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Meryem* is 13, legally a child, but she has experienced far more than me or most adults my age. She fled Afghanistan after her father was killed by the Taliban, and traveled with her mother and two brothers through Iran to Turkey, where they paid a smuggler to reach Greece by boat. They arrived in September 2017, and are now stuck in Moria, a so-called ‘EU hotspot’ - a notorious asylum processing center on the island of Lesvos in Greece.
‘Hotspots’ are centers set up by the Greek and Italian governments with the help of the European Union in response to an increase in the number of arrivals on Europe’s shores. In Moria and the other hotspots, people are fingerprinted, receive a medical check and go through legal procedures.
However, those procedures are so flawed that they violate people’s fundamental rights. Instead of carefully examining who is in genuine need of international protection, the system is designed to send people back as quickly as possible.
Barbed wire, but no security
Outside Moria refugee camp, Lesbos, Greece. Photo: Oxfam
It’s easy to see why. The Moria camp was designed to host a maximum of 1,500 people, but today more than 4,000 men, women and children are forced to stay here. Next to container houses, tents are erected in every open space that can be found. In these tents, 10 to 20 people sleep, eat, and go about their business without any privacy whatsoever.
“There are too many people in the camp,” says Meryem. “Men sometimes come to our tent and demolish things. It’s very intimidating.”
The camp is surrounded by barbed wire and fences, but there is little security for the people inside. Meryem and her mom told me that they are afraid, especially during the evenings and nights, when brawls break out and they are harassed by strangers.
Vulnerable people falling through the cracks
There is a lack of everything in the camp: proper food, proper places to go to the toilet and shower, activities that will keep them busy.
There aren’t even enough people qualified to carry out medical examinations. That means that many vulnerable people are falling through the cracks and do not get the help they need. Only those with visible disabilities are likely to be selected to be moved to the Greek mainland, where more facilities are available, while they wait for their asylum applications to be processed.
Meanwhile, people with severe trauma, victims of sexual violence, people with illnesses that do not show up immediately, or those struggling with mental health: they are likely to be kept trapped in Moria for months and months, without any essential aid or support.
A sanctuary outside of the official system
The Bashira Women Center is one of the very few escapes on the island for girls like Meryem and her mother. It offers a sanctuary to women. The Center, set up with the help of Oxfam, its interior brightly painted and with orange trees in the little courtyard, is where they can take a much needed shower, where they can knit, talk to social workers or study. “We come to Bashira to be in a safe place,” says Meryem.
When asked what she would wish for most now, Meryem answers without hesitation: she wants to continue her education, as she has set her heart on becoming a doctor. However, none of the children in Moria – who make up more than fifty percent of the total population of the camp – go to school.
The work of the dedicated professionals and volunteers at the Bashira Women Center and other similar projects is essential in supporting people who are suffering in Moria. But the work they do can only address the symptoms of the problem, not the cause. Those causes can be traced back to the European Union, it does not need to be this way, there can be a humane migration policy that protects people.
Instead of detention: dignity
It’s mind-boggling that this is happening in our own European Union. And even more so, that the European Commission has recently proposed that Moria should be a blue-print for other hotspots.
What is needed most is not more prison-like centers like Moria, but an asylum procedure that safeguards the rights of those seeking protection; that treats people in a dignified manner; that offers education to children and medical help to all those in dire need.
So that children like Meryem can go to school to become doctors and teachers and technicians. So they can have a future.
“We just want a life,” says Meryem. Her mother nods in consent.
This entry posted by Evelien van Roemburg, Oxfam Policy Lead Displacement, on 1 December 2017. All photos Evelien van Roemburg/Oxfam.
What you can do now
Read the blog: Female migrants need a safe and peaceful space
Read more about how Oxfam is helping refugees and migrants in Greece