Geopolitics

Moria Voices: Where To Next After Migrant Camp Fire In Greece?

Testimony from Afghan and Somali migrants, as well as locals on Greek island of Lesbos, where Europe's largest migrant camp has burned to the ground, leaving 13,000 migrants without shelter.

A migrant family left without shelter on the Greek island of Lesbos
A migrant family left without shelter on the Greek island of Lesbos
Annalisa Camilli

LESBOS — "We are not animals," shouts a boy, as a policeman orders him to step back. Nearby a group of men pull a cart loaded with suitcases, and a little girl who had fallen asleep on the pile of bags. They have been on the road for three days and ask the officer where they should go. "We are hungry," says one in English. "Let us at least go to the village to buy some milk for our children. People may start dying here."

Thousands of people are huddled along the road that connects the city of Mytilene, on the island of Lesbos, with Moria, the largest refugee camp in Europe, which was destroyed by a fire during the night between Sep. 8 and 9. Police in riot gear prevent refugees from reaching the city, and have even fired tear gas at the refugees. A column of black smoke from a second fire continues to rise from what remains of Moria, and for hours a fire brigade helicopter flies low over the heads of the displaced. The late summer days are windy and weighed down by a sultry heat.

What remains of the slum and the detention center built in 2015 is a pile of ash, charred olive trees, the skeletons of tents and an acrid smell of coal and diesel. Inside the detention center, the heat bent the iron structures and deformed its metal sheets. It's the landscape of a bomb-out city. The day after the fire, the refugees returned in small groups to see what remained of what had been their home for months or even years. Some have tried to recover some personal items saved from the flames: gas cylinders, water bottles.

What will become of us?

Others just came to see what remains of the Moria camp, the slum-fort, a symbol of the tightening of European immigration policies since 2015. Hassan Mohammed wrapped a handkerchief around his head and mouth to protect himself from the sun and the coronavirus. "What will become of us?" he asks with a disoriented gaze, staring before the destroyed camp.

Even before the fire, Moria was certainly not a beautiful place: the shacks of the so-called olive grove had no access to running water or electricity and were surrounded by garbage. The tents, many of them handcrafted, were unsafe and inadequate, but now the situation is even more serious and the prospects uncertain.

The Moria camp left in ashes — Photo: Annalisa Camilli, Internazionale

A Somalia native, Mohammed lost his documents in the fire and fears that the asylum process may become even more complicated. For the past two days, he hasn't eaten, and was forced to sleep in a scrub field. "Volunteers distributed meals at first, but now no one has come for two days and we are hungry," he says. His concerns are also linked to the coronavirus because some Somali boys he shared his tent with tested positive for COVID-19. "They had no symptoms," he says.

Mohammed says that it was precisely the tensions linked with the health situation that triggered panic among the inhabitants of Moria, and may have led to the fire. In recent weeks, at least 35 people had tested positive for COVID-19 and had been put in quarantine, although the entire refugee camp had already been under lockdown for 179 days.

According to the Greek government, some residents allegedly started the fire to protest the situation in the camp during the very long lockdown. Government spokesman Stelios Petsas announced that the displaced people of Moria will not be transferred to the mainland, accusing them of having caused the fire: "Some people do not respect the country that is hosting them, it seems that they do not want to get a passport, nor a better life," he said.

The day before, some 400 unaccompanied minors were transferred to the mainland, but the government announced that all other displaced people will remain on the island, despite the camp being destroyed. They will be temporarily housed aboard three ships: two military vessels and a ferry that have yet to reach Lesbos.

The fear that the refugee camp will be rebuilt has also fueled the protests of the inhabitants of Lesbos. On September 10, they blocked all roads to access the center of the village of Moria. As they did last February, they used trucks, cars, rocks to block traffic and prevent government and non-government vehicles from reaching the refugees sleeping on the road and the destroyed detention center.

It's all been on our shoulders.

"We do not want the camp to be rebuilt," says Lefterios, one of the demonstrators at the checkpoint set up on the road that connects the town of Moria to the refugee camp. "In the last five years it has been all on our shoulders — now the time has come to evacuate the island."

Since January, a new law in Greece makes it even more difficult to obtain asylum, and the government led by Kyriakos Mitsotakis suspended transfers of asylum seekers from Greek islands to the mainland and revealed plans to build more refugee camps, making the situation even more unsustainable.

The Moria refugee camp was built in 2015 at the behest of the European Union as part of the European Agenda on Migration, which established that people arriving from Turkey by sea would remain here to only for a few days, to be identified before being brought to the mainland and relocated to other EU countries. In 2017, however, the resettlement program from Greece and Italy was suspended and the Greek islands were transformed into open-air prisons. Moria had ballooned to 13,000 people — six times more than its capacity. The pandemic merely revealed a situation that the indifference of European authorities had already brought to breaking point.

French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel pledged to welcome some 400 unaccompanied minors from the Greek islands. Protests have flared up across Europe to demand that the European Union help all the asylum seekers in Lesbos. However, concrete answers are slow to arrive and some fear that the transfer to the ships made available by the Greek government could fuel further protests and tensions.

Zainab Naderi, a 19-year-old Afghan, is preparing to spend her third consecutive night on the road. "We have lost hope," she says. Naderi has had a prosthetic leg since she was a child and can no longer sleep on the floor. She holds up her leg as an accusation against the authorities, who no longer care even for the most vulnerable. Next to her, sitting under an olive tree, there is another young woman with her four-year-old son. The child is lying silent and exhausted on a blanket, as the mother says softly: "He hasn't eaten in two days."

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Society

Harder Time: How Egypt Cuts Prisoner Communication With Loved Ones

Letters from inmates provide a crucial link with the outside world, and yet the process of sending and receiving them in Egyptian prisons is both arduous and arbitrary as an extra means of control.

Relatives speak with defendants during a trial in a Cairo court.

Nada Arafat

CAIRO – Abdelrahman ElGendy says letters were a crucial lifeline for him during the time he spent locked up in five different prisons between 2013 and 2020. "Letters were not only important, they literally saved my life," he says. "I was only living because I was looking forward to them from one visit to the next, and I would read them over until the paper became worn and torn."

Last month, the family of imprisoned software engineer and activist Alaa Abd El Fattah — who had been held in remand detention for over two years until his referral to emergency trial last week — announced it would take legal steps to ensure that Abd El Fattah is able to send letters to them following a period when prison authorities refused to allow him any correspondence.

According to the family, besides prison visits once a month, Abd El Fattah's letters are the only way they can gain assurance of his condition, and when his letters are denied, that in itself is an indicator that his treatment in detention is worsening. The numerous legal requests and official complaints by the family have been met only with silence by authorities.

While letters provide a crucial link between prisoners and the outside world, the process of sending and receiving them in Egyptian prisons is an arduous one as a result of arbitrary restrictions put in place by authorities.


Mada Masr spoke with a number of former prisoners about their relationship to letters during their incarceration and the way prison administrators constrained their right to send and receive correspondence.

Two letters per month

The law regulating Egypt's prisons and the Interior Ministry's prison bylaws stipulate that prisoners have a right to send out two letters per month and that prison administrators may allow more than two at their discretion. Prisoners are also legally entitled to receive letters.

Those sentenced to hard labor — a type of sentence that in practice usually entitles prisoners to fewer visits — are allowed to send one letter a week, and prisoners in remand detention technically have the right to exchange letters with family and friends at any time. However, in all cases, prison bylaws grant prison authorities the right to monitor, censor and refuse any correspondence sent and received , a power the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights deems a "violation to the personal freedom of prisoners, as it intrudes on their privacy."

A form of punishment

Prison authorities often restrict prisoner letters as a form of punishment, a measure that came under the spotlight when correspondence from Abd El Fattah to his family was arbitrarily cut off for an extended period last month.

Mohamed Fathy, a lawyer, says that Abd El Fattah's family pursued all possible legal procedures to push for allowing the exchange of letters with him, the last of which was a report submitted by the family to the Maadi District Court. This was preceded by an official notice through a court bailiff to the head of the Prisons Authority and telegraphs to the interior minister, Prisons Authority director and the superintendent of Maximum Security Wing 2 of Tora Prison Complex. Abd El Fattah's mother, Laila Soueif, also sent official requests to the superintendent on a daily basis.

Outside the gates of Tora Prison

Aside from the legal procedures, Soueif spent over a week waiting at the gates of Tora Prison Complex in the hope of receiving a letter from her son, a circumstance that gained particular urgency after Abd El Fattah signaled he was contemplating suicide during a detention renewal session in September.

This marked the second time that Abd El Fattah's family has embarked on a legal campaign in order to be granted their right to exchange letters with him. As the coronavirus pandemic first gripped the world in early 2020, the family went through a similar struggle after authorities halted all prison visitations as part of its COVID-19 restrictions.

During this period, letters became the principal form of communication between prisoners and the outside world. The Interior Ministry halted all prison visits from March until it reinstated them again in August 2020, though they were restricted to once a month.

Gendy, who was released from prison in January 2020, one month before the outbreak of the coronavirus in Egypt was officially announced, says that even in ordinary circumstances, letters were of vital importance since only direct family members are allowed visitation rights.

He says he used to give his family around 10 letters during every visit, addressed both to family and friends. "I used to keep an open letter to write to my mother about everything that was happening because the visitation time did not allow me to tell her all the details," he says.

Arbitrary restrictions

Even though the right to correspondence for prisoners is enshrined in the law, in reality, the process is an arduous one for both prisoners and their families due to the conditions of Egyptian prisons and arbitrary restrictions put in place by authorities, according to the accounts of several former prisoners.

It typically begins when the prison warden announces the visitation schedule for the following day. Prisoners hurry to pen letters before lights out, though some continue to write in the darkness. A prisoner who has a scheduled visit then gathers all the letters from his cellmates and hands them over to his visiting family members, who in turn give them to the rest of the prisoners' families outside, either in person or via WhatsApp if the family lives in another governorate.

In parallel, the families of prisoners who share a cell often create a WhatApp group to inform each other about visitation times. "Some families in nearby governorates send physical letters inside with the families that have scheduled visits. But those who live in remote governorates and who cannot afford to travel to the prison simply write letters and send pictures of them to the WhatsApp group," says Amgad Samir*, who was imprisoned for two years in Tora Prison Complex and was the facilitator for letter exchanges in his cell.

Marked in red

According to Samir, families would print out the letters sent via WhatsApp to deliver them to the prisoners, but the prison administration would sometimes not allow the entry of printed letters, so some families would volunteer to rewrite them by hand. "The sister of one of the detainees in Alexandria would rewrite dozens of letters in one day and would ask the children of some of the families to help her," Samir says. "Some families would send their letters with more than one person to make sure that at least one version made it inside."

Any letter being sent or received from prison is required to first be reviewed by the National Security Agency (NSA) officer stationed in the prison, who usually delegates a subordinate officer to read the letters before allowing them through or to "mark them in red," at which point the officer reads the letters himself to approve or deny them, according to Samir. After this screening phase is over, explains Samir, the officer hands over the letters to the mail facilitator, a designated prisoner, who then hands them out in the cell. "I would look at the faces of those who had letters sent to them, it was as if they had just been released," Samir says.

Khaled Dawoud, a journalist and the former head of the Dostour Party who was released from prison in April after nearly one and a half years behind bars, says that prison authorities tightly restrict prison correspondence. "Everything in prison is cracked down upon: food, clothes and even letters," Dawoud says.

According to Dawoud, the NSA officer in Tora Liman Prison, another maximum security facility in the complex, would sometimes force prisoners to rewrite their letters after redacting sections describing things like prison conditions, for example, to avoid them making it into the press or being circulated on social media.

Disseminating information about prison conditions can even lead to further prosecution, as was the case with imprisoned attorney Mohamed Ramadan in December 2020, when he was rotated into another case by the State Security Prosecution after he was ordered released on charges of "sending letters from prison with the intention of destabilization."

Photo of three women speaking with imprisoned defendants at a Cairo court

Relatives speaking with defendants at a Cairo court

Stringer/APA Images/ZUMA

Fear of being forgotten

Banning letters is a form of punishment and pressure that authorities deploy arbitrarily against prisoners, according to lawyer former detainee Mahienour al-Massry, who has spent time in prisons. She tells Mada Masr that following the reinstatement of prison visitations in August 2020, after they had been halted amid the coronavirus outbreak, the National Security officer in Qanater Women's Prison told her she had to choose between visitations and letter correspondence, but that she couldn't have both. Massry refused the ultimatum, and after negotiating with the officer, was eventually granted "exceptional" approval for both under the condition that she only send two letters a month.

"Even though letter correspondence from prison is a legal right that is non-negotiable, there were always negotiations and struggles about sending and receiving them, about how many letters were allowed, and about their content," she says. "Prisoners inside for criminal offenses were in a different situation from political prisoners. The latter had a chance to talk and negotiate, whereas the former did not."

Massry recalls a situation when the NSA officer in Qanater took back some letters that she had initially been allowed to receive. "He said, 'I don't have a reason. This was an order from the National Security Agency. You could try next time, maybe they will go through.' They are moody like that," Masry says. The letters were returned to the family, who then delivered them to Mahienour in a subsequent visit without any objections from the officer. Another time, a letter was confiscated because it had the term "son of a bitch," which the officer deemed "foul language."

Looking for something to say

During an earlier stint in prison in 2016 in Damanhour, Massry did not receive any letters for a month. When she went to the officer to inquire after them, she found that he had a pile of letters addressed to her on his desk. She says the officer simply told her: "Sorry, I didn't have time to go through them all."

After the coronavirus outbreak in March 2020, letters to and from prison were banned for two months in Tora Prison Complex while visitations continued to be suspended until August. During this period the prison was overwhelmed with letters, as they were often the only form of communication with detainees. According to Dawoud, the National Security officer was unable to go through hundreds of letters a day, even with the help of another officer. After long negotiations, the officer finally approved the sending of letters to and from prison under the condition they did not exceed two passages.

Dawoud says that he used his letters to simply reassure his family with brief sentences. "Sometimes I couldn't find anything to say because on the one hand, I can't speak about prison conditions, otherwise the letter would be confiscated; and on the other hand I couldn't talk about personal issues," he says.

Despite that, the short letters were enough for Dawoud to check in on his father, who was battling cancer and eventually died. "One sentence was enough for me to know that he was okay. It was enough for me to be reassured," he says.

News about COVID-19

In certain cases, letters have taken on additional importance beyond allowing families and prisoners to check in on each other.

Samir says he was able to help out a foreign cellmate who was charged in a criminal case without the authorities ever informing his consulate or assigning him a lawyer. Samir was able to tell his wife about this prisoner in a letter, but he made sure to use coded language in order to evade surveillance.

Samir would also use coded language to pass on information about COVID-19 in prison that would otherwise be flagged and confiscated by the NSA officer. "We replaced the word 'corona' with 'mosquitoes.' I would write that someone had been bitten by mosquitoes yesterday, and my sister would understand what that meant," he says.

Using this simple code, Samir was able to communicate the prison's coronavirus situation to the outside world until the officer realized that someone was passing along information and pressured him to confess. "I had two choices: either lie and say that there was a mobile phone in the room, or tell him the truth. I told the truth," he says. As punishment, he was not permitted to exchange letters for a period before the officer finally allowed it again.

"The importance of letters does not just lie in their content," Gendy says. "They are also a testament that people outside still remember you, because the fear of being forgotten is every prisoner's worst nightmare."

*Pseudonym


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