Life in Moria, Europe's largest and most notorious migrant camp, was hellish enough even before the bloodshed.
The filthy, overcrowded shantytown on the Greek island of Lesvos is home to thousands of asylum seekers, who shelter from the elements in tents or makeshift huts that sprawl amid rubbish-strewn olive groves. There's one toilet for every 70 residents, long lines for food, and daily water shortages and blackouts. The camp's overburdened septic tanks routinely overflow, flooding nearby tents with sewage.
But in recent months, the nearly 17,000 asylum seekers who live in Moria have faced a new misery. A deadly wave of violence is sweeping the camp amid an ongoing coronavirus lockdown, leaving inhabitants trapped in a tense and lawless environment with no security and little means of escape.
Asylum seekers and aid workers say that tensions are at boiling point following a recent spate of vicious knife attacks, many stemming from a feud between rival gangs vying for control of the camp. Five people have been killed and 15 others wounded in significant stabbings connected to the camp in the year to date, according to reports, although a local doctor who treats patients from Moria told VICE World News those crimes represent only a fraction of the violence.
The attacks have prompted some residents to flee the camp altogether, while many who remain are terrified to leave their shelters at night, arming themselves in their beds.
"When you go to sleep, you just pray you wake up alive the next morning," said one 31-year-old asylum seeker, who was threatened outside his tent just weeks ago. "We're obliged to sleep with something to defend ourselves with."
The factors behind the attacks are complex, but people who live or work in the camp say the appalling conditions and severe overcrowding have created a perfect breeding ground for violence. A recent coronavirus lockdown imposed over Moria since March has only fuelled the problem, they say, stranding terrified asylum seekers with their tormentors, and ratcheting up the pressure cooker atmosphere in the camp.
For those who work in Moria, the violence is a brutal indictment of Europe's response to irregular immigration into the continent, which leaves asylum seekers languishing in appalling conditions on the Greek islands, out of sight and mind, while their claims are processed. These conditions aren't only brutal and inhumane, they say — they're fundamentally dangerous.
"Asylum seekers could be OK dealing with the elements, if they were safe," said Nickolas Panagiotopoulos, senior area manager for the International Rescue Committee's programmes in Greece's north east Aegean islands.
"The EU has the means and the resources to provide better living conditions for these people. The way they have been treating these people does not live up to European humanitarian values."
"This is a new game now"
The island of Lesvos, just a few miles from the Turkish coast, was once only a brief stopover for asylum seekers arriving by smuggler boats from Turkey, before they made their way to the Greek mainland and onwards into Europe.
But a March 2016 migration deal struck between the European Union and Turkey turned the Greek islands into de facto holding pens for migration into Europe, requiring migrants to remain there until their asylum applications could be processed. That's a process that can take more than a year, due to backlogs; meanwhile, the boats of asylum seekers have continued to arrive.
The result has been mass overcrowding and deteriorating conditions at camps like Moria, which was built to accommodate 2,800 people, but now houses six times that number.
Aid workers say that violence has long been a consistent feature of life in Moria, as it is in all migrant camps. It's home to a volatile mix of traumatized people from the Middle East, Asia and Africa, who have already suffered immensely, and now find themselves stranded in squalid conditions while their fates hang in the balance.
"But we started to see a difference lately in the severity, the frequency, and the gall of the stabbings – they started to happen in daylight hours, not just at night," said Kate Muirhead, the founder of the NGO Health Bridge Medical Organization, who has worked at the camp since October 2018.
"My experience tells me this is a new game now," she said. "It's inciting terror in people."
Four people were stabbed within three days last month, including a fatal attack on a 23-year-old woman, a 21-year-old man who was put in intensive care, and another assault of an 18-year-old male in the busy town square of the island's capital, Mytilene.
The violence has overwhelmingly targeted other asylum seekers and left the local population unscathed, although in the early hours of Saturday, a Greek man was stabbed four times in the chest when he tried to break up a clash between two groups of asylum seekers in Mytilene's town square. A 35-year-old Iraqi man was arrested Saturday on a charge of attempted murder over the incident, according to local reports.
Attacks resemble "prison or gang-style violence"
According to a doctor who works at the island's only hospital, situated in Mytilene, the reported cases represent "only the tip of the iceberg" in terms of the scale of the violence, which had hit "a new peak" in frequency and savagery.
In a number of the attacks — including two killings earlier this year and another serious attack that left a victim in intensive care last month — the victim was stabbed in the hip in the femoral artery, cutting the main arterial supply to the leg. The doctor told VICE World News this was indicative of a pattern of more intense violence being used, apparently intended at inflicting maximum damage or death.
"One year ago it was mostly beatings, or minor stabbings — not aiming at the femoral artery, the chest, the abdomen," he said. "Since last year we've had a lot of cases of people stabbed in the lung — I've personally witnessed six."
He said many of the attacks resembled "prison or gang-style violence," pointing to two incidents earlier this year he had found especially concerning. In one, the patient had been raped with a bottle; in another, the young victim had the top section of his two little fingers and a thumb amputated, along with a deep cut above his ankle that cut into bone.
"These aren't injuries that happen if someone is holding a knife and trying to stab you," said the doctor. "These are injuries that can only be caused if you’re unconscious, or someone is holding you down."
The latest alarming case of violence on Lesvos took place early Saturday, near the migrant camp of Kara Tepe, about a 15-minute drive from Moria. According to reports, the victim, a 17-year-old Afghan, was thrown from the roof of an abandoned building next to the camp, falling about four meters and sustaining serious injuries, during a fight with other asylum seekers.
"Everyone tries to be the king of Moria"
People who work or live in the camp point to multiple complex factors contributing to the violence, but agree it has roots in tensions between rival ethnic groups of young Afghans — about seven in ten asylum seekers in Moria hail from Afghanistan — vying for control of the camp.
"Everyone tries to be the king of Moria," one resident, a 28-year-old from Afghanistan, told VICE World News. "That's why they’re fighting each other."
The violence, apparently rooted in longstanding animosities between Hazaras and Tajiks in their homeland, has since spiralled to target other groups within the camp, as the perpetrators — widely referred to as gangs by camp residents, NGO staff and local media — seek to assert their dominance.
But aid groups and residents say the severe overcrowding and squalid, unsafe conditions in the camp have also played a role, creating the perfect environment for mounting tensions to spiral into unchecked violence. Overpopulation in the camp has deteriorated conditions further, fuelling stress, nihilism and anger among residents.
"Thousands of people live there in terrible conditions, and of course this leads to frustration, to anger, to a feeling of neglect," said Stephan Oberreit, Doctors Without Borders' head of mission to Greece.
The doctor who spoke to VICE World News agreed, saying the intensifying violence appeared to correlate to the rise in population at the camp, which had more than tripled from about 5,000 in June last year.
The substandard living conditions in the camp — from flimsy, insecure shelters to a lack of lighting — also leave residents at the mercy of a violent minority. Meanwhile, police have almost no presence in the camp, and residents say they fear speaking to the authorities for fear of retaliation.
The 28-year-old asylum seeker from Afghanistan said he and his wife were too scared to leave their shelter after nightfall for fear of the packs of armed young men roaming the camp.
"They’ll try to kill you, they’ll try to stab you," he said. "There's no law, it’s a jungle."
Residents and aid workers say the lockdown imposed by Greek authorities over Moria, to prevent coronavirus entering the camp, has only exacerbated the tensions.
Since mid-March, organized activities have been put on hold, denying residents any kind of outlet, while only one member of each household is permitted to leave the camp for essential activities. While the rest of Greece is slowly opening up, preparing to welcome its first tourist arrivals later this month, the lockdown over Moria and other camps has been repeatedly extended, set to remain in place until at least June 21.
"The lockdown made things worse because [the perpetrators] couldn’t go out of the camp," the 31-year-old asylum seeker said. "They spend all their time drinking."
Greek officials from the Ministry of Migration and Asylum, which administers Moria camp, and the Hellenic Police Force did not respond to repeated requests from VICE World News for comment.
Moria "a mill of suffering"
Panagiotopoulos, who has lived on Lesvos for three years, says that speaking out about violence in Moria is a vexed issue for NGOs. Camps like Moria have become a flashpoint in Europe’s culture wars over immigration, and reports of violence there risk being seized on by the alt-right to amplify racist narratives painting asylum seekers as violence-prone, or otherwise incompatible with life in Europe.
Meanwhile, negative reports risk further inflaming local sentiment against the camp on Lesvos, where the once-welcoming mood towards migrants has gradually soured, leading to huge protests against the camp's presence earlier this year.
That local opposition derailed the Greek government's plans in February to build new closed migrant centers on the islands, which it had pledged would help them to speed up the processing of migrants, allowing it to gradually "decongest" the islands and close camps like Moria.
Islanders, who feel the EU’s current solution to the migration crisis has abandoned them to carry an unfair share of the burden for the rest of the continent, feared the construction of the closed centers would establish them as a permanent presence on the island.
Meanwhile, their calls for the EU and the Greek government to find a bold new solution to immigration have largely been met with what regional governor Kostas Moutzouris described at a protest in Mytilene in February as a "pact of silence."
That inertia, said Martha Roussou, senior advocacy officer for Greece at the International Rescue Committee, was unsurprising: despite the harrowing scenes in Moria, the arrangement was largely working for European countries.
"At the end of the day, if there was any political willingness to change things, things would change," she said. "An island is a natural prison, and northern Europe does want them as isolated as possible."
UPDATE 15th June: An earlier version of this article identified Nickolas Panagiotopoulos as the senior manager for the International Rescue Committee's programmes in Greece, when in fact he holds that role for programmes in Greece's north east Aegean islands. We regret the error.