Until recently, Moria was a name associated only with a picturesque village on the island of Lesvos. In recent years, however, the name has come to represent another, more sinister reality, evoked here in photographs and videos.
Moria is now the largest migrant camp in Europe. Built to have room for 3,000 people, as of January 2020 the main facility and its surrounding fields house more than 19,000 migrants from countries across Asia and Africa. In the world’s media, it has been described as “the worst refugee camp on earth” or the “Guantanamo of Europe”. Since 2015 it has been designated a European Union “hotspot”, used for registration and asylum application as well as detention. In autumn 2019, the Greek government announced its intention to eliminate the Moria Camp and replace it with a closed detention facility.
Inside Moria today, people live in overcrowded conditions, mostly in tents and makeshift shelters that lack any facilities. However, Moria has also become a testament to migrants’ resilience and ingenuity, and a site of protest.
The Sun, At Last
In the second half of 2019, the population of the Moria Camp doubled in size, approaching 20,000. In the hills all around the main center, impromptu huts and tents were constructed, mostly by migrants themselves, recycling whatever materials they could find nearby. The electricity grid could not cope with the expansion and most people had to find firewood for heating and cooking. After weeks of stormy weather, a sunny day allowed thousands of children to come out and play, and adults to forage for wood. This soundscape is dominated by children’s voices and the sound of the wood axe falling on olive trees.
This is the main entrance to the Moria registration, processing and detention center on Lesvos. Soon after this photo was taken, the solidarity graffiti was whitewashed and replaced by insignia and information panels of the European Union and other authorities. Every migrant who crosses from Turkey to Lesvos in order to reach the European Union has to go through this gate upon arrival. Most are trapped on the island for many months or years, waiting for their asylum applications to be processed.
The Moria Camp was originally built as a Greek Army training center for conscripts. It is now an EU-funded registration, processing, and detention center (or “hotspot” in EU terminology). This history and temporal depth is present in this photo, showing the old barbed wire of the training center overlaid by and entangled with the recent, EU-funded technology of razor wire, a much more dangerous and threatening device.
Part of the fence at the rear of Moria Camp, which is mostly inaccessible to media cameras, has been breached to allow access and egress. Like other border localities, Moria is also a global stage, visited by politicians, religious leaders, and celebrities. But its complexity often escapes cursory media attention.
In recent years, as the number of border crossers expanded beyond the camp’s intended capacity, a large tent settlement grew outside and all around the main Moria fence and amidst olive trees. The first such overflow sector was called The Olive Grove but migrants from Afghanistan call this area The Jungle.
A Middle Eastern, sunken bread oven (tanur), built immediately outside Moria Camp by a family from Afghanistan, using mud-bricks and cement. There are now dozens of such ovens and some have grown to become small bakeries serving the needs of large sectors of the Moria population. Even in such a transient space, making proper bread is vital.
We See You
Migrants from South Asia protesting at the Moria registration and detention camp, a few days after the “EU-Turkey deal” was signed, trapping migrants on the island and requiring that, with some exceptions, asylum applications would need to be processed there.
Photographing humans in such contexts is ethically troubling. As a principle, we have only photographed people who have themselves invited us to do so, in protests, for example, as in this case.
Camping in Europe
In Moria, ship container-style, prefabricated units which migrants call ISO Boxes, shared between two or more families, coexist with large tents supplied by the UN and other organizations and with smaller, camping holiday-style tents.
The residents of Moria Camp have to wait in food lines, sometimes for hours, three times a day. They are served food prepared by a catering company, “food for ill people”, as one migrant described it to us: bland and tasteless. Many migrants have found ways of procuring and cooking their own food, often collectively and in groups formed for this purpose.
Filmed at the hills above Moria registration and detention center, cicadas and migrants from central Africa, currently residents in Moria, chant in the summer heat. The nearby fields offer refuge from the squalor and overcrowding of the camp. They also act as open-air shrines and places of worship. Migrants have been inventive in finding localities that can serve their religious needs. A large tent serves as a mosque inside Moria Camp, Coptic Christians from East Africa have used and modified Greek Orthodox churches nearby (with the consent of the local communities), and Evangelical churches have recently opened branches on Lesvos.
Our Gaze, Their Glance
Since 2015, many photo-journalists and researchers have documented border crossing in the Mediterranean. Migrants themselves – including journalists amongst them – have also documented their lives and surroundings but such images rarely reach wide audiences.
This section exhibits photographs taken in the Moria Camp on Lesvos by teenagers from Afghanistan who are being trained in photography by “Re-focus Media Labs”, an NGO active on Lesvos. The photos were taken in the summer and autumn of 2019, using the instant camera that is exhibited here. The envelope in which they traveled to Providence is also shown. The prompt given to the participants was to record photographically things and spaces that best represent Moria to them.
These photos evoke intimacy, close proximity, even crowdedness. The photographers have glanced at their immediate, lived-through surroundings, and at the banal objects and routines that shape their daily existence. Taken close-up, and in the midst of extremely difficult conditions, they convey a sense of migrant life in the camp marked by ingenuity, self-respect, and hope.
Photo Gallery – Click to Enlarge