No One Is Illegal – a Night in Moria

It’s not about who they are, where they are on the sliding scale of human desperation and legitimacy, but who this makes us. Who we are is defined by this.

by Benjamin Gow

Any time you say you’re going to Moria to someone who doesn’t know they look at you, as if to say “did you mean that place in Middle Earth?” It is an ominous name that swirls around on the edge of my mind, mixing brutal facts with grim fictitious overtones from Lord of the Rings.

It is a place where a razor wire topped high fence rings a detention centre, now converted into the first hotspot registration point in Greece, which uncannily resonates with the imaginary abandoned dwarf city –

where Moria means Black Chasm.

Moria Camp, Lesvos, January 2016, Benjamin Gow

Our Moria, the real Moria, is the place that earned itself a reputation as the worst refugee camp in the world, and yet, however harsh the complex is, it’s overshadowed by the depravity of the hillside beyond its walls. Here is where the fragile hope that dared to breathe on the shores in the north gets crushed by confused bureaucracy, resistant in its heart to face the truth that death is circling the perimeter.

Six weeks ago I was at Moria and this week I returned again. Such a mix of emotions, and thoughts, blasted through my head. I have been to Africa, and India, and the awful conditions remind me of third world slums I’ve seen, except this one is right here on our doorstep. In the summer I saw the toilets spilling over, people standing ankle deep in mud at the one stand pipe trying to wash themselves, I watched them wrap wet clothes around sticks over fires to dry them. I was mobbed by hungry people as I gave out oranges.

Moria Camp, Lesvos, January 2016, Benjamin Gow 4

On the other hand, I also saw what had changed from when I was last here, and how now it’s become a sort of civilisation on its own. The tea tent that was a tarpaulin on sticks is now a fully functional, and beautifully decorated, hut; with stone pathways carefully laid leading to and from the rest of the tents. A medical tent has doctors on shift throughout the night, tirelessly looking after each patient; and now has “rooms” to evaluate each one privately.

Small pockets of human dignity and relief that have sprung up give me faith in us, as human beings

Yet, when I turned a corner I saw literally 100s of families, men, women and children, huddling together around fires, burning plastic to keep warm and sharing sleeping bags to cling onto what little warmth it gave them. Even with the tents set up for sleeping, there are just too few and so many people have to sleep on a solid, cold and wet ground.

Moria Camp, Lesvos, January 2016, Benjamin Gow 6I slept out one night while walking 800km across Spain, I thought it would be a boy’s own adventure. It was a new and scary experience. The idea of being completely vulnerable to the elements, something so out of your control, is the feeling of true uncertainty. All you can do is hope, hope that the forces of nature look kindly on you each day.

I did it once, in the summer, absurdly I slept on a camomile lawn, and I knew that I could get a bed, and a shower, something to eat, a lot to eat, and had a home to go to, yet I was still insecure. Imagine what it feels like to find yourself on a concrete forecourt, shut outside double gates; or on the side of a hill where thousands of people have found themselves before you. With just the open air as a toilet, where the rain washes that down into where you are sleeping as the ground turns to mud. Where there’s too little information, and it changes, the official help abandons the area as the sun sets, and your fate hangs in the balance. Handled by a faceless authority, guarded by an unpredictable police presence with tear gas and batons.

Moria Camp, Lesvos, January 2016, Benjamin Gow 8

You are also part of a two tier system based on an accident of birth. To handle the administration, Frontex currently defines Syrians, Iraqis and Afghanis as refugees automatically, everyone else is on a case-by-case basis.

I met one Moroccan man who told me he had been waiting here 10 days, and will have to continue to indefinitely until they begin registration for his people.

For the first time since I’ve been here I felt useless.

I could do nothing to help him continue his journey. I couldn’t register him myself, or point him in the right direction. All I could do was shrug, and say: “I’m sorry, they will register you soon, hopefully.”

I hope I hid the defeat I felt inside. I’m so used to being able to help people at the beaches. Do you have wet socks and trousers? I have a new dry pair in the car, follow me. Not feeling well or have an injury? take my hand there is a doctor over here. Are you cold from the wind? Let me wrap this emergency blanket around you.

Yet, at that moment, I could do nothing.

Moria Camp, Lesvos, January 2016, Benjamin Gow 2As we where leaving that evening, I saw this graffiti on the wall “No One is Illegal,” and I thought that was a positive thing to show so many of us here wish the refugees the best. However when I stepped back to move on I saw the whole scene.

I saw a lone woman sleeping at the foot of a concrete wall, underneath the graffiti, with a garbage bin next to her.

We can all think and say nice and encouraging things, but this is the reality – even when the words are literally written above us.

We are staring onto that “Black Chasm”. This crisis is happening whether we accept it or not, the only difference will be how many people we kill with our cruel apathy, in our bungled administration of it.

It’s not about who they are, where they are on the sliding scale of human desperation and legitimacy, but who this makes us. Who we are is defined by this.

Moria Camp, Lesvos, January 2016, Benjamin Gow 7

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