Winter in Moria: ‘The situation is getting worse by the day’

As winter is coming, the situation in the overcrowded refugee camp Moria is threatening to derail even more. Over 19.000 people live there now, while there’s officially space for  3.000. Extra places aren’t available: families sleep in festival tents in the rain and cold and are completely left to their own devices. Karin Arendsen (32) is field coordinator at Boat Refugee Foundation and sees the situation get progressively worse daily. “This is happening now, that should not be overlooked.”

“It’s really getting cold in Moria”, tells Karin Arendsen over the phone from the Greek island of Lesbos. She has been working there as a field coordinator for Boat Refugee Foundation for over three months now. She comes to refugee camp Moria almost daily. “We’re on an island: the wind and the rain can really cause it to be very cold and harsh.” Karin shudders when she thinks of the coming weeks. “I have seen a lot of rain and storm already, even though the real winter has yet to start. This situation – so many people packed together with so many flaws – is a disaster in the making. There is just no change in sight. My hope is that our team will succeed in continuing our work here and in responding to this situation.”

‘Imagine being in one of those small festival tents with your family for months on end’

Over 19.000 people are now living in the camp, which officially houses 3.000 people. “Imagine being in one of those small festival tents with your family for months on end. It becomes one big slippery pool of mud. And this will only exacerbate in winter. With the cold comes the risk of fire: people try to stay warm in every way imaginable. That’s a huge risk in itself.”

The 32-year-old anthropologist from Amsterdam has been on Lesbos for six months now, working for Boat Refugee Foundation which runs a clinic, school and community center in the Greek camp. Before that, she has worked a lot with people who have fled their homes, but she had never been in Camp Moria until three months ago.


Cooped up for months
She tries to describe the situation. “It’s extremely hectic here and mainly very, very crowded. These people aren’t here just for a little while, but they live cooped up for months, in a place where there is a shortage of literally everything. Only a small number of people live in the actual camp. Most people live outside the gates, in small tents. There’s a former olive grove outside the official camp terrain which is packed with more and more tents and continues to expand. But the number of facilities does not. You cannot all of a sudden have three clinics or ten times as many bathrooms. People are being crammed into a small piece of land together and have to figure it out for themselves.

The medical clinic is also feeling the crowdedness. “We are helping over 200 people every night and are forced to send away a number of people. Our waiting area in the clinic is small, so many of them have to wait for their turn outside in the cold. With the temperatures as they are, this sometimes causes lines to shrink. In the meantime, the cold and the decreasing level of hygiene results in a higher number of sick people.”

‘Unaccompanied teenagers vulnerable to violence and psychological issues’

Another effect of the crowdedness is the increased tension in the camp. “No surprise there, with this number of people put together, all with very diverse backgrounds. Furthermore, there is a large group of unaccompanied teenagers, an extremely vulnerable group. They are very susceptible to violence and psychological issues. Only a small number of them live in a separate section, but they don’t receive any personal guidance. They lack everything. For starters, they lack information: how should you, as a young teenager, know what to do or where to go? They are completely left to their own devices.”

Political problem
The circumstances are tough on Karin. “It touches so many layers of emotions. Naturally, it angers me, mostly because it’s so unnecessary. This is not happening due to a natural disaster, but only due to a lack of political will. I think it’s very important to acknowledge that with each other. It may sound like a lot, 18 000 people, but relatively speaking this is not a very large group. Practically speaking this should be quite easy to fix, it’s purely a political choice. That you treat people who have fled their homes for war and violence like this is completely incomprehensible to me.”

This same anger is Karins drive. “I just cannot wrap my head around the fact that this exists, that Europe lets this happen. Even though there are positive points. While we see human rights being violated daily, wonderful things happen too. The resilience, innovation, and entrepreneurship of people are so amazing to see in this context. You see that in our projects as well. When kids can relax and play in our schoolyard, when people retrieve part of their sense of self worth through working for us or through pride in the certificates they obtained at our English lessons, this warms your heart.”

Power and hope
Karin also sees this daily in her contacts with the team of translators. “We work together with the people from Camp Moria who help us in the translation of medical consults. People do want to help and remain busy so badly; if only to fill their head with something other than the reality of Moria. Recently, someone stood outside our clinic in his best dress shirt, holding all of his diplomas just because he wanted to get to work again so badly… I think this bears witness to an enormous strength. I have the utmost respect for people who are able to hold their own in this place. We cannot imagine what it means to live here, in a place where you are so marginalized and denied the possibility of just being yourself. Seeing the strength in all these people gives me hope.”

Sometimes the work in Moria grates on you, says Karin. “We come here out of solidarity, to show people that they are not alone. But at the end of the day we return to a warm home. That feels really harsh. We do what we can, but of course it’s the system that has to change. That means it should remain help under protest.”

Everyone can do something, Karin knows. “Obviously we are in need of many practical things where donations can help. Money for a wheelchair or medication for our clinic, or a rain roof above our community center; those are things that could make a huge difference. And apart from that people should not stop talking about this. Talk about it with the people around you. This is happening right now, that shouldn’t be forgotten. This is a European problem, the Netherlands are partly responsible. That sound should also continue to be heard.”

Would you like to contribute to a more humane situation on Lesbos? Go to and see what you can do to help.

Volunteer Esmée: ‘In the bitter cold, I was welcomed everywhere in Moria’

Last month, approximately 7000 people arrived on the Greek Islands. Boats full of people, like you and me, who were forced to leave everything behind due to conflict and violence. People who are looking for a safe harbour in the European Union (EU). One of these supposedly safe harbours is the refugee camp of Moria on Lesvos. Last winter, I volunteered there for the psychosocial support team of Boat Refugee Foundation (BRF).

Moria has been described as the world’s worst refugee camp and as hell on earth due to the poor living conditions, lack of safety and overpopulation. The Pope even called it a concentration camp. Striking similarity: the identification card people receive after registration is called an “Ausweis”. The first thing that hits you when you enter Moria is the smell of sewage, which you never get used to. The next you notice are seemingly hundreds of tents and some metal containers. Near this entrance, I meet Mohammed, an early 20’s Syrian man, dressed in a smart shirt and jacket and flipflops. Mohammed approaches me after recognizing my BRF t-shirt and asks if I need help. He is bored, like most people here, as there is not much to do apart from playing the waiting game.

Mohammed is volunteering to be my translator. He knows the camp well since he has been here for a year. Whilst he accompanies me around the camp, he tells me his story.
He had studied engineering at a university in Damascus before he fled Syria with his brother and his brother’s pregnant wife due to the Syrian conflict. Despite having encountered life-threatening situations on his way to the EU, the first time Mohammed laid eyes on Moria he was as shocked as I was by the living conditions. He stays in a small tent with several other men. “People live almost on top of each other. I hardly have any personal space. Others have it even worse. My neighbors live with 6 other people—and soon a baby—in a leaky tent of 1.5 by 2 meters.”

My neighbours live with 6 other people—and soon a baby—in a leaky tent of 1.5 by 2 meters.

Drenched to the bone
Moria was built for 3000 people; however, at the moment more than 15.500 people are staying there, more than five times the capacity. Mohammed shows me the few toilets and showers, as well as the food line where people sometimes have to wait for several hours. He tells me about the lack of safety by pointing out the fighting between Arabs and Afghanis. (Mohammed’s brother was recently stabbed in the leg as he was sleeping in his tent.)

The weather also plays a role in the refugees’ suffering. Mohammed explains: “In the winter it is freezing, raining, and storming a lot. We have no electricity and a lot of tents and
containers are leaking. We are often drenched to the bone. In order to warm up a bit, we make bonfires out of plastic bottles due to a lack of wood. Some people make bonfires in their tents, despite knowing the dangers of it. I’ve seen accidents with fire, but you also want to get warm.”

Between these gates people have to stay in line for several hours a day, to wait for their food.

Some people make bonfires in their tents, despite knowing the dangers of it. I’ve seen accidents with fire, but you also want to get warm.

Mohammed’s brother and sister-in-law often struggle to maintain hope: “But we are too ashamed to die in Europe after all we have been through. It is hard to stay hopeful and believe in a better future. Not everyone is coping well with living in Moria. A lot of our friends are depressed, cut themselves or get drunk to deal with the situation.”

Sleighs of cardboard
Mohammed tries hard to stay positive: “Fortunately, I also see hope, like the children playing with sleighs made of cardboard, and small businesses like coffee corners, barbers and clothing shops that are popping up. For me personally volunteering makes me happy, because I can help other people.” I am amazed by the strength that people like Mohammed exhibit to stay hopeful. BRF aims to increase this strength and improve coping strategies by providing a school for children, English- and computer classes for adults and a library.

 I am amazed by the strength that people like Mohammed exhibit to stay hopeful.

BRF also organizes mental wellbeing workshops. Many of the refugees are at first skeptical of the efficacy of such classes, but others faithfully attend them for months. In one such workshop, the participants hold hands and sway to the music, their eyes closed. It is an oddly intimate exercise that requires a great deal of trust but eventually leads to feelings of relaxation and wellbeing. It reflects the power of treating refugees as people and acknowledging the inhumane position they are in. 

Help is desperately needed
This position must change! In the bitter cold, I was welcomed everywhere in Moria and invited for tea, dinner, conversation, and to join around the fire to get warm. They accepted me in their community, which made me feel even more ashamed of the attitude that Europe has towards refugees. It is because of this attitude that people are stuck in Moria. Greece does not have the capacity to offer all the thousands of refugees a place to stay in humane circumstances. Therefore, to change the dire circumstances people like Mohammed need your help desperately. You can aid in several ways; by donating money to / or volunteering for an NGO, or more importantly, by raising awareness among the European citizens. By showing that we care for these people, we can pressure our governments to take action. These people deserve to be treated as decent human beings.

Disclaimer: This article describes the true story of three refugees in refugee camp Moria and is written with their permission. Albeit, I have created the fictitious name Mohammed to protect their anonymity.

Text and photo’s: Esmée Pluijmers

Stichting Bootvluchteling vraagt aandacht voor tekortschietende zorg voor minderjarige vluchtelingen.

We sound the alarm: care for underage refugees in Moria falls seriously short

Logbook: Medical Shift