Graveyards of Human Rights: some thoughts on the refugee camps on Lesvos in light of the UNHCR’s 70th anniversary

Cases of sexual violence inside refugee camps are often presented as if they were tragic accidents, or natural and isolated events. However, sexual violence is endemic to refugee camps and it has escalated over time. Despite these facts, evidence and warnings, refugee populations are systematically abandoned into structurally harmful environments which not only allow, but also create the conditions for such atrocious acts of violence to take place.

By Dr. Evgenia Iliadou and Dr. Theofanis Exadaktylos, the University of Surrey. Photo: Yousif Al Shewaili/ Oxfam

The UNHCR celebrated its 70th anniversary on 14 December 2020. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Filippo Grandi, published a reflective valuation of the challenges the agency has faced and the work it has accomplished in managing various humanitarian crises and forced displacements in its 70 years of operation, commenting:

“If warring parties would agree ceasefires, if displaced people could return home safely, if governments shared the responsibility of resettlement, if states would keep to their obligations under international law regarding asylum and the principle of non-refoulement – not sending those who have fled threats to their lives back to where they came from – then we at UNHCR would have much less to worry about.”  

Just one day later, on 15 December 2020, a 3-year-old Afghan girl was found semi-conscious and bleeding in the lavatory inside the so-called ‘Moria 2.0’ refugee camp at Kara Tepe on Lesvos. The child was transferred to the hospital, where doctors confirmed traces of rape. This case happened a few days after four police officers were suspended following the emergence of footage showing them brutally beating refugees outside the same camp. The aforementioned cases are indicative examples of the multiple forms of violence that refugee populations are experiencing on Lesvos five years after the so-called refugee crisis.

Appalling, inhumane, degrading and structurally violent conditions

The new facility that was established in the aftermath of the fires in September 2020 destroyed the previous camp. It was set up as a temporary camp with the expectation of a new facility to be established that would guarantee and safeguard human rights and dignity. Yet, three months on, ‘Moria 2.0’ is no different to its predecessor. Set on a former military shooting ground, disposed remains of small arms and ammunition also present risks of lead poisoning. Reports from various human rights organisations, journalists and activists have systematically highlighted the appalling, inhumane, degrading and structurally violent conditions, under which refugees are forced to live. A recent OXFAM report emphasised that the new camp is even worse than the original one, commenting:

“The tents lack a solid foundation and provide no protection against the weather including against strong sea winds and rain. Food is only provided once or twice per day, and according to residents, there is not enough, and it is of bad quality. Due to the lack of running water, many people wash themselves in the sea—this is particularly risky for children who could drown or get infected by wastewater from the camp. Due to the lack of toilets and showers as well as insufficient lighting in the new camp, women are exposed to increased risks of sexual and gender-based violence.”

Sexual violence on Lesvos

Sexual violence inside and around state-run refugee camps on Lesvos has intensified and deteriorated by exacerbating trauma and inflicting more harm: during previous research fieldwork by Dr Iliadou between 2016 and 2017 on Lesvos, an unaccompanied minor boy was gang raped inside the so-called safe zone in Moria.

During the same period, another minor boy was repeatedly raped by an adult man inside the Kara Tepe municipality camp for families and vulnerable populations. International and Non-Governmental Organisations operating in the field have been warning for years for the escalation of sexual violence inside and around Moria by also noting that the degrading, inhumane, and life-threatening conditions inside refugee camps are further harming the already vulnerable refugee populations, increasing the risk of death.

Cases of sexual violence inside refugee camps that come to prominence are often presented as if they were tragic accidents or natural and isolated events. However, sexual violence is endemic to refugee camps and it has escalated over time. Despite these facts, evidence and warnings, refugee populations are systematically abandoned into structurally harmful environments that not only allow, but also create the conditions for such atrocious acts of violence to take place.

The Greek Prison Islands

Since 2015, multiple and multilateral policies and practices have been enforced at EU, national and local levels as a response to an ostensibly unforeseen and unpreventable humanitarian crisis. To name a few: the hotspot approach, the EU-Turkey Statement and the geographical restriction of refugee populations’ autonomy of movement; they have directly impacted refugee populations which are immobilised on the Greek islands and notably on Lesvos.

Those policies and practices were implemented in the name of humanitarianism, public order and responsibility to protect. At the same time they brought an overwhelming proliferation, securitisation and militarisation of the Southern European borders, leading many different European actors to intervene on Lesvos, such as EASO, Europol, Frontex and Eurojust, alongside other international military and humanitarian actors, ranging from NATO to the UNHCR and IOM, as well as a number of NGOs.

However, even though these interventions were presumably enforced in order to protect lives and alleviate human suffering, in practice they exacerbated harm by turning the Greek islands—and particularly Lesvos—into a securitised and militarised space, into a Prison Island.

Failing to guarantee and safeguard human rights

Arguably, the UNHCR is one of the key actors which, since 2015, have played a crucial role in managing an unprecedented humanitarian challenge inside Moria’s hotspot as an overseeing organisation, and now in Moria 2.0 and in the new closed detention facility which will operate on Lesvos. But the UNHCR has a longer history on Lesvos having overview of the establishment of the screening centres following the Pagani closed detention centre disaster in 2010 and the grave violation of human rights there.

Despite this important work, decades of unsuccessful policies and practices and the perpetuation of unsuitable sites of refugee accommodation have not produced the positive change expected. Everyday life in the camps is systematically synonymous to cruel and inhumane treatment; the dignity and human rights of people seeking sanctuary in Europe, including that of children, cannot be guaranteed and safeguarded. Refugee camps, such as ‘Moria 2.0’, have become sites of social suffering; mammoth graveyards of human rights instead of safe-havens.

Hence, it is the ethical challenge the UNHCR should reflect on in light of its 70th anniversary: to what extent can the High Commission revisit its role and involvement in these graveyards of human rights? And as a result, how can it stop the perpetuation of human suffering inside the refugee camps and champion an ethical approach within EU policies?