Written by Jurek Wötzel, Head Writer
It’s a regular day on the island of Lesbos, Greece in late March 2018. In the infamous Moria Camp, a young Syrian refugee sets himself on fire after learning that his application for asylum has been rejected for the second time. He would rather die than go home.
Home, that is where the bombs fall, where the sirens scream, where the relentless fire of the machine guns keeps you up at night. It isn’t for no reason that millions of Syrians have abandoned their home since the beginning of the war, five years ago. Many of them ended up in Lesbos, waiting for the authorities to decide their fate.
Since the EU-Turkey deal was put into effect, refugees arriving in Greece are immediately detained in Moria Camp. When the Greek state erected the camp in 2015, it was supposed to temporarily host 2,000 people. Now, that number has increased to 6,000.
Payman Shamsian, a former NGO worker at Moria camp saw many people arrive there. “They are so happy that they have made it to the land of freedom,” he says. “They think their life is becoming better and better from now on. They come to the camp with thousands of hopes and dreams. And wait. And wait. And wait. I witnessed the entire process of collapse and destruction for many asylum seekers, and how the reality hits them on their face over a course of even one week.”
About 2,500 asylum seekers land on the island every month. Most of them will soon be accommodated in sparsely equipped tents, providing just the bare minimum to keep them sheltered. Each year, when winter approaches, new headlines about the humanitarian crisis in the Greek camps appear in media outlets all over Europe. Still, no one really seems to be bothered.
The conditions in what has earned the name ‘Moria Prison’ among refugees are horrendous. Not long ago, Greek migration minister Ioannis Mouzalas warned they are potentially life-threatening. Yet, detainees do their best to deal with homesickness, the fear of deportation, and the daily struggle to survive.
“I have seen or personally been in many situations that people in the camp talk about their traditions, their culture, and language with others”, Payman remembers. “Homesickness has a huge presence in the camp. Expressions of it range from the way people decorate their tents to strong hatred toward their tents because it’s not their home.”
The atmosphere in the camp is a pendulum between hope and frustration. “Refugees and asylum seekers mostly don’t want to accept that they don’t have a home anymore. They either think that one day they go back home or think they can make the new place they are moving to their new home.”
It’s not only the homesickness that causes hatred. Anger about being rejected, intra-group conflict, and simple overall despair spark violence and aggression. In 2016, a large group of refugees set fire to their tents in the french Calais camp, leading to outrage at the dinner tables of European families. In Moria, too, riots erupted several times. In the same year, a riot led to a fire resulting in the evacuation of 4,000 detainees. These incidents exacerbate the misery even more.
“The camp can’t be a humane place to have a dignified life, let alone being a home”, Payman tells me. “Every person has a different coping mechanism to face this reality. Some can’t cope with it, some can. It depends on many things. But one of the main problems is that your social status in the camp is totally different from the outside world. Coping with that aspect is the hardest part for people.”
Hannah Arendt, who lived as a Jew in Nazi Germany, was particularly concerned with the lack of belonging one experiences as a refugee. She saw the struggle of the refugee being no different than the struggle of the stateless person. The loss of legal protection of a sovereign state makes the refugee cease to have any social status at all; their actions become meaningless. They have no political community in which there is good and bad, right and wrong. Being stateless is essentially the loss of political identity.
Payman is less worried about abandoning your community of origin in general. “I personally believe that associating the concept of home to a country, usually your birth country, is very overrated. Home can be anywhere for various reasons and change over time for different people based on their life experiences. Even not having a place to call home is becoming very common among people.”
There is a difference, though, between those who left home voluntarily and those who were forced to leave. As Somali-British poet Warsan Shire writes:
no one leaves home unless home is the mouth of a shark you only run for the border when you see the whole city running as well your neighbors running faster than you breath bloody in their throats the boy you went to school with who kissed you dizzy behind the old tin factory is holding a gun bigger than his body you only leave home when home won’t let you stay.
Obviously, this is not the story of voluntary migration. It is a story that should end with the possibility of permanent resettlement or the possibility to return home. Unfortunately, the realities of the Syrian war and European refugee policy continue to prevent both. The increasingly prevalent image of the refugee as the criminal immigrant who is nothing but a parasite to society is not a positive sign for change. It also isn’t making it easier for refugees to feel at home in a new country once they manage to leave camps like Moria or Calais behind.
“The only thing I want from any country hosting refugees and migrants anywhere in the world is to see and perceive refugees and migrants as simple persons living in a society”, Payman replied when I asked him for advice for Europe. “They’re not necessarily angels or hard-working and full of hope all the time. They are not necessarily evil and criminal. Let’s not romanticize them. Let’s not get shocked when one of them becomes successful or hate them because one of them commits a crime. Let’s just see them as what they are, and embrace them in our societies, as any other person in the society.”
Hence, what Payman and Hannah Arendt would agree on, is the need to include refugees in a new community. A community that allows to them to feel at home, that allows them to have a political identity and that allows them to live a purposeful life.
Moria does not do any of that. Instead, it puts refugees into a political purgatory situated between the hope of a new life and the fear of deportation. A truly humanitarian response of the all-so humanist Europeans would look different.
Payman Shamsian currently works for the migration team of Samuel Hall, an independent think tank providing research and strategic services, expert analysis, tailored counsel and access to local knowledge for a diverse array of actors operating in the world’s most challenging environments. He has obtained two masters degrees before joining Samuel Hall. He obtained a joint basters degree on Global Studies between Albert Ludwigs University of Freiburg and Latin American School of Social Sciences (FLACSO Argentina) and he studied at Central European University in International Relations and European Studies program. Prior to working for Samuel Hall, Payman worked for the Danish Refugee Council as a Protection Assistant in Greece.