Rule of silence
When an NGO volunteer at the Mavrovouni refugee camp on Lesvos, Greece, realized the food handouts had gone bad in the scorching summer heat, she knew there was no choice but to bring it up with the soldiers overseeing the distribution. The volunteer, who we will call Sarah, brought a rancid serving of bean and tomato soup to one of the soldiers and asked him to smell it. He refused and they started arguing. Word, and discontent, quickly spread among camp residents – some began to protest. It was May 2021; spurred by weeks of dissatisfaction with camp food, the situation quickly descended into chaos.
‘When the police arrived, they told me I would be going to the police station,’ said Sarah who did not want her real name published for fear of legal or professional consequences. ‘I asked them why and the officer said: “Because I’m police”.’ After being taken to the station in Mytilene, she was detained for nearly five hours and her phone was confiscated. During questioning, an officer accused Sarah of inciting a riot: ‘He told me if I ever did something like this again, I would be brought to the prosecutor in Athens.’
Three days after her release Sarah received the news that the police had banned her indefinitely and immediately from the refugee camp. A co-ordinator from Movement On The Ground, the NGO Sarah was volunteering with, later informed her that the police had asked the organization about her political beliefs.
On returning to work Sarah was treated like a liability. ‘They [the NGO] saw what she had done, I think, as endangering their position in the camp,’ said one former Movement volunteer who was familiar with the incident.
Sarah’s story is indicative of how Greek authorities have transformed the Mavrovouni refugee camp into a closely surveilled space where the flow of information, to say nothing of dissent, is tightly controlled and punished. As the authorities – both on Lesvos and elsewhere in Greece – continue to tighten their grip, aid workers have increasingly found themselves in a dilemma between accepting the strict, often objectionable, rules of the camp in order to continue critical humanitarian work or speaking out about the conditions.
Fear of retaliation from the Greek authorities – who have close to unilateral discretion in deciding who does and does not work in the camp – made it difficult to find NGO workers willing to speak on record.
According to multiple sources, some volunteers and workers have to sign non-disclosure agreements – with the NGOs they work for, as well as the camp authorities – which prevent them from publicly speaking about camp conditions both during and after their time there. However, it’s unclear how consistently this rule is enforced.
‘The consequence of this restriction of access for organizations is a de facto gag order,’ said a protection officer for a multinational NGO working on Lesvos. ‘NGOs working to provide essential services, such as medical aid or shelter, who have not been given official confirmation, have to be very careful. If they criticize the government or the authorities, they can be kicked out.’
In the months after Greek authorities banished Sarah, the clampdown at Mavrovouni camp became harsher. Authorities erected a three-metre-high concrete wall, in addition to the barbed wire fence that already surrounded it. According to aid volunteers there is now an increased police presence inside, with anti-riot squads on standby at entrances. Photographs, videos and audio recordings are strictly prohibited except with special authorization, and journalists are rarely allowed through the gates. Meanwhile, refugees can only leave on certain days and hours, with some exceptions for activities like work or studying.
‘There are always police here who say if you can leave or stay,’ said Ladi, a Congolese refugee. ‘I feel trapped here, like [in] jail. Sometimes the guards yell at us, call us names.’
Over the past decade, Greece has been one of Europe’s primary landing points for migrants crossing the Aegean Sea from Turkey. While the Greek government has emphasized that new camps, set to open in the coming years, will be ‘closed and controlled’, the European Union, which is funding their construction, has stood firm that they ‘are not going to be closed, because we do not detain people for being migrants’. In September 2021, the Greek government opened the first of its controversial, hyper-secure refugee camps on the island of Samos. The camps will be equipped with advanced surveillance, including perimeter alarms, entry/exit monitoring systems and a requirement for two distinct forms of identification to enable access.
Whether the measures in Mavrovouni were put in place primarily for camp safety or to further tighten control is an open question. It is certainly a far cry from Moria, the previous main refugee camp on Lesvos, where sexual assault and knife violence were commonplace. In September 2020, tensions simmered to a boil amid the appalling living conditions and the camp burned down in what was likely a deliberate act of arson.
As island locals’ animosity towards migrants steadily grows, refugee camps have increasingly become places to keep them far out of sight and mind. Several camp residents told New Internationalist they do now feel safer during the day, but when night falls many remain fearful. ‘Police are supposed to patrol the camp at night, but usually you just find them talking with their buddies instead,’ one NGO worker said. ‘Meanwhile, women move in groups to pee at night.’
In the wake of the Moria fire, there was a crackdown on NGOs working in Greek refugee camps as migration become an increasingly hot political topic. In early 2021, the Greek Ministry of Migration and Asylum implemented an obligatory registration system for all NGOs working in migration. Registration involves jumping through confusing and costly bureaucratic hoops which many smaller NGOs cannot afford. Requirements range from providing five years of detailed financial records to more subjective proofs of ‘efficiency’ and ‘quality’.
At the time of writing, there are just over 30 officially registered NGOs listed on the website of the Greek Ministry of Migration and Asylum. The hundreds of others therefore work in a legal grey area and can be expelled at a moment’s notice. The smaller NGOs that do manage to work within the camps either do so under the umbrella of larger organizations, such as Eurorelief, or through informal agreements with camp management.
Movement On The Ground and Eurorelief, two of the largest – and explicitly ‘non-political’ – NGOs working in the Mavrovouni camp say they get on well with the authorities, at least publicly. ‘From an operational perspective, we have a pretty good relationship with all other actors inside the camp, including the Greek authorities,’ said Kane Daniel, a ground co-ordinator for Movement.
The smaller and mid-sized operations New Internationalist spoke to saw things differently. For them, the constant threat of expulsion forces them to make difficult and often uncomfortable choices.
A small Lesvos-based NGO working inside the Mavrovouni camp reported that one of their volunteers had been temporarily expelled after police caught her taking photos and videos. A representative also recounted how police had deleted content directly off the phone of one of their lawyers.
Quitting in protest
As aid organizations working in refugee camps find themselves in an increasingly precarious position, some have decided to stop working in government-run camps altogether. One of the most well-known to take this path is Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), also known as Doctors Without Borders. While MSF originally decided to stop working in Greek refugee camps after the signing of the European Union-Turkey migration pact, Liza Papadimitriou, an MSF advocacy manager, told New Internationalist that it has stayed away in order to ‘maintain its independence’.
Lesvos Solidarity is another NGO that refuses to work inside Mavrovouni because of the tight grip of the authorities. ‘It is quite problematic that no one knows what’s going on inside,’ said Marianna Stamoulaki, the organization’s advocacy expert.
Even if Lesvos Solidarity did want to work inside the camp, Stamoulaki believes they wouldn’t be allowed. ‘Everyone is aware of everyone else’s politics,’ she said. ‘[Camp] management has this idea of “good” organizations and “bad” organizations, and, basically, bad organizations are those who [explicitly] disagree with the situation inside the camp.’
NGOs whom New Internationalist spoke with were familiar with Sarah’s case. But neither the situation nor Movement’s actions surprised them, considering the tight control that has come to define Greece’s migration policy.
‘There is always a constant balancing-act that organizations have to engage in,’ one long-time NGO worker put it. ‘What is the realm that you want to have an impact in? What compromises, or sacrifices, are you willing to make in order to be able to do that?’
Looking back now, Sarah sees what happened to her as just one piece in a much larger web of actors and politics. ‘Within this system solidarity is seen as a challenge to power,’ she reflected. ‘The Greek Government knows they’re handling the situation poorly, but they don’t want the information to get out – they don’t want anybody to know about it.’
Sebastian Skov Andersen is a freelance journalist and photographer covering protest movements, social justice and human rights. His work has appeared in the Guardian, Wired, and Vice World News.
Gabriel Geiger is a journalist covering surveillance, labour, and international news. He’s a weekly contributor for Vice Motherboard and an investigative retainer at Lighthouse Reports