Lesbos, Greece: It’s a cold morning in November 2018, when a careworker at Moria’s “safe zone” makes a revolting discovery. Fanis* walks into the guardroom to pick up a box of mandarin oranges for the children. Inside the box, he finds a dead rat.
It’s not the first time this has happened. “Serious problem with the rats, and danger of infusion of diseases to the beneficiaries and the personnel,” the care worker notes down in a hardcover logbook at the end of his shift.
This is not his only concern that morning.
The massive rainfall of the night before has flooded the guardroom, Fanis goes on to write; it is the room where the fridge and the heating unit are located. The rain has also seeped into ‘Container No 5’, which houses some of the unaccompanied minors in the camp.
Without silicone insulation and protection, he warns, the situation remains unsafe and puts lives in danger. “Danger of electrocution,” the social worker writes, before he puts his pen away and shuts the notebook.
A notebook that documents Moria’s horrifying story
Till the evening of September 8, 2020, when multiple fires razed it to the ground, Moria had been Europe’s most notorious refugee facility, synonymous for years with dehumanising and dangerous conditions for its thousands of residents.
Walking around the burnt periphery of the camp — which is located on the Greek island of Lesbos — in the aftermath of the fire, in what used to be the so-called “jungle” (a former olive grove encircling the initial structure on which hundreds of makeshift tents were set up), the author of this article, Greek reporter Stavros Malichudis, found a notebook. It was nestled in the ground, amid destroyed tents, burnt possessions, and soot that paints the area black. The hardcover exterior of the book helped it survive the fire. The contents cover a time span of roughly six months, from November 3, 2018 to May 7, 2019.
It turns out to be the day-to-day diary that was maintained by eleven employees of the “International Organization for Migration”, an intergovernmental organization that is affiliated with the United Nations and was responsible for the so-called “safe zone” in Moria. According to IMO, its team at the safe zone consisted of “child protection workers, psychologist, lawyers, caregivers, nurses [and] interpreters to assist children and cover all of their needs.”
The safe zone was where the unaccompanied minors in the camp lived under supervision, often for months, while they waited to be transferred to the Greek mainland or to other European countries. The fenced area was set up to provide these minors with better protection than was available in the rest of the camp. They were allowed to leave during the days, but should stay inside at night.
Moria’s unsafe living conditions have been reported extensively. At the beginning of 2020, Investigate Europe — together with the Greek investigative network Reporters United — published an investigation about the jailing of minor migrants who were made to live across European countries. As part of this investigation, IE also reported about the unsafe conditions in Moria.
The entries of the notebook, discovered in the ashes of Moria, are signed by social workers who were there to protect the unaccompanied minors. The reports reveal their helplessness and inability to do so. The book shows the constant, never-ending technical insufficiencies, the deep psychological struggles of the unaccompanied minors, and the dangers awaiting them in every corner — not just outside the safe zone, but inside it as well. The danger of electrocution seemed not only to be embedded in everyday life, but was far from being the sole concern.
Constant darkness over the safe zone
Lack of electricity — caused by heavy rainfalls or other incidents — is an issue that often appears in the 190 pages of the notebook. Sometimes, the problem was not fixed for days.
An absence of electricity at night meant that the staff were unable to supervise the two sides of the barbed wire, which is what separates the safe zone from the rest of the facility. Checking who attempts to enter or exit the safe zone was an important task. After all, it was the caretakers’ task to make sure the minors were safe while they were in the safe zone.
So, on November 24, 2018, with a power shortage that has already lasted several days, the care worker on shift opens the notebook. It is the shift of Fanis, Maria and Giannis. Their tone sounds desperate.
“The inaction of the people in charge is resulting again in us not having electricity, and not having even one light inside and outside of the safe zone,” the note says. “Almost daily, we bring torches from our houses, and in conditions of full darkness, we try to see who jumps inside and who jumps outside of the safe zone. These conditions are unacceptable, and no matter the daily complaints of the care workers for long, the situation does not seem to be improving.”
The writers’ worry seemed well-warranted. When the minors were outside of the protected area, almost anything could happen to them.
A sad Christmas note…
On the top of the page, a “Merry Christmas!!!” in big, clear letters stands out among other notes that appear to be hastily written. It is 25 December 2018, and a female minor from the safe zone – named S. — has just passed a piece of paper with a name on it to the social workers.
It is the name of her abuser. The care workers jot the name down on the book with a pencil, among other notes made with a blue pen.
“He beat her outside of the safe zone while he was drunk,” the care workers add. “We called the Police, the officer sent the walking patrol. Let’s see what will happen.” The entry is signed by Fanis and Dimitris — their resigned tone indicating that they don’t actually expect much action to be taken.
Earlier that day, a man had approached the entrance of the safe zone. While talking with the care worker, he accused the minor girl, S., of stealing money from him. The man had given her money in many instances, he claimed, “in exchange for things that can’t be described”.
The social workers had sent him away, telling him that if someone had stolen money from him, he should go to the Police, and that violence has no place in the safe zone. “He left satisfied…,” the notes say. It is not clear from the notebook whether the incident had any consequences and what help the abused girl received. In a general answer to IE’s request for comment, IOM said that “psychological support to children to prevent or address any arising conflicts” was granted under its supervision.
… and minors’ encounter with Moria’s reality
Sexual exploitation, as implied in the above incident, was one of the dozens of dangers that minors faced from the moment they crossed the fence to exit the safe zone. Other dangers included alcohol or drug abuse or getting involved in fights.
On the evening of April 4, 2019, male minor N. is reported to “have made inhalations of the liquid used to refill lighters, as usual, and started to act in a weird way”. After some time, he starts pelting stones at the containers, smashing windows. “The officer on shift was informed, they came quite quickly, but N. jumped off the fence and left,” states the entry.
There are numerous cases reported in the notebook, sometimes on consecutive days, describing minors who return to the safe zone drunk or stoned. In some cases, they cause disturbances to the residents or care workers, engaging in altercations.
Sometimes, the care workers appear to be unable to handle a situation and need to ask for the intervention of the Police present in the camp to calm things down.
“*We are still alive!!!*” a note signed by careworkers Dimitris and Iosif concludes on the night of December 6th, 2018. “As Q., H. and A. came back from outside, they were probably drunk (maybe even high) and insulted us by saying ‘fuck you, fuck Police, Moria’ etc.”
Verbal insults were not the only thing that took place that night.
The notebook provides a detailed description of the events that happened before the Police — after trying for 40 minutes — finally managed to calm down the minors, eventually taking the three boys to the Police station.
“It’s nice to be crazy,” the minor named Q. kept on shouting to the caregivers. His outburst was translated into a number of damages: “There are 13 windows broken, we did not check the closets, but estimate three or four of them too, and rubbish bins are also among the broken items.”
Tensions among the minors
It has been reported before that the overcrowded and dire conditions in the Moria camp fuelled tensions between residents of different ethnic and national groups
In the winter of 2020, Investigate Europe and Reporters United published findings about the dire conditions endured by minor asylum seekers across the continent, including at Moria. “They stand in line. There are queues in front of the toilets. There are queues to shower, often in cold water,” we wrote in our report. Swedish aid worker Patric Mansour, who had worked in Moria since the early launch of the camp, told us that the high levels of stress and frustration were created by an everyday life that was governed by “delays in all areas”.
“All the frustration is placed on the individual, who lives in uncertainty,” he said. “There is violence and crime. People fight for little things because of stress.”
The notebook shows that minors were also affected by the violent conditions in the camp. Violence is transcribed as part of everyday life: a fight among two boys leads to one more getting involved, and finally ends with one of them being taken to the doctor (November 26, 2018). Two brothers attack a third boy with sticks (December 2, 2018).
Health issues in the safe zone
Sometimes though, the minors directed the violence towards themselves. On November 6, 2018, the female minor S. — who would later report about the abuse — harmed herself with a razor inside the girls’ showers, and was brought to the doctor. The wound was deep, says the entry. On March 8, 2019, another female minor, mentioned as M., also cut herself and was brought to the local hospital to be seen by a psychiatrist.
Other entries in the notebook similarly highlight the psychological traumas experienced by the children in the camp.
Intervention by the camp’s military doctor was often needed, and in a number of cases, minors had to be escorted to the island’s hospital for health issues that they were experiencing. Even so, they did not always receive the help they needed.
On the night of December 1, 2018, a baby who lived with her teenage mother in the girls’ section started crying. “We took [the baby] to the military doctor of the camp, but he told us that he has no expertise on babies and that someone should see it tomorrow,” the caregiver writes, adding that the baby could possibly have chickenpox.
That night, the work in the safe zone is once more affected by the power shortage, making it unable to provide the baby with any heating against the cold December night.
The consequences of not hearing repeated warnings
The log of December 7, 2018, is somewhat longer than that of most days and includes two different kinds of warnings — spanning two pages — from Fanis, the social worker on shift.
About the aforementioned events of the previous night — which resulted in intervention by the Police’s — Fanis writes, “It is obvious that there is great inactivity in the management and supervision of the section, despite our constant complaints and warnings. We will keep informing and working in unprecedented and unacceptable conditions, and let us all wish that there will not be more serious incidents with beneficiaries and colleagues.”
The caregiver goes on to add that ten more Afghan boys were transferred to the safe zone the day before, and warns that transfers of this volume could fuel tensions in the small community.
“The old ones feel that they need to prove something, and the newcomers feel the pressure of the new society in which they have entered. Transfers of beneficiaries should take place gradually, as their number as well as their nationality matter, otherwise, events like that of yesterday will continue to overturn the reality of the safe zone,” he writes.
Since boys and girls of different nationalities live in the safe zone, minors speaking English often serve as interpreters for their communication with the staff. But this is not the only concern expressed by the caregiver on that day.
Fanis notes that older boys, involved in acts of violence in the past, appear to remain in the safe zone, causing anxiety to the caregivers. In the notebook, they chronicle encounters with them, and warn of similar events happening in the future.
“At the least, it is problematic to see mothers with babies, unaccompanied young boys and outlaws, even persons holding knives and makeshift weapons, living together for months in the same place. The role and the cause of existence for the safe zone need to be redefined and this is a discussion that has to take place with no further delay,” the note concludes.
On the day of the last entry — May 8, 2019 — there were 4,752 people living in Moria, even though its capacity at the time was only 3,100 (and the population even did triple in the months after). The safe zone had a capacity of about 150 unaccompanied minors but in the time span of the notebook, there were between 300 and 600 living there.
Just three months after that last entry, on the night of August 25, 2019, another incident took place. Just like the care workers had feared, violence erupted. A 15-year-old boy from Afghanistan was stabbed to death in the safe zone.
No provision for unaccompanied minors in the new camp
Now that Moria has burnt to ashes, has the situation of the minor migrants improved?
In the aftermath of the fire, the 400 unaccompanied minors that were then living in the facility were transferred to the mainland, and are expected to be divided among ten EU countries that will host them. But there were new arrivals since, whose fate remains unclear. There is a new camp, referred to as “Moria 2.0” by refugees and NGOs, which was built in the days following the fire. It is located on a former shooting range of the Greek Army.
Food is provided just once daily, and one month after the new camp was set up, there are still no showers. Residents told IE that they have to shower in the open, while parents bathe their children in the nearby sea.
Families live in tents which do not have beds, while up to 100 single males share big tents, sleeping on bunk beds. So far, there is no area in which unaccompanied minors can live separately from the rest of the population. As of publication, the Greek ministry has not responded to IE’s request for comment.
So in this new reality for the most vulnerable among Europe’s asylum seekers, there isn’t even a “safe zone” anymore.
*The personnel signed the pages of the logbook with their names; most of the time, they used only their first names, but sometimes, they included their last name. The care workers referred to the minors by their full names. Investigate Europe is only publishing the initials of the minors’ first names, and has altered the names of the careworkers, in order to protect their privacy.
Verification: Investigate Europe and its Greek publication partner Solomon used a number of methods to determine the authenticity of the notebook. All quotes are reproduced exactly as they were written by the social workers (translated from Greek), and all underlined words were underlined in the original logbook.
Moria, the “worst camp on Earth”
Co-funded by the European Union and Greece, Moria was first created in September 2013 as a “reception and identification centre” for asylum seekers reaching the island of Lesbos, Greece, from Turkish shores. Migrants and refugees alike were installed in what used to be an abandoned Greek military camp.
In 2015, Moria became an official EU “hotspot” for asylum seekers. Despite its official capacity of 2,330 people, at the time of the September 2020 fire, the camp hosted 12,500 people. By the end of 2019, there were nearly 16,000 people living in Moria and more than 18,000 on the entire island of Lesbos. Asylum seekers were blocked from accessing the Greek mainland, thanks to a 2016 EU agreement with Turkey, which imposed a geographical restriction on migrants and refugees who had reached the Greek islands via Turkey.
As a result, hundreds of tents cropped up on the fringes of the official facility, creating what was referred to by everyone as “the jungle”. This is where the notebook was found after the fires. In 2018, the field coordinator for Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) dubbed Moria “the worst refugee camp on Earth”. The safe zone had a capacity of about 150 unaccompanied minors but during the time span of the notebook (November 2018 – May 2019), there were between 300 and 600 living there.
Around 7,500 refugees are now living officially in a new camp on the island, widely called “Moria 2.0” due to harsh condition reminiscent of the original camp. This new camp has no safe zone for unaccompanied minors.
The reporting for this article was done in collaboration with Solomon and Reporters United, Greece. Other media partners for this story include Vice (Germany), Open Democracy, WP Magazyn, Klassekampen, Público and Mediapart.