MORIA, Greece — As night closed in on the migrant camp, masses of people made their way to their makeshift tents, climbing hills of denuded olive trees, carrying dinner in plastic bags. Lila Ayobi showed her family what she had waited three hours in line to collect.
“Everything else was finished,” Ayobi, 39, told them. Her four children would have nothing else to eat until morning, when Ayobi would rise at 5 a.m. to wait in line again, this time for prepackaged croissants, one per person.
Waiting and disappointment are a central part of existence for the 38,000 people at Greece’s critically overcrowded Aegean island camps, where Europe’s migrant crisis is clearly far from over.
At the Moria refugee camp on Lesbos, the largest of the island facilities, migrants wait in snaking lines for up to eight hours a day to get their meals. They wait for breakfast, come back to their shelters for an hour or two, and soon head off to wait for lunch.
“All day waiting,” Ayobi said. “In all the time we spend in line, we could learn a new language.”
They wait because this camp has mushroomed in size, growing seven times more crowded than its capacity, a shantytown on a vacation island never intended for such emergencies.
They wait because the Greek government and local authorities are at odds about what to do with them, and because a closed-off Europe has not offered another place to put them, even as rights groups decry the camps as an emblem of the continent’s failures.
Conditions at the island camps have never been worse. Children shiver through the nights, bundled in wet blankets that never fully dry. There are protests, scabies outbreaks and fatal stabbings in middle-of-the-night fights. The Council of Europe’s commissioner for human rights, Dunja Mijatović, has called the situation “explosive,” noting a “desperate lack of medical care and sanitation” — and the hours-long lines.
Many people here fled war and other desperate environments, and they risked their lives to cross the Aegean Sea in flimsy rafts. They are grateful to have made it this far. But they describe feeling humiliated and dismayed, sensing that even in the food there is a message about the resources Europe is willing to spend on new arrivals: not much at all.
A nutritionist told The Washington Post that the meals appear to fall below minimum calorie requirements. One migrant said the food was worse than at her former workplace, an Afghan prison.
“We are living like animals. It’s not a life,” said Zekria Farzad, 40, who had been a journalist in Afghanistan, which is where most of the migrants at Moria come from. “Actually, we are struggling to be alive.”
Yet beyond the camp, closer to the water, locals and tourists are eating well. Lesbos’s tavernas serve octopus, grilled squid, feta, vegetables dressed with lemon and olive oil.
That jarring juxtaposition is part of what makes the camp “one of the worst places I’ve seen on earth,” said Marco Sandrone, the Lesbos field coordinator for Doctors Without Borders.
“You can get a beer at the port, and then with 10 minutes’ drive you see an open-air prison,” said Sandrone, whose previous postings included Congo, South Sudan, Sierra Leone and Haiti. “There is no transition here between paradise and hell.”
Waiting for their future to be determined
How a small resort island came to host so many asylum seekers — and serve 57,000 daily, low-cost meals, provided in large part by a former wedding caterer — is a story that reflects Europe’s gridlocked immigration politics.
Opened five years ago at the beginning of a massive spike in migration to Europe, the Moria camp was supposed to be a short-term holding center for asylum seekers waiting to be transferred to the Greek mainland and elsewhere on the continent. Instead, it has become a bottleneck, with many people staying in Moria for a year or longer.
The overall number of migrants reaching Europe has plummeted from the highs of 2015 and 2016, but with no agreement on where to send them, even slight upticks in people crossing the Aegean Sea explode into emergencies in Lesbos.
A year ago, the camp held 4,900 people. Even then it was notorious for its conditions. Now, after a year of increased crossings from Turkey, the camp holds 19,400.
It has burst well outside its razor-wire fenced barriers, with most migrants living in tents on the surrounding hillside. They have no electricity, no plumbing, no way to cook except for fire.
They descend into the official camp for meals, coming through the main entrance or through holes in the fencing, and they crowd into spaces that camp administrators describe as dangerously tight. Administrators say fights and scuffles routinely break out during the wait.
A 20-year-old man from Yemen died last month after being stabbed in an altercation, the second stabbing fatality here in 2020.
“Almost we cannot control it,” Dmitris Vafeas, a Greek bureaucrat who is the camp’s acting director, said in an interview. “It’s an everyday struggle. We have problems of overpopulation here.”
Waiting for food, trying to survive
Most days at Moria, the food lines have already grown big by the time the main catering company’s food trucks arrive through the camp gates. The company, Elaitis, primarily did weddings until a few years ago. Now the Greek army pays Elaitis a daily rate of 5.01 euros per person, an amount that includes transportation and labor, to provide the food.
During several days at the camp last month, The Washington Post monitored what was served, much of which was marked with nutritional information. Athens-based nutritionist Ioanna Hassapi, who reviewed the food at The Post’s request, said the meals most days appeared to fall short of adult and teenage caloric needs — and those needs grow when people are sleeping outdoors and are chronically sick.
“If you eat this food, you won’t recover as easily,” Hassapi said. “It affects your immune system, your growth.”
Every breakfast consists of a packaged croissant. Every dinner consists of a flatbread, a boiled egg and a cigar-sized spinach pastry — if you are far enough ahead in line. Only the lunch rotates: sometimes lentils and rice, sometimes beans, sometimes rice with meat. The food isn’t supposed to run out; occasionally, it does. The milk served to children resembles whitish water. Some days, there are tomatoes or cucumbers with dinner, other days not.
Migrants speak of getting stale bread and barely cooked rice, of losing weight, of new mothers eating so poorly that they stop lactating. While there has not been widespread malnutrition, a baby died of severe dehydration in the fall.
Some local officials have started to question whether Greece is failing to provide migrants the level of food it has paid for.
Stratis Balaskas, a city councilor who regularly visits Moria, said food quality has gone down as the camp has multiplied in size. Last month, several local officials, including Balaskas, brought a day’s worth of camp food to the island’s top prosecutor and asked her to open an investigation into whether the government and the food vendors are fulfilling their obligations.
“The cost of what they’re putting together now is next to nothing,” Balaskas said.
Greek prosecutors by rule do not comment to the public or the press on potential cases.
Greece’s defense ministry, which is in charge of monitoring the food at the camp, declined to comment for this story, as did the country’s migration ministry, which has recently vowed to lower the number of arrivals by strengthening border protection and increasing deportations to Turkey.
In an interview, Elaitis’s head of sales, Kostas Mavroudis, said his company was living up to the contract and spending about 4.50 euros, or $4.90, daily per migrant.
But he added that Elaitis has been stretched to keep up with the camp’s growth. The company expanded from 21 employees to 44, he said. It went from two delivery trucks to six. It created a five-person overnight shift. With that not being enough, it has also subcontracted to two companies in Athens, which now produce around 40 percent of the food and send it twice a week, frozen, by boat, he said.
Mavroudis defended the food’s quality. But the people who eat it say it has no flavor, that the colors range from brown to light brown, as if trying to make them nostalgic for what they had in the countries they fled.
“When you are desperate, you’d eat even grass,” said Ahmad Wait Anwary, 27, who had been a security guard in Afghanistan. “Unfortunately, this is the way it is here.”
Greece has talked about closing the camps and building more restrictive detention centers in their place. But local authorities have orchestrated protests. They vehemently oppose the notion of permanent centers, and they are deeply skeptical that the government can build anything large enough to accommodate the asylum seekers already in the camps.
Even if the plan goes forward, it is unclear what will happen to the overflow population.
The hillsides surrounding Moria have been picked bare by migrants foraging for additional food. Some families have built brick ovens inside their tents. The ovens are safety hazards, but they make it possible to bake bread. There is an Aldi supermarket on the island where people can get flour. There are also makeshift stands inside the camp, where people try to resell grocery items they bought in bulk. But those options are mostly for people who have been here several months, after a small monthly stipend from the United Nations has kicked in. And that stipend does not cover all they would need to eat in a month.
So, they still walk through the camp gates before mealtimes to wait.
One day last month, on a day like many others, they walked past a guard who was warning that the lines would be long, and then they made their way past 75 people who had just arrived by boat that morning and were waiting to be registered, past 100 people waiting to lodge applications for a transfer to the mainland, past 20 people in line at the asylum office, past 300 people waiting for U.N.-distributed blankets and toothbrushes.
Then they arrived at the food line. It was only beginning to form, 2½ hours before the first meals would be served. Women, who have their own line, huddled near a fence, waiting for the gates to open to a covered facility, where they would wait some more. Soon, thousands would be there, people who are less likely to get what would be served that day. But for now, it was just 30 people, holding children, wearing shower sandals or old sneakers, talking to one another.
Elinda Labropoulou contributed to this report. Story and video by Chico Harlan. Photos by Giorgos Moutafis. Story editing by Marisa Bellack. Photo editing by Chloe Coleman. Design and development by Allison Mann. Copy editing by Paola Ruano. Video editing by Alexa Juliana Ard. Graphic by Chiqui Esteban.