As It Happens

'A chronic emergency': Aid workers call for evacuations at Greece's Moria refugee camp

Luca Fontana of Doctors Without Borders says the living conditions in the Moria refugee camp in Greece are the worst he's ever seen with sexual violence, fights, riots and children attempting suicide.

Doctors Without Borders says the most vulnerable refugees at the camp need to be moved now

A girl is photographed at makeshift camp next to the Moria camp for refugees and migrants on the island of Lesbos, Greece, on Sept. 17. (Giorgos Moutafis/Reuters)

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They fled wars and violence. They travelled thousands of miles. They thought they'd be safe.

But the asylum seekers who are now living at the Moria camp in Greece say they are not safe. They fear the fights that break out in long lines for food and water. They fear sexual violence. They fear raw sewage will make their children sick. 

Now, Doctors Without Borders is calling for an emergency evacuation of the most vulnerable people at the camp. 

Luca Fontana, who works at the camp with Doctors Without Borders, spoke to As It Happens host Carol Off. Here is part of their conversation.

I know you have worked in many refugee camps around the world. How does this one in Greece compare?

This, indeed for me, is the worst place I've ever been. Not only compared with other refugee camps, but even with warzones or outbreaks.

Moria residents shout slogans in front of riot police during a protest over the camp's conditions on May 26. (Elias Marcou/Reuters)

What makes this such a bad scene?

The suffering. I've never seen so many people, thousands of people, locked, stuck on this island, due to a system.

It's a systematic way to make people suffer. That's what makes this place the worst for me — the lack of hope. Their hope is taken away from families, men, women, children. 

There are a bit less than 8,000 people living in Moria camp, a camp that was built for no more than 3,000, so you can imagine the living condition. There is one toilet for 70 people. One shower for 100 people. People have to wait and stand in a line for hours to get their breakfast. 

We have a pediatric clinic just in front of the camps and we are seeing around 100/120 children per day, but it's still not enough. There are probably 2,000 children living in such horrible living conditions. For an adult, it's almost impossible to see a doctor. 

This is what's known as the family section of Moria — a maze of makeshift tents made of mesh and plastic amongst an olive grove. (Erin Boudreau/CBC)

Why is it that this camp has such high levels of despair?

It's the long asylum procedure. People can wait up to two years in this island.

Imagine living in such horrible conditions for a period as long as two years without knowing what can happen to you tomorrow. All those people can be put in detention or deported without any implication.

All of this — the living conditions, the lengthiness of this asylum procedure without controlling their own lives, the violence that those people are experiencing everyday in this camp, fights in the food line erupt almost on a daily basis — all these factors together are traumatizing a population that was already traumatized in their country of origin.

They have been traumatized on the long journey to Lesbos and they are further traumatized by the effect of staying in Moria camp.

I understand that there are very high levels of suicide and suicide attempts in this camp, including among the children you're treating. Is that right?

When we opened the pediatric clinics back in November, we decided to target the most vulnerable population — children and pregnant women.

And after a month of activity, we realized that the mental issues inside the children population was huge, so we implemented a program for children and unaccompanied minors with therapy groups and individual consultation.

A​​lmost a quarter of our patients, children and unaccompanied minors, were included in the therapy groups because of self-harming, suicidal idolization, or because they attempted suicide. 

When we were covering these issues a couple of years ago, these were transit points. People didn't stay there for long periods of time. These were people coming in from these countries and going on further to Europe. How is it they've now become so stuck in these camps for so long?

That is the consequence of the EU-Turkey deal that was signed back in March 2016 between the European Commission, Turkey and Greece.

This is not a transit camp anymore. It became a stable camp. It became a chronic emergency. And that's why we are now at [Doctors Without Borders] calling for the emergency evacuation of all the vulnerable people to mainland and other European countries.

The winter is fast approaching and there are still thousands of people living in summer tents and here the winter can be really cold.

Many children at the Moria camp suffer mental and physical distress, Doctors Without Borders said. (Erin Boudreau/CBC)

Your solution that you're offering is that you have to move a large number of these people out of Moria, off of the island, and get them into mainland Greece. What kind of respond have you had to that suggestion?

I have to acknowledge that within the last few of weeks, the Greek government moved around more than 2,000 people from Lesbos to mainland, mostly near Athens and north of Greece.

But the problem is that there are still more than 7,500 people stuck on this island.

People will still keep coming. This flow is not going to stop soon and this containment policy is not a long-term solution or a sustainable solution, especially because the price that those people stuck on Moria are paying is their future.

Written by Kate Swoger and John McGill. Produced by Kate Swoger. Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.