In February 2020 I visited Moria, the notorious refugee camp on the Greek island of Lesvos. Some who worked there say the conditions were worse than in refugee camps in Africa. The camp has since burnt down in a fire set by the desperate refugees themselves.
“Η θάλασσα Δεν φράζεται” [I thálassa den frázetai]! Kostas Pinteris kept repeating the sentence over and over again. “The sea cannot be blocked”. He is a fisherman on the Greek island of Lesvos, on the edge of Europe. Turkey is within sight. In 2015 when the refugee crisis was at its height, he became a fisherman of men. He says he rescued thousands. Together with three others he was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize.
Now the Greek government are planning to install floating barriers between the island and Turkey to keep the refugees out. Kostas says this will impede fishing as well as shipping and will inevitably lead to disputes with the Turks.
Poseidon is known to be the Greek god of the sea. But Thalassa was a primeval spirit of the oceans. Her name is still in practical use today: I thálassa den frázetai! Together with her male counterpart, Pontus, she spawned the tribes of fish and the storm gods. Thalassa and Pontus were later replaced by Oceanus and Tethys, Poseidon and Amphitrite.
The Greek authorities seem determined to keep refugees and migrants out. Not long ago they shot into the sea near a rubber dinghy in an effort to make it turn back. Since Turkey stopped its efforts to keep them on their side more and more attempt to cross. Kostas, recently accepted a part-time job as a bus driver. Whenever a dinghy does make it, he drives people to a camp.
Moria is one such camp – some say the most notorious one in Europe. In ancient Greece “moria” was an olive tree of religious significance. It is the name of the nearby village. Once built for 3.000 people over 20.000 live here. Many of them are in an olive grove – in summer tents. Not long ago they were barely below the snowline.
Most have multiple traumas: the trauma of the Taliban (the majority are Afghan), the trauma of crossing the sea in a dinghy when you’re not able to swim and the trauma of Moria, which many call “hell.” Nonetheless everyone I met was so friendly and welcoming. The refugees even put on a fashion show in a community centre recently. I had to ask, but yes, everyone present lived in the camp. I was touched by their kindness and humility despite their dire situation and it was hard to understand why some in Europe see these people as a threat.
The government have started building “closed centres” on the Aegean islands. Some liken them to prisons. Apparently only those who break the law will not be allowed to leave, but by crossing the border in a dinghy, everyone probably committed an offence. Kostas compares the refugees living in closed centres to canaries in a cage: “They don’t sing as beautifully as they do in the wild.” He thinks there will be all sorts of problems inside.
Everyone has the right to apply for asylum. But the irony is that you have to put your life in danger getting to Europe by sea in the first place. Η θάλασσα Δεν φράζεται – The sea cannot be blocked!
The refugees have now been housed at Kara Tepe where conditions are said to be slightly better. But they want to start a new life and many feel they are just trapped in a limbo, forgotten by Europe.