The situation on the island of Lesvos was escalating towards the freezing of all transfers of refugees to the inland, after a government decision around September 2019, while in January 2020 a new law (4636/2019) regarding the political asylum and reception conditions was put into force, changing the essence of who is entitled to a transfer and a lifting of their geographical restriction, as well as the act itself.
The result of the above was the increase of the population at the Moria reception camp to unprecedented numbers, in January the refugees at Moria alone reached 20.000 (the reception centre has space for 3.000). At the same time, there were already frivolous and inflammatory statements regarding the “dark role” of some NGOs in the refugee crisis, while they directly implied that some NGOs act as traffickers and there was a reference to case files that have been archived and others that have been thrown out for lack of proof and which have caused an international outcry against Greece for penalizing solidarity.
The irresponsible government statements about “NGOs” also did not lack a reference to a case trial about falsified doctor papers in which individuals were involved and not members or people who work for NGOs, which has also not gone to trial. Meanwhile, from early January, all interviews for asylum by people who entered the country before the new year were cancelled in order to give priority to newcomers, something that meant a longer wait at the Moria reception camp for those people, whose transfers were put on hold.
On January 16-17th the situation escalated even more, with the mobilization of refugees because of the suicide of a young Iranian at the migrant detention centre in Lesvos, with a demonstration by women in the city centre who were protesting the humiliating conditions at the Moria reception camp and the confinement of the refugees to the islands. As a response, on January 22nd a strike was called across Lesvos by the Municipality and Prefecture, the main chant being: “We want our islands back, we want our lives back”.
On February 3rd 2020, a massive demonstration by refugees headed towards Mitilini in order to protest the conditions at the reception centre and the confinement of the refugees to the islands. While the governmental representatives publicly stated that the demonstration was instigated by “NGOs”, and the local media wondered “who taught” the refugees to write in simple English on their banners (“Sorry people of Lesvos” and “Moria no good”), the demonstration was met with repression by the police forces and a large mass of about five hundred people was led by those police forces towards the reception centre through the village of Moria.
This was the last straw for those already disgruntled, because of its close proximity to the reception centre, residents of Moria, who perceived the large group of people coming to their village as a threat. The village bells rang in alarm and the residents obstructed the demonstration of refugees, which was being pushed back by the police forces, from going through the village. After that, an assembly was called at the community building in the presence of the Regional Governor, which attracted far-right elements from all over the island. The climate create there, gave birth to pogrom groups and assault battalions by extreme elements. Simultaneously, the government representatives continued to make public statements that the refugee demonstration was instigated by NGOs, without any proof, with the obvious intent to avoid their own responsibilities, since what led to the refugees protest, is the overpopulation and the conditions at Moria camp.
That same night as well as the next three days in the village of Moria the assault battalions carried out pogroms, when youths in hoods, full-face masks, bats and batons patrolled the village in search of refugees and immigrants, chasing any foreigner they saw and even knocked on doors and houses checking on residents. Simultaneously, two blockades were set up by citizens at the entrance and exit of the village. At these blockades they stopped cars and pedestrians and depending on what they looked like they refused entry to immigrants, refugees and those working for NGOs, even if the latter permanently reside in the village. This blockade did not lack attacks on immigrants and NGO workers, international and domestic, while also warning those workers who lived in the village to leave.
On the night of February 4th 2020 in Moria there was an attack with rocks against a car belonging to an Italian volunteer, while there were many incidents where NGO workers in their cars were banned from entering as well as incidents of violence against them, with one Afghani man ending up in the hospital after being attacked by people of the Moria blockade. Late at night, about seven people with hoods, full-face masks and bats attacked a bar in the city centre, where NGO workers are known to hang out.
In the end, on February 7th 2020, 7 people belonging to the assault battalions were arrested, however the blockade at the village of Moria continues to exist to this day with a few hours gap during the day, while those workers, volunteers in NGOs and the solidarians who lived there, had to abandon their homes because of the threats and ultimatums by residents and assault battalions. There were also continuous attacks on the workers and vehicles of the Doctors without Borders who operate a clinic near Moria.
However, instead of the government choices aiming at deescalating the situation, they created more tension: despite the residents’ reactions, the government insisted on creating one more centre, a closed one this time, besides the existing one which already has 20.000 people for which there is no prospect of being transferred. In order to proceed with the construction they appropriated the area of Karavas in western Lesvos and sent riot police forces from Athens on February 24th 2020 in order to guard the construction of the new enclosed centre. But two days later and after the reaction of the residents, the police forces were withdrawn. The day after they were withdrawn, February 27th 2020, there were dozens of calls through social media to kick out the “NGOs” and the refugees.
On February 27th 2020 there was a vicious attack by a group of about twenty people on a rented car with two young volunteers from a foreign organization, outside the Regional Government building and another worker from a foreign organization was threatened with a knife. There were attacks on refugees who went through the village of Moria on their own by a large group of masked up people. There were also three more attacks in the city centre against volunteers as well as an attack at a tavern in the village, against students who looked like the worked for “NGOs”.
This was followed by the announcements of Erdogan on February 28th 2020 about the refugee crisis, which were immediately accompanied by an increase in arrivals to Lesvos, so the situation got out of hand: on Sunday March 1st 2020, besides the tragic images from Thermi harbour that were publicized, where residents attacked a refugee boat, not letting them disembark to the beach, there were also blockades set up by residents at the entrance (Panagiouda) and exit (Larso) of the Moria camp, as well as Lambou Mills, Sikamia, Thermi, Kalloni, Loutra and the electricity company near the beginning of the city of Mitilini. The latter ones, mainly the one at the electricity company, comprised of more than a hundred extreme elements with hoods, bats and rocks, openly targeted the workers of humanitarian aid and the members of the community who stand in solidarity with the refugees, stoning and smashing cars, checking id cards and asking “are you NGO”, completely destroying cars and vans belonging to NGOs, cars and vans with foreign licence plates (mainly from the EU), as well as rental cars (the local car rental companies even raised this issue).
Volunteers who were giving out food at the Kara Tepe camp were attacked and their vehicles were completely destroyed by a group of about two hundred people that same night.
In Thermi, a group of thirty people with bats attacked workers and volunteers of foreign NGOs and smashed up their vehicles.
The centre Stage 2 in Sikamia was torched by residents while on many beaches there were masked up people patrolling in order to prevent boats of refugees from coming ashore.
Throughout the night, at various spots inside and outside the city they vandalized cars and attacked easy targets who looked like volunteers or NGO workers, or those in solidarity to refugees, they even tried to attack a rescue boat. Numerous cars were vandalized, especially those belonging to rental companies and those with foreign licence plates, particularly from the EU.
On Monday, March 2nd 2020, the attacks and blockades continued: many organizations, mainly from abroad, withdrew their volunteers, who left with a boat that afternoon.
At Loutro, a large group of people attacked a rescue boat belonging to a foreign organization which docked at the marina, while the crew was onboard, and even poured gasoline on the deck, almost setting it alight. The boat had to spend the night away from port. The vandalism of cars continued throughout the night.
It should be noted that on Sunday March 1st and Monday March 2nd, from about 7pm until late, the blockade at the electricity company, called on far-right pages and social media and consisted of more than a hundred extremists in hoods, bats and rocks, terrorized and attacked every pedestrian or car that passed by, causing damages on countless passing cars. Despite the repeated pleads of the victims and they neighbours who had called the police.
On March 5th, members of the neo-nazi “Identity Movement” (Identitäre Bewegung Deutschland) arrived in Lesvos in order to, according to their statements, help the locals in their struggle against the refugees and immigrants, and left a few days later. That same day, a rescue boat belonging to a foreign organization was blocked from approaching the port of Mitilini to refuel by a group of twenty people, despite the pleads by the crew to the coast guard and police.
The attacks against human rights organizations, against workers in humanitarian aid and against those residents who have actually majorly contributed to the system for managing the refugee crisis which the state could not completely take on, since tolerance as well as the cultivation of intolerance towards solidarity and the tolerance of lawlessness, vandalism and attacks which are racially motivated are, beyond the proof of the collapse of the rule of law, obvious signs of social collapse and political decline.
It is the government’s responsibility to take the necessary measures in order to maintain legality, in order to ensure the protection of all people from manifestations and acts of violence, targeting and racism, instead of inciting the climate of hate and lawlessness with irresponsible and frivolous statements that are made for communication purposes and to avoid those same responsibilities regarding the managing of the refugee and migrant crisis so far, mainly in the North Aegean.