Live from Lesbos: The Global Refugee Crisis in Focus

By Jessica Farber & Celine Thomas

On September 28th, Human Rights Watch (HRW) researchers Emina Ćerimović and Eva Cossé recorded a Facebook Live video from a refugee camp on the Greek island of Lesbos. The live stream offered the world a glimpse of the abhorrent conditions in which asylum seekers — largely from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan — are living.

Speaking from Moria, a camp surrounded by barbed wire used as a processing center by the European Union (EU), the HRW researchers described a state of despair and hopelessness. Five-thousand people, many of them women and children, are packed into flimsy summer tents with no access to basic services, such as water or electricity. Food is scarce, and people report having to queue for three or four hours to receive a small meal. As winter approaches and more asylum seekers arrive, there is little indication that the camp is being prepared for the brutal cold that killed dozens last year.

As Emina and Eva explained, the EU-Turkey refugee deal of March 2016 is a major reason why conditions in Lesbos are so dire. Per the agreement, anyone who arrives “irregularly” in Greece is to be sent back to Turkey on the premise that it is a “safe third country”. But once on the island, many people are trapped in an excruciating and indefinite state of limbo in which they are forbidden to leave, even if they have means. In an attempt to implement the deal, the Greek government established a containment policy, forbidding irregular arrivals from leaving the islands to get to the mainland where conditions and services are marginally better.

This harrowing experience takes a significant psychological toll on individuals. For example, Eva shared an interaction she had with a 24-year-old young man who had fled the war in Syria in 2016 and is now in the Moria detention centre. Last winter, he slept in a summer tent under the snow and fell gravely ill, enduring dire conditions in the hopes of ultimately gaining protection in Europe. After one year in Moria, he was arrested by authorities and told he would be sent back to Turkey with no explanation.

The HRW researchers explained that most asylum seekers spend their days in a prolonged period of waiting, often doing nothing at all. They lose hope and dignity, paralyzed by the stress brought on by the lack of information about their situations, inaccessibility of services and general insecurity. “People are being harmed psychologically by the way they are treated,” Emina exclaimed. “They may not be visible injuries, but they are injuries nonetheless and they are life threatening.”

HRW maintains that the EU-Turkey deal is “a major blow to the refugee convention.” Under the 1951 convention, all state parties are obligated to provide protection to refugees. While not everyone arriving in Greece will qualify for refugee status, everyone has a legal right to apply and have their claim assessed. However, the EU-Turkey deal essentially denies this right, allowing officials in Moria to simply determine whether or not to send people back to Turkey.

Emina noted that the inhumane conditions in Lesbos are not due to a lack of funds but rather misallocation and poor implementation. This is why HRW calls on the EU, the United Nations and the UN refugee agency to more effectively monitor the allocation of funds on the ground, with greater control and transparency. Furthermore, HRW urges Greece to end its containment policy on the island, which is trapping people in inadequate conditions. Instead, the country should work with organizations like the UNHCR to transfer people from overcrowded and under-serviced Moria to more dignified conditions on the mainland.

Two days before flying to Greece, Emina was a guest speaker at the Sauvé Series event, Compounding Factors Within the Global Refugee Crisis. She also visited Professor Kim Samuel’s fourth-year international development seminar at McGill University, where she spoke about her personal experience as a Bosnian refugee and the path that led her to join Human Rights Watch. In particular, she engaged students in a discussion about the unequal access to services for refugees with disabilities and the social isolation that results. Together, the class explored why this must be framed as a human rights issue, and how doing so can lead to more effective and inclusive policies that uphold human dignity. Emina’s words left a deep impression on the students and audience at the Sauvé Series event, many of whom were inspired to become catalysts for change. In the days that followed, students were already mobilizing to organize local outreach to refugees in Montreal.

Understanding social isolation as both a cause and consequence of the global refugee crisis is a core focus of the global movement for social connectedness. Alongside organizations like Human Rights Watch and inspiring individuals like Emina, we call for approaches that recognize and uphold the humanity and dignity of individuals fleeing for their lives. As Professor Samuel wrote in her most recent Huffington Post column, “All of us have an obligation to stand up for those who need our support — and to value them for simply being who they are, just as we wish to be valued ourselves.”

To learn more about this important issue, please read the following HRW reports: