Wondering about the #Wirhabenplatz banners?

Slogans like #Leavenoonebehind, #Wirhabenplatz, and #EvacuateMoria are currently spilling off of balconies, out of windows, and painted on walls and buildings throughout the city of Berlin, including on our own on-campus porta-potty. For a city (and world, for that matter) divided on migration, Berlin doesn’t seem to be divided at all recently. So, what is happening in Moria? Why are thousands in Berlin campaigning for the evacuation of the Moria refugee camp in Greece? The last two Berlin protests for Moria had a turnout of over ten thousand people demanding that the German government (and its Minister of the Interior, Horst Seehofer) allow safe and legal passage to Germany. Many might have already heard of this place, but it’s critical to further educate and remind people of what is happening. As a witness of the hellish conditions of many Greek refugee camps, I feel firmly that information, advocacy, and direct action are urgent.

Before providing numerical data on the overcrowding of camps, I’d like to paint you a picture in order to visualize what I’ve been seeing everyday on my way to and from work for the past seven months. As an interpreter for legal and psychosocial support actors serving the Samos camp residents for the past seven months, I saw resilience unlike what I could have imagined. I also saw people making do with, and even normalizing, deeply horrifying conditions of life. Most of the refugees are living in tents that they bought themselves and set up on a steep, forested hill with tarps. There are hardly any toilets or showers, and most of them are broken and filthy. Refugees find themselves surrounded by rats, snakes and scorpions who eat their tents, clothes, papers and food. Queues for doctors, food, legal appointments and asylum interviews take hours and hours. Life at camp is summed up by neverending queues: queues under the hot sun, heavy rain, night and day, with people in these lines being as diverse in background, interests, personality, language and dreams as any group could possibly be. 

The one commonality they all share is the fact they could not access any other legal route to migrate into Europe other than making the risky decision to cross the Mediteranean Sea and seek asylum on those islands. Either their home countries are deemed too economically and politically unstable, or too violent for them to be granted visas through legal travel for work and residency in Europe. Although I, holder of both French and American passports, could have an online visa application approved without much trouble by Cameroon, Iran, or Mali, hundreds of thousands are denied the same privilege when the situation is reversed. Beyond being denied the assumption of good intentions, their characters are lumped together as a threat because of their places of birth and countries of origin. 

The presence of banners and graffiti across Berlin addressing the issue comes as a result of a worsening situation over the past five years. The #Wirhabenplatz movement, or “we have space” in English, sends the message that we can and should allow these international workers and expats in. While not often called expats due to their birthplaces, these migrants are indeed expats looking to live, work, love, build or rebuild their lives and contribute in various ways. The main point is that we easily have space. In fact, an internationally broadcasted chair protest occurred in front of the Bundestag last week. Activists set up 13,000 chairs, one for each resident of the Moria refugee camp, to prove that #Wirhabenplatz and what is lacking is absence of sufficient political will. Walking through the 13,000 empty seats was sobering, as I pictured who might be the person represented by each plastic chair. Seeing  the relatively small field they filled hammered into my heart the absolute truth that we do have space to take them in.

By now we’ve all seen the widely circulated, graphic image of a young boy’s corpse washed up on the Greek shore. Aside from being deadly, crossing into European territory via the Mediteranean is expensive and hardly ever successful. Most people who arrive on the islands do so on their seventh or eighth attempts, after boats either sink or are told to turn back by the coast guards. Yet hundreds are still trying each day. Yet corpses are still washing up. Yet bodies and entire boats are still going missing at sea each day. Yet there are still no legal options for thousands of people seeking refuge, restricted from freely emigrating solely due to their citizenship.

Now, about the numbers; numbers that give me a deep pit of shame and dread in the bottom of my stomach. It is difficult for our minds to even conceptualize numbers this large, but when you search for Google images of these camps, it is not hard to imagine anymore, rather impossible to forget. The Moria refugee camp is a Registration and Identification Center on the island of Lesbos, often referred to as the largest refugee camp in Europe. It is also notoriously overcrowded and unable to provide basic food, water and shelter to its thousands of occupants. With an official capacity of 2,757 occupants, the camp currently holds around 12,257, meaning it is over-capacitated by 477%. If that doesn’t sound catastrophic enough, just imagine that it’s neighboring island, Samos, holds the second largest European border refugee camp. The Samos camp, also officially a Registration and Identification Center, was built to accommodate 648 people, around twice our BCB student body. However, as of now, it holds 5000 migrants, equivalent to 772% of its normal capacity. What this means is that out of those 5000, only 648 people share actual spaces in cramped shipping container residences, the rest are living in tents and huts made from scrap wood and tarps.

I have seen these camp conditions with my own eyes. I’ve spoken to thousands of people living in these camps, and while I have been astounded by their resilience, the intense resilience of human beings, I am ashamed that we have not only let this happen, but allow it to continue its course. #EvacuateMoria, because if these camps are not evacuated, they will remain a blemish on the European fabric of human rights and basic human decency – reminders of our inability to uphold standards in our own land. 

The conditions in the camps were already horrendous before the COVID-19 pandemic swept the globe. Due to their isolation, refugee camps locked down about six months ago. Despite this time to prepare, when the first positive COVID-19 cases were tested in recent weeks, there was no clear plan to treat those infected and limit further transmission. The European Union, Greece, and camp managers did not adequately prepare the camps for the pandemic. Social distancing, hygiene, mask provision and virus protection measures have been woefully insufficient. Now, there are around 40 positive cases in the Lesbos camp and 31 in the Samos camp. Residents of those camps have been on lockdown and under curfew for six months altogether, without any of the COVID-19 precautionary measures being possible. #Leavenoonebehind, because we cannot in good conscience protect ourselves and our loved ones from this deadly virus, knowing others cannot. We cannot accept that thousands of people in Europe live in cramped conditions, unable to socially distance, properly wash their hands, or quarantine by themselves. 

April 26, 2020. Residents of the Vathy camp on Samos Island fled as two fires destroyed large sections of the camp in the late night hours this spring. Fires are a frequent danger in both the Lesbos and Samos refugee camps. (Credit: Océanne Fry)

The Moria refugee camp burned down in its entirety two weeks ago. Although past years have seen numerous fires in camps across the Aegean, tensions have been particularly high on Lesbos Island due to the extended lockdown of the camp during COVID-19. Locals, foreign extremists, volunteers and refugees have been in fierce opposition to one another, leading to violence and culminating in this large-scale fire. I can only begin to imagine the profound fear and anger of hearing that thirty of my fellow camp residents have tested positive, only to find out that there is no possibility of tracing contactation, no space to self isolate myself, and no way to protect my loved ones from a pandemic that has well-publicized mortality rates. 

This is why German citizens have been crying out that #Wirhabenplatz: not only for those asylum seekers who are accepted by the European governments, but also to accommodate those with pending cases living in inhumane conditions. This is why Berliners took to the street the day that the Moria camp burned down, begging politicians to agree to #EvacuateMoria and #Leavenoonebehind. As of now, the German government has declared their intention to evacuate 1500 people. But who will play God and decide which 1500 are most vulnerable, who gets to protect themselves from this pandemic and who doesn’t? I urge all of us, European citizens, residents or not, to add your voices to the call echoing throughout our city; in order for the European Parliament and German officials to decisively be on the side of dignity, human rights and compassion. Unless we do so, we will be remembered by history as having accepted practices of profound dehumanization and human rights abuse in an EU that prides itself on intervening abroad. We must fight to ensure that Europe takes responsibility for the atrocities unfolding on its own soil.

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