Asylum Seekers Describe 'Gang-Style Violence' in Europe's Biggest Migrant Camp

Migrants and aid workers in Greece’s Moria migrant camp say residents are living in fear after the second fatal stabbing in recent weeks.
August 3, 2020, 10:42am
refugees greece
Greek Police hold back refugees queuing to collect their registration papers in order to then travel on to mainland Europe. Photo:Craig Stennett / Alamy Stock Photo

A 21-year-old Afghan man has become the latest fatality in Moria, the sprawling shantytown on the Greek island of Lesvos that is Europe’s largest migrant camp. The man died from his injuries last Monday after being stabbed during a fight. Two Afghans, aged 18 and 19, have been arrested over the attack, while police are searching for a third attacker.

The stabbing took place just three weeks after another bloody clash in the camp, during which three asylum seekers were stabbed, leaving a 19-year-old Ivorian fatally injured. VICE News obtained mobile footage from the immediate aftermath of the attack, showing one of the victims lying in a pool of blood with stab wounds to his chest and stomach. Screams are heard in the background as camp residents try to stop the bleeding.

The latest attacks have fuelled the safety concerns of asylum seekers, who say many residents live in constant fear amid the lawless environment of the squalid and massively overcrowded camp. They say coronavirus lockdown restrictions imposed by Greek authorities have only exacerbated tensions in Moria, leaving residents trapped with little means of escaping the cycle of knife violence inside.

READ: Violence is exploding in Europe’s most notorious migrant camp

“There’s always stabbings here in Moria,” one 28-year-old asylum seeker from Afghanistan, who did not want to be named due to safety concerns, told VICE News.

The man said that the lawless camp – where police have a minimal presence, allowing gangs to rob and threaten victims with virtual impunity – had the atmosphere of a prison. He felt much less safe there than he had on the treacherous route from his homeland into Europe.

“[Just] days ago, a guy got killed,” he said.

Moria, on the island of Lesvos, just a few miles from the Turkish coast, is a de facto holding pen for irregular migration into Europe. The camp is home to thousands of desperate asylum seekers from the Middle East, Asia and Africa, who are held on the site until their asylum applications are processed.

The camp was built to accommodate 2,800 people, but currently holds about 14,000. That overcrowding has led to appalling living conditions, creating an atmosphere of tension, frustration and despondency that people who live or work in the camp say is a perfect breeding ground for violence.

According to data provided by Greek police, officers have attended 42 knife crimes in the camp this year, including six murders and more than a dozen serious injuries. While violence is a feature of life in migrant camps around the world, aid workers and residents of Moria say they have seen a significant escalation in the frequency and savagery of the attacks in the camp; a doctor who works at the island's only hospital told VICE News last month that many of the attacks he saw resembled “prison or gang-style violence”.

Kate Muirhead, an aid worker who has operated in Moria since October of 2018, told VICE News that despite the camp’s population falling by thousands in recent months as residents were transferred out, frustrations among those who remained were “at an all time high”.

“In 2020, Moria feels hopeless,” she said. “Everyone is frustrated, and there is no honour, it seems. Anyone is a potential target, because everyone is only in survival mode. You live each day to see if you’ll be granted asylum, and that’s it… Violence is a natural reaction.”

Muirhead, the founder of the NGO Health Bridge Medical Organisation, said that the more she viewed Moria “as a prison, the easier it is for me to understand the psychology of it, and its residents […] Stabbings happen over cell phones. Stabbings happen over food lines. There is a hierarchy, and you either get on board with it or risk your life.”

Georgia Karoutzou, senior manager for the International Rescue Committee, told VICE News that the coronavirus lockdown placed over the camp was contributing to “overwhelming feelings of imprisonment and despair” among residents.

The lockdown measures placed over the camp in mid-March remain in place in Moria, despite restrictions having been lifted elsewhere in Greece, denying residents an outlet from the pressures of camp life.

“The mood in Moria worsens daily, and people seem very tired and frustrated because of the discriminatory restrictions in the camp,” said Karoutzou.

“The psychological impact of lockdown measures on asylum seekers cannot be underestimated. With no space for social distancing or self-isolation, and limited access to hygiene and sanitation facilities, asylum seekers know how vulnerable they are.”

That vulnerability was increased further Thursday, when Greek authorities ordered the closure of a Doctors Without Borders coronavirus quarantine centre on Lesvos, citing a breach of planning regulations.

But for the Afghan asylum seeker, the threat of coronavirus is just one more worry to be endured as he awaits a decision on his asylum application. More troubling is the routine violence in the camp, which means he and his wife are too scared to leave their shelter after nightfall.

“The situation is…violent,” he told VICE News. “Life sucks.”