Lesvos Fights Against its Role as Europe’s “Open Air Prison”

Author: Valeria Hänsel

The Greek island of Lesvos is going through a period of strong protests. Across all political camps, the people on the island refuse to carry out the European policy measures which are transforming Lesvos into an open-air prison for refugees on the edge of Europe. Groups that are strongly divided by ideological convictions, including local left wing, moderate and right wing groups, refugees and international activists share one concern: They oppose the situation created by the EU-Turkey statement.

While right wing groups are driven by racist sentiments, the majority of protesters does not longer accept the dehumanizing living conditions in the European “Hotspot Camp” Moria.  More than 6.000 people are forced to live in overcrowded containers or in small summer tents and are exposed to wind and weather without adequate protection. Some have been forced to live under these conditions for more than 18 months and six people have died in Moria during the last winter.

To make this situation visible and fight for freedom of movement, there have been several protests marches and refugees have occupied space on the central Sappho Square in Lesvos’ capital Mytilene for the whole of November. When the police evicted the square, they occupied the local office of the ruling party SYRIZA with the support of local antifascists.

Open the islands – the Occupation of Sappho Square

See also report by the Legal Centre Lesbos

Protesters sleep on the central Sappho square. Photo: Arash Hampay

On October 20th, the majority of Afghan refugees left the camp of Moria after violent conflicts between camp inhabitants and police forces. Due to the inhumane living conditions, unequal treatment and the massive overcrowding of the camp, there are frequent outbreaks of violence leaving even uninvolved individuals badly injured.

About forty people refused to go back to Moria and occupied the central Sappho square, among them families with small children who were later joined by refugees with other national backgrounds. For more than a month, the protesters slept on bare ground with only blankets to cover them. When strong rain started, they set up thin camping tents. They claimed the conditions were still better than staying in Moria camp. Five men and five women also went on hunger strike for more than two weeks.

One of the protesters, a young woman from Afghanistan explained:

“They say you can only leave Moria when you are vulnerable. So they force us to stay there until we are made vulnerable. This is crazy, no one can live in Moria, especially for women it is really dangerous.”

Five women from Afghanistan went on hunger strike. Photo: Arash Hampay

The protesters relate their action to a broader struggle of refugee activists and solidarity initiatives from all over Greece, demanding the European Union and the Greek state to open the hotspot islands and let the people trapped at the rim of Greece move on to the mainland. During the occupation of the square, local and international groups showed strong solidarity, providing the refugee activists with food, clothes and tents and participating in their protest marches. However groups of “concerned citizen” and right wing protestors harassed the refugees and the vice mayor personally visited the Square to tear down the protester’s banners.

Lesvos General Strike

Although the refugee protesters faced strong headwind by the municipality, the local ruling party is unwilling to tolerate the overcrowded situation in Moria Camp any longer. The strict policy to prevent media from visiting Moria has been loosened and several mainstream media journalists were able to enter the camp and present pictures from the inside. On November 20th, the municipality called for a general strike on Lesvos Island, stating:

“Our request is to stop the policy of the government and the European Union that transforms the island of Lesvos and the islands of the North and South East Aegean Islands into prisons. We demand from the government the proportional distribution of asylum-seekers’ accommodation based on the population of the islands and the maintenance of so many asylum seekers of those who can be accommodated in decent living conditions by the existing structures.”

Full Statement

Assembly on Sappho square on the day of the general strike 2017/11/20. Photo: Ralf Henning

In parallel, Golden Dawn – the radical right wing party in Greece – jumped on the bandwagon, calling for action against the refugee’s occupation of the square and the protest attracted a number of right wing citizen. The mayor of Moria village demanded in a speech the “immediate decongestion of the islands, immediate increase of police forces, immediate compensation for aggrieved citizen and immediate health inspection of arriving refugees”.

The week before, even the police guarding Moria Camp held a protest in front of the camp, criticizing their working conditions and the suspension of their colleagues who were charged when they could not prevent refugees from escaping the overcrowded pre-removal detention centre in Moria camp.

Counter demonstrations

The refugee protesters left the square for the assembly on November 20th and marched on the same day with supporters to the UNHCR office to present their demands for freedom of movement.

Police surrounding protesting refugees on Sappho Square, Photo: Ralf Henning

When they tried to return to the square the next day, they were surrounded by police and harassed by hostile local groups. The police aggressively pushed the refugees aside, surrounded them and evicted the square. During this action, some of the protesters were hurt by the police, including a young child. Four of them were transferred to the hospital. Different solidarity groups, among them „Lesvos Solidarity“ intervened, so that the protesters could temporary move to the solidarity camp PIKPA.

Demonstration of refugees and local supporters before the occupation of the SYRIZA-office. Photo: Ralf Henning

In reaction to the violent eviction of the square, Greek citizen organized a solidarity demonstration with the refugees on November 25th stating that:

“(t)heir just fight has been taking place on site at Sappho Square for over a month now and is a direct result of the inhumane living conditions that the government of SYRIZA-ANEL have been imposing on over 8000 refugees and immigrants that are currently trapped on Lesvos island. (…) Their struggle for life and liberty comes up against the wall of anti-refugee policies of the EU and of the Greek government, as well as, the EU-Turkey deal that have resulted in the entrapment of thousands of refugees on the eastern Aegean islands.”

The protest march ended in the occupation of the local office of the ruling SYRIZA party in Mytilene. Until the current day, refugees and supporters remain in the office.

Ocupation of the Syriza-Office on Lesvos Island. Photo: Ralf Henning.

They announced in a public statement to stay until the three core demands of the 37 refugee activists in the office are met:

1) The immediate release of Hesam, one of the protesters from the group who was arrested after his second rejection, 2) The removal of the geographic restriction of movement for all protesters, 3) The adequate accommodation of the protesters after arrival in Athens.

In an interview they stress their hope that other refugees will follow their example and the islands will finally be opened and refugees allowed to move on to the mainland and escape the deadly living conditions in the hotspot camps. On December 3rd, 30 individuals from the MENA-region also decided to leave Moria camp and occupy the Sappho square. They were immediately arrested and 16 of them transferred to the pre-removal centre in Moria camp.

Refugees demanding the freedom of their fellow protester who was detained during his hunger strike and the opening of the islands. Photo: Arash Hampay