When multiple fires destroyed Europe’s notorious refugee camp, it became apparent that more than 3,000 asylum seekers were missing already. While authorities remain silent regarding their whereabouts, we met some of them. We witnessed them living in limbo, working under exploitation, and being victims of brutal attacks; crossing borders to reach the “European dream” or failing to do so. We also delved into the government’s practices of fabricating the numbers.
They look tense, it is obvious theyare tense and it’s hard for them to relax; the two young Afghan men sitting opposite me at a cafe in Victoria square, on the sunny afternoon of June 15, 2020, look around in suspicion every few moments.
First, they give a worried glance at the people around us; then, they take a sip of their freddo espresso. And they return to our discussion. Yes, they both nod in agreement, they know that they can’t be in Athens. Toryalai and Farzaad should be approximately 360 km east, on Lesvos island, among the over 16,000 asylum seekers stranded at Moria camp today. That’s where we first met, back in February 2020.
An Instagram story posted earlier this morning, however, indicated that they are right here, at Victoria square, where dozens of other asylum seekers have ended up homeless after arriving from the Aegean islands. Many Afghans live or move to the area, making the square known among them as “Afghanistan square”.
Toryalai and Farzaad have both received a negative decision on their asylum claim. According to legislation, this means that the two friends, who traveled all the way from Afghanistan together, should remain on Lesvos until their appeals against the decision can be processed. But refusing to endure Moria’s misery any longer ― besides the fact that the odds of being granted asylum are against them ― they decided not to wait.
They found their way to Athens and plan to continue and cross the borders up north. When I ask how ― how they did it, how they will do it ― a smile appears on their faces. “When you have crossed that many borders in your life, you can find your way to cross one more.”
On another afternoon, a few weeks later, a new story appears on Instagram. The two men have not crossed just one border; they have now made it to Italy.
Moria’s fire reveals thousands missing
When Moria camp was burnt to the ground on the night of September 8th, the media reported that the destruction of Greece’s largest refugee facility had left about 12,500 asylum seekers homeless. Indeed, according to official data, on that day Moria camp hosted even slightly more than that: 12,767 residents. In the week following the fire, the Greek government set up a new “temporary” camp, often called “Moria 2.0”, on the site of a former army shooting range.
But, after all of Moria’s former residents had entered the new camp, Minister of Citizen Protection Michalis Chrisochoidis said the number of migrants registered there were only 9,200. Where were the rest? Apart from approximately 400 unaccompanied minors transported to the mainland after the fire, the government’s spokesperson ― and the Greek prime minister himself― explicitly stated that no other asylum seekers would be moved from the island at that time.
This means that more than 3,100 migrants, that’s a quarter of the official number registered to be living at Moria camp, were missing. When the issue was raised by Fofi Gennimata, the leader of Movement of Change (KINAL), Minister of Migration and Asylum Notis Mitarachi did not provide convincing explanations. Neither did the ministry provide answers to our requests.
Over the span of several months, Solomon met some of the “missing” migrants like Toryalai and Farzaad. We witnessed them being victims of brutal racist attacks in Athens, or travelling across the mainland to sustain ―under exploitation― the agricultural sector. And we saw them stuck in limbo, stressed about an uncertain future. Attempting to cross to other European countries; and failing to do so.
We also delved into the government’s practices of fabricating the numbers.
Five days in an intensive care unit
Islamuddin was born in 1993, belongs to the Tajik ethnic group, and has spent most of his life in Kabul, Afghanistan’s capital. The documents of his asylum application, which he handed to us in the beginning of October, state that Islamuddin and his sister had to leave the country because the situation had been unbearable for them.
When they were younger, Islamuddin faced a serious medical condition that forced him to stay in the hospital for several weeks. To help the family cover the expenses, his sister started working as an actress in commercials and in the cinema. But this led to their community believing that the family’s honor was lost for good.
When, in early 2020, a few weeks after they arrived on Lesvos, Islamuddin shared their story with the Asylum Service, he told them that people would constantly mock and insult them on the streets. He added that the family would be excluded from events, while relatives close to the Taliban had threatened them that if they ever returned to Baghlan province, where they come from, they would kill them.
Although his sister was granted international protection, Islamuddin’s application was dismissed. Instead of remaining at Moria camp alone, waiting for the decision on his appeal, last summer he decided to leave the island.
As soon as he arrived in the Greek capital, someone told him about an NGO that could possibly offer him free legal advice. On a late afternoon in early August, Islamuddin, with his documents in hand, was walking to the NGO’s office, and had just entered the backstreets behind Omonoia square, when a group of three or four people approached him.
He believes they were people who do not like migrants. With the first blow to his head his memory freezes. Islamuddin spent the next ten days in Evangelismos hospital, the first five in the intensive care unit. With the last of his money taken from him, he told Solomon, he has been stuck in limbo for months: while he feels unwanted in Greece, he also can’t make it to another European country.
Neither can he go back to Afghanistan.
Up until today, three months after the brutal attack against him, Islamuddin is unable to chew the food which is offered at the camp where he has found refuge. Anything he wants to consume must be mashed up in a blender first.
At the same time, it is unclear how long he will be able to stay in the camp, as the authorities warned him to leave, as his case is not registered there. For the moment, he hopes that by placing his tent in another spot, he will remain unnoticed by the camp’s management.
“We did not know much before coming, but we were told that in Europe they care about you, and that the states will help refugees continue their life,” he said during one of our interviews. But had he known how things would really be for him almost one year after he set foot in Greece, he added, he would never have come. That’s also what he would advise others.
“In Afghanistan a bomb can kill you any day, but you die once. Here it’s every day that you die.”
From being stabbed in Moria…
Fahim, 28 years old, arrived on Lesvos in September 2019, on a boat with 32 other people, aided by an Italian Frontex ship, when their boat’s engine stopped working halfway across.
When the young man from Afghanistan arrived at Moria, his first impression of the camp was that this place can drive any sane person crazy in no time.
He first noticed this transformation in people, when a woman from Jaghori he knew, and who lived in a tent next to his, started to severely deteriorate, psychologically, day by day. It started when she was unable to sleep, Fahim remembers, and then for the first time in her life, panic attacks appeared. After a while she could no longer recognize her husband.
This is when he realized what this place can do to people.
“I knew that if I didn’t get out of there, the same would happen to me,” he remembers. This is not only what made him leave, though. Just like most people, Fahim says, in the winter, Afghan people like to eat soup. So, to support himself financially while he was in Moria waiting for his asylum interview, he set up his own stand offering hot soup in the camp’s infamous market.
But at the end of the day, members belonging to the gang active in the camp would show up outside his makeshift tent and ask for money. Sometimes he escaped from the back door, other times he slept in the tents of friends.
A confrontation with the gang led to him getting away with a stabbing once. He thought that if he was to work, and at the end of the day just give the money he earned to someone else, he should not work at all. Asking the police present in the camp to help him did not work. Day and night he would think about how he could get away from there. He did not feel safe anymore.
… to exploitation in agriculture
It has now been about nine months since Fahim made it to the mainland. He has already been to a good deal of it, working “off the radar” to secure his living.
His first job was picking wool, in the wider area of Thessaloniki, the country’s second largest city. At least ten more people that had secretly escaped from Moria worked along with him. For a month he worked “like an animal”, he says, but on pay day, he received only half of the wages for the days he had worked. He still had to pay €30-€40 in rent, to sleep in a stable with dozens of other agricultural workers.
His next try was outside the town of Thiva. A friend told him there was work with the grape harvest, among the mostly Pakistani (also undocumented) labor force. The agreed daily wage was €23, but later he found out that middlemen, tecadors as they are called, charged local producers €40 per day for each worker like him.
From his wages, Fahim had to pay €1 a day to the middleman, €1 for his “accommodation” in an abandoned property with others, and €2 for food. As they were outside the closest village, they could not go on their own for groceries, but had to tell the middleman what they needed. Everything they bought would be overpriced: from cigarettes to food, or a Monster energy drink that normally costs €2, would cost them double.
At the end of the day, less than half of the €23 stayed in his pocket. But this time he stayed, as he had no other option, and because he thought even this income was better than no income at all.
Like Islamuddin, Fahim, for now, is “hiding” in a refugee camp, in which he is not registered, weighing whether he should go back to Lesvos and ask for his case to be opened again, or find money to cross the northern borders. Once he believed that in Europe he could start a new chapter in his life. “But what can I do? This is what life has been for me here,” he says in one of our interviews.
Numbers in Moria “were never precise”
More than one million people have passed through the Aegean islands, since the beginning of the so-called “refugee-crisis”. Lesvos, where Moria camp was based, has received the largest number of arrivals, with almost one out of every two asylum seekers arriving there.
Misled by the smugglers, Islamuddin and Fahim, as well as other former residents of the camp Solomon interviewed during the past months, believed that their needs would be met the moment they would arrive in Greece: they would be offered language classes, financial aid, and help in finding a job.
Soon after, they launched into Moria’s reality.
The EU-Turkey Treaty, signed in March 2016, terminated the function of the Reception and Identification Centers (RICs) on the five islands ―Lesvos, Leros, Kos, Samos, Chios― as their names until then suggested.
Instead, they began operating as long-term accommodation structures and, subsequently, the populations they hosted also boomed and conditions in them rapidly deteriorated.
Moria camp, designed to host roughly 3,000 residents, was at times reported to have reached four, five, or even six times its capacity. For the past years, the number of residents living outside the initial facility, in the “jungle” (as the olive grove circling it came to be called), were significantly higher than the ones inside it.
So, how can one estimate the actual number of residents, in a vague area where hundreds of different-sized tents were haphazardly placed and where arrivals and departures were constant, as suggested by the daily reports published by Greek state authority?
“The answer is that the precise numbers were most probably never really known,” a top official of an international organization present in Moria since the early launch of the camp told Solomon. “It is unrealistic to say that the reported numbers were exact ones.”
“Greek statistics” for Moria
Speaking on condition of anonymity, the official goes on to add that, even the numbers regarding the facility’s capacity should not be taken too much into account.
“Nobody knows exactly what these numbers mean. For example, the government says that ‘Moria 2.0’ has a capacity of 10,000 people. How is that capacity calculated? Is it according to the number of tents or to the site’s size? Nobody exactly knows how capacity is counted in this or in other camps.”
Moreover, the same source added, besides the asylum seekers that were managing to secretly leave the camp, in the past months it became known that every day around 20-30 of the former residents transferred to the mainland were returning to Moria, as they had no other realistic options for settling down.
The numbers presented by the Greek authorities on the camps’ populations could be described with a well-known, two-word phrase known from the past years, the official added: “Greek statistics”.
Two thousand “missing” from Samos?
Solomon contacted the Ministry of Migration and Asylum making four requests, regarding the “missing” migrants of Moria. Here is what we asked:
Is there a precise number, or an estimation, regarding the number of asylum seekers which left Moria camp?
Does the Ministry have any knowledge on the whereabouts of the migrants who left Moria camp? Are they abroad, or in Greece? If in Greece, where?
What are the demographics (nationality, age, asylum claim) of the people that left the camp?
How did the camp’s management, appointed by the Ministry of Migration and Asylum, count the population of Moria?
The Ministry did not provide answers to our questions. However, by interviewing well-informed, on-the-ground sources (on condition of anonymity), we did manage to get some answers ― namely to our fourth question.
Two individual sources told Solomon that, when Giannis Balbakakis was still the camp’s manager, he would at times send staff to count residents tent by tent in the early morning hours. Balbakakis quit his job in September 2019. It remains unclear how the counting has been carried out since, or how effective it was during his time as manager.
Even during Balbakakis management, though, there is at least one more instance when the management itself realized that the numbers they had, did not reflect the actual reality.
This happened in November 2018. According to the official count on November 18, there were 6,849 asylum seekers in Moria camp. On the day after, November 19, there were 5,937. According to sources present on the ground then, this is when a check was made and the camp’s management realized that there were approximately 1,000 registered asylum seekers missing.
Moria is not the only camp on the Aegean islands that is believed to have implemented “Greek statistics” on its recorded population. According to the same sources, a top Ministry of Migration and Asylum official has at least twice openly admitted that in Vathy camp on Samos, the number of registered asylum seekers who are “missing” is over 2,000.
Vathy has a capacity of 648 residents and, according to official figures, hosted 3,715 residents on December 3, 2020 Its population is expected to be transferred to a new camp on the island by the end of the year. In this case, it is believed that this is when the actual difference in reported and real numbers will become apparent.
Last check in Moria… in July 2019
Following the realization that thousands of people are missing from Lesvos, the opposition party, SYRIZA, asked the government to conduct checks on the real numbers of residents in the camps on the other islands as well, but this has not yet taken place.
In response to a request by SYRIZA MPs on the “fabricated number of beneficiaries receiving catering distribution in Moria,” Minister of Migration and Asylum Notis Mitarachi said there was an annual check on the number of people living in the camp.
In the same response, Mitarachi referred to “about 1,500 asylum seekers who left Moria in August on their own will and individually. Truth is, however, that he himself back then was in support of the “decongestion of the islands”, and was promoting it as an action by his government.
Greece benefits by fabricated numbers
When I began reporting on the “refugee crisis” in early 2017, it was a common assumption among humanitarians operating across the country that official numbers too often didn’t depict reality.
In the small community of a camp, for instance, it could be easily seen by everyone if a few dozen asylum seekers had disappeared from one day to the next. But this was not always reflected in the weekly reports published by the Greek Army, who could count the number of residents in these camps by the food portions they distributed.
Although the most immediate cause one could attribute this phenomenon to might be corruption, in many cases it was due to fear; the fear officials had of being reprimanded by their superiors. Well-informed, on-the-ground sources attribute the fabricated numbers on the Aegean islands to a similar reason.
“It is also in the interest of the Greek state to keep the numbers presented high,” a top official of a major, foreign organisation operating in a number of locations in Greece told Solomon. “Because this way, they want to show the EU countries that they do handle the task they have been appointed with, and for which they receive EU funds: to keep the people on the islands.”
While they might seem to be fulfilling this task successfully, inflating the number of asylum seekers allows them also to maintain a sense of urgency in the camps’ management.
“On a different aspect, this also explains why after five years the Greek government has not really paid attention to improving conditions in the camps of northern Greece. They share a mindview that more or less says that, if conditions in these camps remain bad, refugees and migrants will have one more reason to leave Greece, and go on to other European countries.”
At the same time, however, the following paradox can be observed. Theoretically, asylum seekers on the Aegean islands were not allowed to leave until they had a final answer to their asylum application, and Minister Notis Mitarakis attributed the “disappearance” of thousands of refugees from Moria to the fact that they “illegally passed through checkpoints”. However, the testimonies we gathered for this report, indicate negligence on the part of the authorities in checking whether or not the people who were leaving the islands, actually had the right to do so.
Fahim said approximately 80 other residents from Moria, who had geographical restrictions imposed on them, left the island on the ferry, on the same day he did. And Islamuddin showed us exactly how one could easily modify their documents so they would pass the checkpoints.
It was widely known in the camp, he added, that there were people you could pay to prepare this for you. Or you could simply learn how to do it yourself, like he did. Moria’s residents knew, humanitarians in the field know, even we know, so how is it possible that the government didn’t know this was happening?
Islamuddin and Fahim both say they don’t think so. “Maybe they let people leave on purpose, too,” they said. “If there are fewer people in these conditions, there are also fewer fights maybe.”
How this translates into money
Even if corruption is not the motive, the inflation of numbers in official reports has consequences that can be translated into mishandling of funds as well. The most prominent example comes from the catering contracts.
The Greek Army, the state authority responsible for providing food to the residents living in refugee camps, contracts catering companies for the supply of daily meals to them. On the Aegean islands, the daily meal price for each resident is €6.01.
If we only take into account the cases of Lesvos and Samos, and do the math for just August, the month before the Moria fire, combining the “missing” migrants of the two islands, we have a number exceeding 5,100 more people for which food was provided ― or at least contracted.
August had 31 days. Paying the catering companies to provide food for an extra 5,100 people, at a daily rate of €6.01 per person, for 31 days, brings the daily extra cost to €30,651 and the total cost at the end of the month to €950,181, almost €1 million, just for one month!
In addition to this, since 2015 a total of €2.77 billion in EU funds have been allocated to the Greek government as financial aid to “better manage migration and borders.”
A large amount of this is related to the reception and management of asylum-seeking populations arriving on the Aegean islands ― for instance, in 2018 and 2017 the Ministry of Defence was given €25.69 million and €7 million, respectively, for the provision of “shelter and accommodation, catering, healthcare and transportation to the mainland from the islands.”
Last July, UNHCR was handed €8.25 million to provide COVID-19 emergency response action to the Greek islands. How much of the total funding provided to Greece for the assistance of the situation on the islands, is based on fabricated numbers?
A shipwreck after Moria, and stuck in limbo
Toryalai and Farzaad are now in Germany. They have already had their asylum interview there.
All of the people I talked to for this report personally know others who have settled in other European countries, after fleeing Moria and Greece. Not everyone is entitled to a story with a happy ending though.
Reza, a 27-year old asylum seeker from Iran, managed to secretly leave Moria after remaining there for 13 months, waiting for his asylum interview, which never happened. He says he also had to leave because he feared for his safety; there was an incident in Iran in which Iranian forces had shot and killed Afghans who were trying to cross the border, and the notorious gang in the camp, made up of Afghans, was threatening the Iranian asylum seekers, while Police did nothing for their security. Solomon was able to independently verify that these events took place.
During the previous weeks, Reza, along with other migrants, tried to sail to Italy from Corfu. But their boat broke down and when they were rescued, he says, they were treated with violence and detained for three days by the Greek authorities.
Reza had been wandering in the Greek mainland ever since, but found shelter in a refugee camp. He was allowed to stay there for about two weeks, but just before publication of this article he contacted me, and said he wasn’t in the camp anymore, as the manager had asked him to leave.
Reza has been thinking about returning to Lesvos, registering at ‘Moria 2.0’ and waiting for the decision on his case. But friends who had also secretly escaped from Lesvos and returned recently told him to not waste his time, as they were not allowed to enter the new camp.