Moria refugee camp was intended for 2,000 people. Aid workers
now estimate that there are more than 6,000 inside and
spilling out into the countryside around it — many of them
vulnerable women and children.
Posted on December 21, 2017, 13:48 GMT
Andrea DiCenzo for BuzzFeed News
Moria refugee camp in Lesbos, Greece.
LESBOS, Greece — “I am more scared when I bleed, it is very,
very hard.” The 15-year-old Syrian girl standing in front of
her family’s tent in the warm Greek sun, hands in her
pockets, doesn’t smile, but looks down at the mud covering
her battered, thin blue sandals.
Meervat Ali’s not used to speaking to strangers, and her
father, Mustafa, wearing a tartan sweater, is a constant
presence, as the refugee camp spreads out around them.
“Just take a look, look at the conditions around you,” she
said. “Yes, I am scared. I cannot go inside because there are
too many people, too many guys, too many drugs, drunk
The family is among an at least 6,000 people stranded in and
around the Moria refugee camp on Lesbos Island in Greece.
Humanitarians estimate at least 40% of
the new arrivals — landing just as winter sets in — are women
and children. These women find nowhere is safe for them to
use the toilet or clean themselves, a risk they must run
every day, month after month, while they wait for Greek
authorities to process their asylum applications.
“Always, always men come up to me. Always there is fighting
in that area,” Meervat gesticulated down the hill toward a
larger tent where many of the single men — among them
Afghans, Iraqis, Sri Lankans — live.
Andrea DiCenzo for BuzzFeed News
Due to overcrowding, refugees have set up tents within
the olive tree groves outside Moria.
The family has been here, an overflow area beyond the main
camp’s borders, for 20 days. All six of them live in a tent
built from tarps purchased in the nearby village of Moria,
bought for 100 euros. It’s still warm in the sun, reaching as
high as 60 degrees, but at night temperatures plummet — and
the camp’s atmosphere assumes a sinister presence as women
and children huddle inside their tents.
Meervat was last able to wash with her mother inside the camp
four days ago, but only with cold water. The water is turned
on sporadically, so there are always queues. If you want hot
water then you get up before 5 a.m. “We cannot go then
because the sun is not up,” she said, it is “too dangerous.”
When she has her period it is even worse: She has to be with
her mother all the time. “We have to go to the toilet more
and it is very, very dirty,” she said. It was difficult to
find pads, and her mother, Reem, says they have to send
Mustafa into the local shop to buy them, or else try to use
rags littering the camp.
They fled the city of Deir ez-Zor three months ago, after
government troops assumed control, having endured three years
of ISIS’s reign. “I know the sounds of all the bombs,” she
noted. But she was the “most afraid” of ISIS, not the bombs.
“ISIS wouldn’t let my parents let me outside,” she said.
She doesn’t know what happened to her friends back home —
they haven’t spoken in a year. “The last time we talked, all
we spoke about [was how] ISIS had surrounded everything and
they could not get out. Since then, we haven’t been able to
speak at all.”
The family left Syria and walked through the mountains. “I
had to walk for hours and hours barefoot, and stones cut my
feet.” A smuggler took them, and 80 other people, over the
sea in a rubber dingy. “It was my first time and the last
time on a boat,” Meervat stated very firmly. “When my mother
got on the boat, I saw all the other women sit on her, all
over her. I couldn’t move on the boat: I was stuck between
lots of people, all stuck together.”
When they got to the camp, it wasn’t what she expected. “I
thought it would be like paradise, but here I feel like a
“I don’t know any other girls [here], but I sometimes see
other girls — but I cannot speak to them, because I have to
stay all the time in the tent. I don’t know anyone: I can’t
get away from my parents. [But] I prefer staying with them,
because it is too scary to try and make friends.”
Meervat misses her TV. Although she hadn’t been able to watch
TV since ISIS occupied the city, the “Syrian channel is my
favorite, because it has all my favorite actors.” Behind her
— as the translator listens to her answer — Reem laughs for
the first time, amused at what her eldest daughter misses
But Meervat has exchanged one trap for another, “All the time
I have to be covered up,” she said, tugging on her
Later, 39-year-old Mustafa speaks quietly and explains the
family was previously living inside the camp. “My daughter is
15 years old,” he said again, looking at her smiling in the
sunlight, playing with her 7-year-old sister, Meisam, and
5-year-old brother, Toka. “It is a bad situation.”
“When I take her inside, the men look at her, and try … to
touch her. A lot of men came around our daughter and wanted
to take her away.”
Andrea DiCenzo for BuzzFeed News
Meervat Ali stands in front of her tent with her mother
and two siblings.
“Welcome!” screams a brightly painted archway to the
olive grove overspill camp of Moria. The idyllic-sounding
name belies its appearance: Strewn everywhere are plastic
wrappers, containers, cigarette butts, and other trash.
Little fires, surrounded by rocks, are outside many of the
makeshift shelters that have been cobbled together from tarps
and flimsy summer tents. The younger Syrian men have swiped
olives from farmers’ trees and stuffed them into cheap
plastic bottles tacked to the sides of their tents to ferment
olive oil infused with cut-up lemons.
The camp, 3.8 miles north of the island’s capital, Mytilene,
takes its name from the village. “Welcome to prison,” a sign
daubed in English on the wall leading up to one of the
official entrances greets newcomers. It leaves you in no
doubt that the refugees here believe the camp has improved
little since 2014, when it first was
Najwa Ibrahim, 18, holding her wailing 10-month-old cousin,
Moussa, has been inside Moria camp’s main area for two and a
half months after fleeing from the Syrian city of Kobani.
She traveled to Istanbul, Turkey, with her family, then over
the sea to Greece. But Ibrahim wishes that she had not made
“The situation here is worse than Kobani. If it was not for
ISIS, then I would not have left. At least there, I was in my
home. I miss my school and my home. All of of my friends are
in Kobani. I cannot talk to them.”
Conditions inside the camp were awful, she said. The toilets
overflowed regularly and it was especially bad if you were a
woman and had your period. “It is very dirty from all the
pads. There is no box to throw it away.” When she got her
period, she had no idea where to go or who to approach to get
“I thought it would be like paradise, but here I feel like a
She said she later found that aid groups — who unlike reporters are allowed to enter the
camp — occasionally handed them out. But “there are so many
women” inside, it is an impossible task.
“The toilets are cleaned once a month, and the trash comes
out into the path. We were forced to clean the toilet, but we
hardly have any water to clean. There is no one cleaning
The official camp is made up of large, industrial-size tents
that house hundreds of people, all atop one another. Each
small ‘room,’ about the size of two sofas back-to-back, is
partitioned off with blankets. The air is close and
oppressive. As Ibrahim speaks, you can hear hundreds of
listless people, coughing, muttering, and trying to pass the
Despite sharing the space with her aunt, uncle, their baby,
and a Somali woman and her two children, Ibrahim is afraid to
leave the confines of the blanketed areas. “Most of the time,
I just stay in my tent. I never go out at night.”
She doesn’t know when she will leave, but knows if she does,
she wants to be a hairdresser, copying the styles on TV that
she used to watch. As she speaks, she plays with a chain
around her neck, a present from her fiancé in Germany, who
she is trying to get back to. “I always keep my necklace
safe, I never take it off,” she said. “I cannot part from
Humanitarians have warned about the lack of access to pads
for women on their period. Hillary Margolis, women’s rights
researcher at Human Rights Watch, said, “It really is a
difficult issue. These are really not being provided.”
Speaking over the phone from London, she said, although some
women had received pads when they first arrived on Lesbos,
she had been told this distribution had stopped.
Margolis, who was in the camp in November, said, “In the
context where conditions are already so challenging, and the
conditions are so poor, it is just magnified when a woman or
girl is faced with having her period.”
Renata Rendón, of Oxfam’s Greek office, said conditions were
Andrea DiCenzo for BuzzFeed News
Trash piles up outside of Moria refugee camp.
“There is really no safe space for women in the whole site,”
Rendón, who was at the camp in November, told BuzzFeed News
over the phone from Athens. “It is unhygienic. It is unsafe.
There is no reason for this.”
Temperatures in Lesbos can drop to 40 degrees in January. “We
are very afraid,” Rendón said. “People are already becoming
ill. But people could die. People could freeze to death once
the temperatures hit freezing.”
Sonia Andreu, program manager of the Bashira Women’s
Centre on the island, which offers women and children a
safe space to wash and receive advice, said authorities had
stopped distributing menstrual products — like pads — to
women. Instead, the women were being asked to buy the
products out of the 90 euros allocated each month. “It is not
“In this situation they have a lot of disorders so with their
periods, sometimes they have their period twice, or they are
bleeding constantly because they are so stressed. Every time
they are asking for sanitary pads,” she said. Her center was
seeing 100 women a day — mostly from Moria.
“The worst thing is the lack of information,” she said.
“There are some pregnant women that when they come to the
centre seven months pregnant, and they have never had a test.
It is unbelievable.”
The lack of doctors worries 19-year-old Bushra Shekh, who is
two months pregnant. Cradling her small belly, excitement
about her first child wars with panic about Moria.
Shekh and a fellow refugee from Deir ez-Zor are among several
who cluster together for protection. They boil water together
and travel down to the woods. Forced by the lack of chemical
toilets, refugees have turned a dip in the land into an open
toilet. Covered with excrement and discarded paper, it is
exposed and stinking. This is where many of the women are
forced to come, each day, always together. There is some
protection in that.
Shekh continued, “I stay in the tent all of the time,
especially during the night when the men come. Sometimes in
this area, with my husband and his friends around, I feel
safe — but never at night.”
She never moves around the camp at night. It is too dangerous
because of the men fighting, she said. Often, after the men
start drinking, they run up to the tents in the olive grove
and throw rocks, shaking the tents. Every night, Shekh finds
it difficult to sleep because she is so scared.
Her pregnancy heightens her fear about the future. “We got
married two days before we got to Turkey, and we spent our
honeymoon in the woods, walking,” she said, making it over
the sea to Greece. “Those were the worst months.”
A month later, she remains shocked at how different the
reality is from what she’d heard of Europe. “Even the clothes
my husband wears are from three months ago because they
didn’t give him any clothes. His underwear say ‘Made in
Shekh wasn’t aware she was pregnant until after she’d arrived
and the doctor told her. She wishes she could tell her mother
she is expecting her first child. “I have not spoken to them,
or been able to contact them. We don’t know anything about
them. I don’t know where my mother and father are. I want to
tell my mother I will have a baby but I can’t.”
Due to the lack of doctors, Shekh has been unable to get a
checkup to ensure the baby is growing safely and well. The
food, mostly undercooked chicken and rice, has made her sick.
“I just want to take care of my baby, but I feel like I
“I wish I will have my baby in another place,” she said. “My
husband jokes that if I have my baby here, we will call her
Moria. We were discussing a few days ago what we will call
the baby, I told him if we are still here on the island after
seven months, if he is a son then I will give him the name of
Moria. If she is a girl, then I will call her Mytilene.”
Ibrahim scoops up 2-year-old Sham, who has tumbled on
unsteady legs away from her mother, and absentmindedly
strokes her hair. The regrets over leaving Syria tumble from
her mouth. “Deir ez-Zor is like paradise compared to this
situation. This is worse than Deir ez-Zor. This place is the
worst place I have ever seen.”
“I feel so helpless, and I feel upset that we came here,”
She doesn’t know where to turn, because as far as she knows,
“Nobody is in charge of this place.”
Andrea DiCenzo for BuzzFeed News
Bukshra Shekh washes clothing outside of her tent. Shekh
is two months pregnant with her first child.
The camp, originally intended as nothing more than a
processing center for identifying the most vulnerable and
moving them swiftly on, is under the authority of the Greek
Ministry of Migration. The ministry has, in turn, tasked the
Greek military and police with much of the day-to-day running
of the facility. The ministry receives assistance registering
and processing asylum cases from UNHCR (United Nations High
Commissioner for Refugees), EASO (European Asylum Support
Office), the Greek Asylum Service (GAS), and private
The processing backlog is the root of Moria’s problem:
Refugees who land on the island are bound by geography,
preventing them from leaving the island before their
applications have been formally processed.
UNHCR scaled back their involvement at the camp in August
after funds from the European Commission were reallocated
from NGOs to the Greek government. They now employ only seven
people on the island, who mostly provide information to
refugees, but also assist with transfers after ministry
EASO rejected suggestions that the backlog was partly to do
with them: “The Agency has a specific mandate within the
asylum procedure, namely to provide information, conduct
interviews and provide opinions to our Greek colleagues. EASO
does not take decisions on applications or appeals.”
Repeated attempts by BuzzFeed News to contact the Ministry of
Migration for comment have gone unanswered. In data released Dec. 15, the ministry
stated there were just under 8,000 people waiting for their
asylum cases on the island to be processed.
Many of these thousands wait inside the camp. Outside, piles
of old trash and fresh human excrement, clogging a narrow
stream alongside the camp, are a testament to how — rather
than a processing center — the site has stagnated, leaving
the entire area with a miserable and gloomy sense of
That air of subdued misery is broken only at night, when the
alcohol — purchased from one of the three cafés perched
around the main entrance to the camp, or the nearby market —
flows. While the young men drink, their carousing reportedly
sometimes only broken up by tear gas, the nights are a
terrifying stretch of endurance for the women. Unable to
leave their tents for the toilet, they have to wait until
sunrise to relieve themselves or change their pads.
The mayor of Lesbos, Spirois Galinos, has shrugged off
responsibility for the camp. Puffing on an electric
cigarette, he declared the situation “tragic,” but said it
has nothing to do with his office: “We have no authority in
the camp. The camp is run by the ministry of migration, and
it is not our responsibility.”
Galinos might say that it is the ministry’s responsibility,
but that authority isn’t apparent to new arrivals, who are
bewildered by the camp’s officials.
Andrea DiCenzo for BuzzFeed News
Eman al-Zafir prepares food for her and her husband.
Eman and Ali al-Zafir, 19 and 26, from Kuwait, arrived
here 20 days ago. They were forced to flee — leaving their
eldest child, and only daughter, in the care of Eman’s mother
— after Ali was tortured by, he said, the government. His leg
is marked and pocked, and he sits stiffly on the ground
inside their tent, with one lumpy foot stretched out before
They bought fake documents in Kuwait, then traveled over Iraq
and Syria before making it to Turkey. There they found a
Syrian smuggler to take them across. The tiny rubber boat
terrified al-Zafir. People were “everywhere climbing on top
of me,” while her husband tried to shield her. When they got
to the camp, they thought everything would be better — but
last week, she miscarried her second child.
“I thought that Europe would be better, but here is not
better. Here is worse. We see in our eyes that the Greeks
treat animals better than they treat us,” al-Zafir said.
Ali thinks he and wife will be stuck in the camp for seven
months to a year, “There is no humanity here.” The couple is
scared by their lack of documents, comparing themselves to
the Syrians who walk around the camp clutching plastic
wallets verifying their lives. “No papers, no humanity,” he
said with a note of despair.
He does not know who to appeal to for help in the camp, and
initially was unaware there were doctors available to treat
As al-Zafir tried to explain what happened, the words
stopped, and her hands held themselves tight against her
belly as tears rolled down her cheeks. “My baby was not
“When it happened there was … blood … everywhere,” she said,
her face wet with tears that she ignored as she tried to
explain what happened next.
Afterward, she was unable to clean herself because of the men
around her. “It was very difficult because I could not wash,”
she said. “To wash me, another woman managed to boil water
here and then we walk into the woods to clean. My husband has
to stand with us and watch to make sure the men do not come
and see. It was very difficult, and very dirty.”
“I went to the doctor [after] and they gave me paracetamol,”
she said, an over-the-counter painkiller that did not help.
“I am so tired, so tired. I feel so sad all day, day after
“There is no one in the camp who can help me.” •
Rose Troup Buchanan is a reporter for BuzzFeed News and is
based in London.
Contact Rose Troup Buchanan at .
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