Europe's dirty little secret lies at the end of a winding country lane, in a valley dotted with ancient olive trees.

Surrounded by wire fences and in places waist-high in rubbish, Moria refugee camp on the Greek island of Lesbos, which used to be a paradise for holiday-makers, is home to 7000 people from a dozen nations, who are squeezed into a space that was meant to accommodate just 2000.

Now, two years after a million migrants and refugees crossed into Europe, living conditions are becoming even more intolerable, as a fresh wave of refugees and migrants arrive on the Greek islands - many of them Syrian and Iraqi families.

They are putting immense strain on the camp in Lesbos and others like it on Kos, Samos, Leros and Chios.

Advertisement

Sahar Mallah, from Oxfam, who works in the camp. "People are living in freezing tents and there are huge concerns about the lack of sanitation."

There is not enough room for everybody in the white metal containers set up by the Government, so 3000 people, including pregnant women, newborn babies and toddlers, sleep in tiny tents and under tarpaulins, set up on every available inch of space.

Last winter, snow fell on Lesbos and five people died in Moria, at least two of them as a result of carbon monoxide poisoning from makeshift heating to warm their freezing tents.

The same is likely to happen this year unless urgent measures are taken - of which there is scant sign.

The camp now resembles a shanty town, its lanes and alleyways strewn with discarded food containers, used nappies, chicken bones and plastic bottles.

Some women are so scared to go to the bathroom at night that they have taken to wearing adult nappies so as to avoid venturing out into the darkness.

"The women feel so unsafe. It is totally unacceptable," said Mallah. "There are women having to share tents with men they don't know and they are afraid. I've never seen that before in a refugee camp."

As conditions deteriorate, so too does people's mental health, with a sharp increase in refugees being referred to psychologists for attempting suicide, feeling suicidal, and exhibiting self-harm and panic attacks.

Advertisement


In just five days this month, more than 100 migrants and refugees were referred to a mental health clinic in Mytilini, the main town on Lesbos.

Aria Danika, a project coordinator from Medecins Sans Frontieres, said: "The island has become a glorified detention centre. A patient recently said to me, 'Moria is the small jail, the island is the big jail.' The situation is deteriorating at an alarming rate.

"People have had their spirit crushed as they don't know how long they will stay here. The asylum process is extremely convoluted."

In response to the chronic overcrowding, Athens announced that it hopes to transfer 5000 of the most vulnerable refugees, including women and children, from the islands to the mainland.

But the mayor of Lesbos is sceptical. "I'm not confident that the refugees will be moved any time soon," said Spyros Galinos. "Conditions in Moria are tragic and inhumane. It's nearly winter and people's lives are at stake."


There are currently 15,000 asylum seekers in camps on the Aegean islands stuck in limbo. Moria is so overcrowded that hundreds of refugees live in tents outside the camp, in an olive grove where many trees have been cut down for firewood.

Children play in little groups, scampering up and down a muddy bank while their parents go about the numbing daily routine of camp life - queuing for food or sweeping the space outside their tents with bunches of twigs. There is no hot water and the few showers are clogged with human faeces and rubbish, so people wash with ice-cold water from plastic pipes.

In the afternoon, as the sun sinks behind the hills and the temperature plunges, they light fires.

There is not enough firewood to scavenge so they burn plastic bags and bottles, creating an acrid stench and dense plumes of black smoke.

"It's very, very cold at night. To get food you have to queue for two or three hours and then it might be just a piece of cake," said Mustafa Mohib, 24, an engineer from Kabul, who has been at the camp for three months.

He sleeps in a small tent, set up on wooden pallets, with three other Afghan men. "We have nothing to do - we just walk around. We may have to wait three months, one year, two years - we don't know."

Some people have been here for 20 months - ever since March last year, when the EU signed a €3 billion deal with Turkey designed to stop the refugee flow.

On the camp's perimeter wall, the words "Welcome to prison Moria" have been sprayed in large black letters.

Some of the refugees don't even have socks - they walk around in flip-flops. Stray dogs wander through the camp, some of which have been adopted by refugee children.

With people having to queue for so long for meals, clashes inevitably break out. "It's very bad. There's often fighting in the food queues - then the police tell everyone to go away, so you end up with nothing to eat," said Mohamoud Hajji Ibrahim, 23, from Somalia.

Piles of buoyancy life jackets used by refugees and migrants, discarded in Molyvos village, on Lesbos. Photo / AP file
Piles of buoyancy life jackets used by refugees and migrants, discarded in Molyvos village, on Lesbos. Photo / AP file

A former cameraman for a Somali television channel, he says he fled after being beaten and threatened by al-Shabaab extremists. "I don't know how long I will be here - two years maybe," he said.

The complexity of thousands of asylum requests and a lack of trained personnel means that Lesbos and the other islands have become a giant bottleneck.

Those whose asylum bids are turned down are supposed to be returned to Turkey, but since the returns policy began in March last year, only 1400 have been sent back.

"The Turkey-EU agreement remains valid, although we would like to see more returns because that will restore the order of things. Things need to move faster," Ioannis Mouzalas, the Greek Migration Minister, said.

A dozen humanitarian organisations are calling on the Greek Government to empty the islands and transfer all the asylum seekers to the mainland, where conditions are better.

But that would contravene the EU-Turkey deal, which calls for people to be kept on the islands until their applications can be dealt with.

The result is deadlock. And despair.