The UK’s new asylum plans risk repeating the horrors at Moria refugee camp
“This refugee camp is the end of our dignity.” “Here in Moria, we are like fawns at the mercy of a lion.” These were the words of refugees and residents of Moria refugee camp in Lesvos, Greece.
Described as a “concentration camp” by Pope Francis upon his visit six years ago, from 2013 Moria was a prison-turned-camp, surrounded by barbed wire and a chain-link fence.
In 2019, the notorious camp hosted more than 20,000 refugees, who were crammed into caravans, portacabins, rubb halls and tents, when it only actually had the capacity to house 3,000.
The military camp and its surrounding jungles become a breeding ground for disease and violence – an epitome for the loss of human dignity. Deaths and rapes would go almost unnoticed, as would suicide and illicit activity in the camp.
The monolithic structure of the camp has a re-traumatising effect, which often proves even harder to overcome than the wars and persecution people risk everything to leave behind
When it was finally set on fire in September 2020 by a handful of asylum seekers who decided they could take no more, Moria’s destruction was met with mixed feelings of wistfulness, remorse, and perhaps even relief. Not because its demise symbolised the end of such camps, but namely because this oppressive, dehumanising brand of refugee camps had finally gotten the media spotlight they deserved. No longer would it fit the bill to simply contain people in the most basic accommodation while the government took months, even years, to assess their asylum claims, all the while expecting the public to turn a blind eye.
Fast forward two and a half years. On 29 March, the United Kingdom government announced its plans to follow this failed Greek model and force asylum seekers into camps just like Moria, including former RAF bases as well abandoned barges, ferries and cruise ships.
As a long-term refugee worker, with three years spent working in Moria camp with Doctors Without Borders and a total of five years in Greek refugee camps, let me tell you what to expect if these plans come to fruition.
Despite the government’s alleged reassurances to provide “round the clock” security and healthcare, that does not even begin to address the real issues here. The remoteness of the site combined with its overcrowded conditions had detrimental health, psychological and societal impacts. I recall patients returning to our clinic day after day, week after week, with the same parasitic disease, dissociative states, or various other conditions that could easily be prevented under normal circumstances.
And then of course, there was societal degradation; key incidents that still resonate with me to this day when I think of Moria. I distinctly remember an Iranian woman, who came to our clinic, bawling and shivering after having been gang-raped in broad daylight in the presence of her four-year-old son. Or rumours of caravans turned into brothels so women could make a livelihood. Even stories of a torture chamber being set up in the depths of the camp, where unaccompanied minors were abused by depraved, older men. And this does not even begin to scrape the bottom of the tin.
The monolithic structure of the camp has a re-traumatising effect, which often proves even harder to overcome than the wars and persecution people risk everything to leave behind.
In short, should asylum seekers be moved to camps, we can expect to see a much larger scale example of what happened in Manston this past November, where government negligence and lack of infection control led to the unnecessary death of a 31-year-old man who had contracted diphtheria.
Should these plans go ahead, what we will have is, in essence, a repeat of Moria. And we all know how that story ends.
Elika Ansari, refugee youth worker and Author of ‘The Five Stages of Moria: ‘The Worst Refugee Camp on Earth’’
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