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In Greece, Many Asylum Seekers Are Stranded In Overcrowded Camps


When a million asylum seekers arrived in the European Union in 2015, there was a backlash. Some countries built walls. Some refused to accept refugees. The next year, EU leaders struck a deal with the Turkish government that kept most of the migrants in Turkey. Now, that drastically cut the number of asylum seekers crossing the sea, but, as Joanna Kakissis reports, from the Greek island of Lesbos, the deal left those who did reach Greece stranded in overcrowded camps.


JOANNA KAKISSIS, BYLINE: A new tent seems to go up every day on a hill of olive trees next to the Moria refugee camp on Lesbos. Entire families live in these tents made of salvaged wood and tarp.


KAKISSIS: Walking around here, there are no garbage bins. There are no toilets. So the ground is covered with garbage and human feces. This is where the kids play.


RASHA AL-AHMAD: (Speaking Arabic).

KAKISSIS: Rasha al-Ahmad shudders as she wipes dirt from her 1-year-old daughter's face.

AL-AHMAD: (Through interpreter) I wash my children every day with this sponge because there's no running water. But with all this filth, I can't get them clean. As for me, I haven't had a shower in two weeks.


KAKISSIS: Al-Ahmad, who's 25 and from Syria, would rather live in a tent in the mud than the EU-financed refugee camp next door. This camp is designed to hold no more than 2,000 people, but more than 6,000 are inside.

AL-AHMAD: (Through interpreter) When I go inside to get our food, I wait in line for hours. And people are angry and sometimes drunk. They get violent. They fight. And it's so dirty.

KAKISSIS: Someone's cut a hole in the tall razor-wire fence around the camp, so I slip inside. I've been here before but have rarely seen it this bad. My eyes water at the stench of urine, feces, rotting food. Leila Hassan, a 20-year-old from Somalia, covers her mouth. She says she vomited the first time she tried to use one of the public toilets which overflow with human waste.

LEILA HASSAN: (Through interpreter) When I first saw this situation, I wanted to go back home because it's like a prison, and we are the criminals.

KAKISSIS: Eva Cosse of Human Rights Watch believes this is the message the EU is sending to asylum seekers.

EVA COSSE: Don't come here because if you do, this is what you're going to suffer - overcrowded, very dirty, very unsanitary camps, sleeping literally on the concrete, on the ground. And this is happening in the European Union. It's unimaginable.

KAKISSIS: The EU has allocated nearly a billion euros in migration aid to Greece and insists Greek authorities are responsible for managing the camps.


KAKISSIS: But Greek Migration Minister Ioannis Mouzalas blames the EU. During a recent visit to Moria, he told journalists that the EU is not relocating enough refugees out of Greece.

IOANNIS MOUZALAS: (Through interpreter) For instance, we have so many unaccompanied minor children in this camp. The rest of the EU won't take them. It's easy to point fingers. It's much harder to take steps that will actually solve problems.

KAKISSIS: But figuring out how to manage migration is one of the EU's biggest challenges. Hard-line leaders such as Hungary's Viktor Orban and Austria's Sebastian Kurz say the EU must be as ruthless as Australia, which bans people arriving by boat from seeking asylum in Australia. Instead they're sent to camps on Papua New Guinea and the Pacific island nation of Nauru, sometimes for years.

Under the 2016 deal between the EU and the Turkish government, migrants crossing from Turkey are only supposed to stay a short time on Aegean islands - until Greece's independent asylum service processes their requests for protection. Those denied asylum are supposed to be deported. But the asylum service is short-staffed, and the process takes months. Amal Adwan, a 47-year-old Syrian teacher, has waited four months for her appeal.

AMAL ADWAN: We only wait - for what? You don't know for what. Maybe they reject my asylum. Maybe they return me to Turkey.

KAKISSIS: But only a fraction of the more than 47,000 asylum seekers who've arrived since mid-2016 have been returned to Turkey. The Greek government wants to expand camps on the islands but is opposed by locals even on refugee-friendly Lesbos.


KAKISSIS: I walk with retiree Kleoniki Chronis along a creek just outside her lemon-scented village, Moria, the neighboring village for which the camp is named. She points to a Roman aqueduct and says Moria used to be known for its history, not as Europe's Guantanamo.

KLEONIKI CHRONIS: (Speaking Greek).

KAKISSIS: "What's happening here is unacceptable," she says, "unacceptable for the refugees, for us, for Greece and for Europe." For NPR News, I'm Joanna Kakissis on Lesbos. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Joanna Kakissis is a foreign correspondent based in Kyiv, Ukraine, where she reports poignant stories of a conflict that has upended millions of lives, affected global energy and food supplies and pitted NATO against Russia.