees at Afghan Hills were marched across the street by armed guards and locked into Moria. Munsif, a Palestinian man, had been living in Syria. He says he had no choice but to escape through Turkey to Greece or he would have been murdered. He had been moved from the Afghan Hills to Moria. “I just want out of here. I want to go home, back to Palestine. I want out of here. I want out of this terrible place,” he says, shaking the metal fence. “It has been 28 days since I applied to go home. I have not been told anything. There is no one here even to ask.”
What makes things especially bad for the refugees, who risked their lives to cross from Turkey to Greece, is not just that they are locked up. Many of the international aid agencies also shuttered their programs at Moria and have either left the premises to avoid being affiliated with a detention and deportation camp or greatly curtailed their services, leaving a vacuum that has made Moria even more unbearable.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) is one of the few agencies that remains, even as their programs supporting infrastructure have been curtailed drastically—though they still have a human-rights monitoring program as well as services to help counsel refugees on asylum and their legal rights.
“Under the new provisions, these so-called hotspots have now become detention centers,” UNHCR spokesperson Melissa Fleming said when the accord was implemented. “Accordingly, and in line with UNHCR policy of opposing mandatory detention, we have suspended some of our activities at all closed centers on the island.”
Doctors Without Borders (MSF) pulled out entirely. “We made the extremely difficult decision to end our activities in Moria because continuing to work inside would make us complicit in a system we consider to be both unfair and inhumane,” Marie Elisabeth Ingres, MSF head of mission in Greece, said in a statement when they left. “We will not allow our assistance to be instrumentalized for a mass expulsion operation, and we refuse to be part of a system that has no regard for the humanitarian or protection needs of asylum seekers and migrants.”
The problem is, of course, that when these major agencies dug in their heels on principle, they took with them any semblance of basic human comforts like adequate medical care, hot running water, and basic comforts. Sure, there are still toilets and showers at Moria, but since the NGO that took care of cleaning and plumbing left, they are said to be in unthinkable condition.
Now, Lesbos is divided into two camps, quite literally. Moria is hell, and Kara Tepe, the other main camp on the island, while far from heavenly, is better. Kare Tepe is run by the municipality of the capital of Lesbos under the watchful direction of its mayor, Spyros Galinos. “This is not a military camp,” he told The Daily Beast as he walked around the grounds, past tents housing major aid agencies ready to help. “This is a village and the travelers here are our guests.”
The Kare Tepe camp, nice as it is by any standard of refugee housing measure, is hardly a Club Med. Around 1,000 people deemed too vulnerable to stay at Moria sleep in prefabricated containers that are lined up in rows on a plot of land outside the port city.
Angeliki Karydi, senior protection manager for the American International Rescue Committee, which has seen to the toilets, sanitation, and a paved walkway for wheelchairs at Kara Tepe, says the biggest change she has seen since the EU-Turkey accord was implemented is the loss of hope. Now refugees who reach Lesbos don’t stay just a week, and, in fact, no one can predict with any certainty just how long they might have to stay. “The refugees come with a completely different plan than what they can realize,” Karydi told The Daily Beast. “They saw their dreams completely shattered.”
Now, because all refugees must apply for asylum or other relocation or family reunification programs in Greece, where there are only about 60 officers on tap to process thousands of applications, refugees could face waits of six or seven months instead of a week. “We are starting programs dealing with integration,” she says, which has never been a necessity on Lesbos. “We are trying to teach them basic Greek and some cultural history.”
But what worries Karyid most is not about what will happen to those who have made it to Lesbos. It’s about those who are no longer coming. The average arrival has dropped from several hundred to thousands every day to just 92. “I worry for those who wanted to come,” she says. “I just hope wherever they are, they are safe and that human rights are being respected. I just hope that those who couldn’t come are OK.”