Venkata: Refugees are still waiting

Asylum seekers are being inhumanely detained, under inhumane conditions. History repeats itself in more than one place.

Uma Venkata

Greece is across the Aegean Sea from Turkey, and five Greek islands bear about 20,000 refugees and migrants who have escaped conflict zones through Turkey. One island is Lesbos, which has a few refugee camps. One of those camps is Moria, a repurposed military facility built for a capacity of 3,100 refugees. Currently, it houses more than 8,500 refugees, most of whom come from Afghanistan, Iraq and Pakistan, but mostly Syria. 

Overcrowding on this scale may make the next details easier to expect, but I’m sure we’d never be able to understand the urgency entirely without having seen or smelled it ourselves. The ratio of persons to toilet is about 70:1 and the ratio of persons to shower is about 80:1. Raw sewage and the stench of unwashed bodies is the marker of Moria. Life is spent in line for food: people line up at 4 a.m. for breakfast at 8 a.m., at 9:30 a.m. for lunch at 1 p.m. and so on. Taking this environment and extremely strained medical resources into account, you can infer the causes and effects of going without food. 

These are just the tangible problems. Moria was meant to be a waystation for refugees to stay in for a few days between the harrowing journey between their home country and Europe. Refugees come to escape conflict — direct threats to their lives — in their home countries. They now remain in Moria for around 12 months, completely in the dark about their status with migration authorities and the future for themselves and their children. There are ethnic clashes, knife attacks, sexual assaults and suicide attempts among adults and children on an astronomical scale — all kinds of terror that living in filth, squalor and insecurity can sow. Paradoxically, many charitable NGOs have left the region in protest. 

Clearly, this is a problem that requires all hands on deck. Moria and others present humanitarian crises, for which wealthy hosts are responsible. I can already hear a counterargument: why help them when all they do is hurt each other? Isn’t that barbaric? Didn’t Amy Winehouse say she can’t help you if you won’t help yourself?

She did, and she was right. But that argument and others like it cannot withstand the logic test when they are applied to the refugee crisis. Obviously, not everyone commits these crimes, and it means the people on the receiving end need to be defended and processed even more urgently. The argument doesn’t work monetarily, either: the European Union gave Athens €1.6 billion ($1.8 billion) to fund refugees between 2015 and the end of 2018, and the EU anti-fraud agency is investigating the Greek government for financial mismanagement. Moria could have been in much better shape, had it received its allocated due.

This is shameful for all those who have and had the power to alleviate the pain of refugees, who would not be here if there weren’t something worse at home. 

Of course, an American can’t read this and forget our own demons. The same populist, xenophobic wave that sweeps Europe is present here as well, though we overwhelmingly tend to call those who seek safety in our country “migrants” instead of “refugees.” Like the Middle Eastern civilians who risk their and their children’s lives on lifeboats across the sea, Central Americans risk their lives on foot to seek asylum here. We have our own Moria in detention centers that separate children from parents and leave refugees stranded, should they be allowed in at all. 

Honor comes from what you do with your power for someone less powerful than you. Honor matters.