Volunteers for Lesvos come together in support of refugee occupation

(c) Joan Mas
Afghan refugees march from Moria prison camp, demanding freedom of movement


Author: M.B., September 2017

On 28 August 2017, over 100 Afghan refugees and supporters marched from Moria prison camp to Sappho Square in the heart of Mytilene, the principal city of Lesvos. They wore t-shirts emblazoned with the date of their arrival on Lesvos, their asylum status – “no decision” – and the message “I will never return to Moria.”

They then occupied the Square, vowing not to return to Moria until they were given their asylum decisions.  It was a brave, desperate move – and one which gave the volunteers supported by Respekt für Griechenland (RFG) a chance to work together in solidarity with refugee activists, sharing our skills and resources to keep the occupation alive.

The vast majority of the 5000 refugees still trapped on the island are kept shut away in Moria prison camp, far from the city centre. Recent acts of dissent within Moria have met with harsh police violence, and few positive outcomes. So the Afghan protesters left the camp, thrusting the continued struggle of detained refugees into the laps of the cocktail-sipping yacht-owners around the harbour.

Members of No Border Kitchen Lesvos (NBK) – one organisation whose volunteers are supported by RfG – brought the demonstrators food and water, and joined them in the square as they sang Dari protest songs and chanted “close Moria, open the borders”. 50 or so of the protesters then announced their decision to remain in the square until they received.

(C) Joan Mas
Afghan refugees occupy Sappho Square, Lesvos

When they announced the decision to remain in the square overnight and in the days ahead, Afghan community leaders spoke with NBK members and other activists to prepare the necessary logistics: organising food, water and blankets, making press connections and a press release and helping the protestors to publicise their struggle, organising shifts to watch for trouble from police or and – most importantly – spending time in the square in solidarity with the occupiers, standing with them and learning about their struggle.

In Lesvos, communication, information and skill-sharing are absolutely critical. What one organisation cannot provide, another can: but these links are easily missed, as organisations and volunteers continue to struggle in isolation from one another.  Thanks to the connections made in the Volunteers for Lesvos (VfL) flat, NBK was able to reach out to flatmates from the One Happy Family community centre (OHF) for support. A few Whatsapp messages later, and a fresh delivery of hot vegan food was on its way to the square. (This also gave NBK and OHF members the chance to compare the skills of our respective cooks).

We were humbled and given courage by the determination of the asylum-seekers to keep fighting: they thanked the VfL volunteers many times for the practical support we were able to offer together, enabling their struggle to continue. It was also a great chance to connect with communities normally isolated within Moria prison camp, and hear their stories.

As we sat together on the second evening of the protest, one Afghan asylum-seeker described a typical day in Moria: wake up in a crowded container shared with 28 friends, queue for four hours a day to collect two meagre meals of gritty broth or processed bread, and spend the rest of the time returning again and again to the asylum services to hear no progress has been made on your case.  “There’s a schedule for food,” he said, “but nothing for our asylum claims. There is no asylum system.”

The camp is at least 1000 people over its 4000 maximum capacity, with new arrivals sleeping rough in the pathways between overcrowded containers where refugees live. “The people are going crazy,” one Afghan community leader said: “they are ready to kill themselves.” Self-harm and suicide attempts are endemic, in a mental health crisis highlighted in a recent report by Médecins Sans Frontières.

The occupation was a direct response to these conditions. As another asylum-seeker, put it: “It’s illegal for us to sleep here peacefully for one night, but not illegal to force refugees to sleep in disgusting conditions in Moria for over a year.” On the third morning of the occupation, the asylum-seekers won the promise they would have their decisions within days – a major victory, assuming the promise is kept, given that many have been stuck on Lesvos for 12-18 months. Of course, there remains the possibility that the authorities will renege on their decision, or simply hand out rejections wholesale – but 28 of the 100 promised decisions are already in place, with more to follow at the start of next week.

And whatever happens next, the occupation highlighted the importance of independent volunteers and grassroots organisations connecting with refugee activists, building refugee-led campaigns which are stronger than the sum of their parts. Volunteers for Lesvos were honoured to be a part of this struggle, even on top of our busy daily routines providing food, social and education services, and logistical, legal, personal and political support to our refugee friends.

Lying on his back and gazing up at the stars over the Aegean Sea as conversation ebbed and flowed around us, one Afghan asylum-seeker said with a smile: “I already forget what it was like in Moria.”