An Interview with Thomas Osten-Sacken, managing director at Wadi, about the situation in Moria, Lesvos
By Daniel Benyamin, 21.06.2020
Since the beginning of March, Thomas has been on the Greek island of Lesvos, in the refugee camp Moria. There, he has been supporting a local initiative called “Stand By Me Lesvos“.
Daniel: Hello Thomas! It is really nice that you have found time to speak with me. I have heard that Greece came through the COVID-19 pandemics pretty well. Is that true?
Thomas: The Greeks handled it much better than expected. It is an extremely poor country, still suffering the consequences of the 2012 crisis. Then, there is this crazy situation with the “hotspots“. An island like Lesvos with its own population of 100,000 pople and 24,000 refugees was absolutely unequipped to face the coronavirus crisis. There are 6 quarantine beds on the whole island. If the coronavirus seriously had spread, it would have been a disaster.
Daniel: How did you manage to keep the virus out of the refugee camp Moria?
Thomas: Well, now we are in the second phase. When I came here in the beginning of March, nothing was done. Nobody heard anything about the virus. These hotspots are a European problem and Europe basically left ten thousand people in such a precarious situation totally unprepared and with no support.
At that point international organisations and Greek state websites had barely any information on the measures against the corona virus. Two months later, the things started getting more or less normal in Greece again, although the virus did enter the island. People say that the bigger part of efforts done to contain the spreading of the virus in the refugee camp were done by the Greek local organizations like “Stand By Me Lesvos“, which we have been supporting.
Daniel: You have been working 30 years in different refugee camps and surely have observed many devastating situations. How does the situation at Moria compare?
Thomas: First and foremost: Moria is not a refugee camp. If it was one, the conditions would be much better. This is a so-called hotspot, originally built to house 1,600 soldiers and later restructured to accommodate 3,000 refugees. Currently, 20,000 refugees are living here without sufficient water, electricity, or sanitation. There is neither a proper health care, nor medical or psychological services in place. There are no security measures either. Many people have already been waiting between 16 months and 2 years to be granted asylum. A legitimate refugee camp would have to guarantee all of these basic things, including food and lodging, to asylum seekers. Nothing is here. What is here is absolute chaos. Since 1991 I have served as a director of the Wadi organisation mostly in the Middle East. So, it means something when I say that I haven’t seen anything like his before.
Daniel:What happens to the donations received by “Stand by me Lesvos“? How is the collected money used to support your work?
Thomas: Under regular conditions, we provide education opportunities in different areas: literacy, women’s rights, self-help tools for coping after experiencing violence, and education for girls and women. But during the corona crisis we also had to undertake completely new tasks in the area of crisis management, simply because there was nothing of this sort in place. Refugees came to us and asked for help. They said: “We know that the virus is very dangerous but we have no idea how we should protect ourselves.“ So, this is when we helped them to found the Moria Corona Awareness Team and the Moria White Helmets. We also printed posters and found a couple of megaphones, so that they could inform people about the virus.
How not to get infected in a place where the simplest corona rules are impossible to follow. Social distancing is a joke: 5,000 packed like sardines people are waiting in line three times a day to get some food.
This is actually pure hypocrisy: how not to get infected in a place where the simplest corona rules are impossible to follow. Social distancing is a joke: 5,000 packed like sardines people are waiting in line three times a day to get some food. In case you feel sick, how are you supposed to isolate yourself in a tent where you live with 15 people? Stay home! And where is home? These refugees found out that protesting is not helpful when there is no drinking water. That is why we built waterholes. Then, they posed a new question of how to dispose of garbage. Many think that Arabs and Afghans are dirty because they see photos from refugee camps engulfed in rubbish. But the real reason is that there is no infrastructure to collect and dispose garbage. So, we helped to put a system in place, for the local population to see that refugees can help themselves.
Plastic bottle recycling
Now, we are launching new projects to fix the mismanagement. Practically, each area is a mess and the problem is not the money but the absence of the structure in place that would secure the very essential human needs. Big organisations collect millions but barely have any impact because they do not set up structures on the ground. Refugees need help in self-organisation and opportunities to be heard and to speak for themselves, that is why it was very important to us to show them how to film and articulate themselves and how to give interviews to the press, BBC, newspapers, etc. Suddenly they were not refugees but engineers, doctors, real people with an occupation and an opinion.
Then, there was this other problem with mosquitoes that we helped to solve. Such small problems can escalate very quickly in the given circumstances and become big problems. The camp management distributes water in plastic bottles, so there is a huge amount of unattended garbage that is simply piling up. As a response, we have started another project: in exchange for 10 plastic bottles one gets a bottle of cooled water. Children love this project. They gather bottles and bring them back to us. Now, we are planing a new school, and First Aid Courses, because, as I have already said, there is no security and no medical help services provided.
Refugee don’t have any security at Moria. They can be raped at night or killed. There are no police at night. They are standing in a line to the toilet or to get food and are living in tents.
A very big issue is that refugees are particularly exposed to violence, which usually erupts in the emergencies like this one. People get assaulted, even attacked with knives, so they really need to learn self-help techniques after situations like these. This is an enormous challenge for those who have nowhere to go and find protection, no door to knock at and no hope for help from the outside world.
Fire department shows refugees in the camp how to extinguish fire and it is another example of how the cooperation between the local and the refugees can solve problems and should not necessarily involve international helpers. The problem with the outsiders now is that they come and are potential coronavirus transmitters.
Apart from this work, we are a Greek organisation which also helps the poorest here on the island. We provide the elderly, sick, Roma, who are as well at the very bottom of the social hierarchy, with the essentials. The whole island is in a precarious situation and it is important for us to say that we are all in this together and I think that this was understood by the Greek authorities. Last month, Greeks and refugees cleaned the beaches together and prepared them for summer. The photos of them working together are very striking and important.
Daniel: Yes, truly! Back to the politics, it is a joke that Germany has decided to take in 50 children from the Greek migrant camps. The EU is silent, stays out of the problem, and lets the refugees face their plight on their own. How do you deal with current politics?
Thomas: Politics is a simple thing. Hannah Arendt, who I deeply admire, once said that if criminals in prisons are treated better than refugees you face a systemic problem. And she was right. It is all about rights. I as a refugee don’t have any security at Moria. I can be raped at night or killed. There are no police. I am standing in a line to the toilet or to get food and I am living in a tent. But if I murder someone, I enter a legal frame. As a consequence, I can get food three times a day, a real lodging, and a lawyer. This is a reality. My only crime was to flee home and seek asylum.
Here is the problem with corona: the sick and the old are the ones in danger. Why are we talking about children? This has been the case long before the corona crisis. I have always criticized the publicising of photos of 6 or 7-year-olds. An aid organization cannot simply release a photo of a 7-year-old child and say “we should take children away from the island“. 40% of people living on the island are minors who obviously did not come alone from Afghanistan but with their parents. We should be talking about those between 12 and 18 years old who did come alone and who really have a problem. These traumatized and sexually abused teenagers are being recruited here at Moria by the mafia. In a place with 30,000 people mafia structures are evolving which rely on the minors who are not indictable. This is why they become gang members. That is why we should take them first away from the island and not only little children whose pictures are more useful for NGOs.
Moreover, 50 children is really nothing. A huge media show for nothing. Greece has just re-located 2,400 of the most vulnerable from the island to the mainland. Let us not forget that Greece is a poor country. Moria is a European problem, however, Greece has done more that the entire European Union. 50 is a joke, really. How can it be that Germany can fly 200,000 tourists back home but they are not able to evacuate a couple of old and sick people from Moria?
Daniel: This is absurd and hurtful. What are your aims for the next months?
Thomas: Big solutions are needed. For example, there is not enough water on this island to provide all those living in the camp. This means that we have to think about a long-term solution and extend the water supply network by restructuring and installing new pipe lines outside the camp. The result would be constantly available running water.
Daniel: These are big plans, indeed. How about us? What we as individuals can do, apart from donating money?
Thomas: German politicians tell the media that the situation at Moria is shameful. At the same time they do not manage at least to answer the letters sent to them by refugees of Moria. German politicians are simply doing nothing. The whole thing is not just human rights abuse in plain sight, but a political scandal. What these people need is not compassion but that their demands will be met.
I want to thank you all for your donations. “Stand by me Lesvos” started all these activities in March with 600 euros in its account. Now, thank to your contributions, we can invest over 30,000 euros towards refugee relief.
Daniel Benyamin, who is a musician and has just released a new album and donated a part of the profits towards the work of the initiative “Stand By Me Lesvos” .
This interview was translated from German Masha Pryven