Clashes at Greek refugee camp leave hundreds of civilians displaced

AMMAN: Hundreds of Syrian refugees fled fighting between Arabs and Kurds at a major refugee camp on the Greek island of Lesbos this week and are now displaced, sheltering in temporary camps and afraid to return.

Around 950 primarily Kurdish refugees left the state-run Moria Camp since clashes broke out there on Friday, according to Doctors Without Borders (MSF).

Multiple narratives emerged about what sparked the clashes in Moria Camp on Friday, ranging from a conflict over fasting to an individual dispute over money. 

Yahya Buzan, a Syrian Kurdish refugee who fled the camp during the clashes, said some Arab camp residents attacked Kurdish residents with steel pipes and knives, killing four and wounding at least 14 others. Media reports varied widely on the number of casualties, with some sources reporting no deaths and between six and ten injured.

Syria Direct could not independently confirm the cause of Friday's clashes or the number of casualties.

At least 600 people who fled the Moria Camp, such as Buzan, remain displaced at one makeshift camp run by the NGO Humans for Humanity and 250 others are being temporarily cared for by the group Lesvos Solidarity, MSF officials on the island told Syria Direct on Thursday. The officials were not able to confirm whether any of the refugees have returned to Moria Camp since fleeing.

Displaced Moria Camp residents crowd into a temporary shelter on the island of Lesbos on May 30. Photo courtesy of Yahya Buzan.

Buzan said tensions between Arab and Kurdish camp residents have been high for some time, driven by friction over differences in religious adherence and accusations of Kurds’ sympathy for the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). Because Kurdish residents are outnumbered at Moria, Buzan says he and others now at the Humans for Humanity camp are extremely reluctant to return after the latest violence.

“We don’t want to return [to Moria], even though we’re facing pressure from Greek authorities,” said Buzan. He added that while police want to see the informal camps disbanded, “they are unable to provide another camp on the island.”

Responding to the exodus of people from Moria Camp, Lesbos mayor Spyros Galinos lashed out at the national government in Athens this week, posting an open letter on Twitter to Greece’s Minister for Migration Policy Dimitris Vitsas.

"I would like to express my utmost protest about the installation of the hundreds of asylum seekers in a private area," Galinos said, referring to the temporary shelters where fleeing Moria Camp residents are living. "Such unilateral actions without any information provided contradict ... the will of the local community.”

Faris Al Jawad, the communications manager for MSF in Greece, laid blame at the feet of authorities who have kept arrivals detained in Moria for up to two years, with little hope of a legal solution to their legal limbo on the horizon. He connected the latest outburst of violence to poor living conditions and pent up frustrations.

“These high tensions and frustrations are largely based on ... the government’s containment policy of forcing people into extremely inhumane conditions with overcrowding, lack of basic services, lack of privacy and sanitation,” he says. “These are all contributing factors.”

While Greece has appealed to the European Union for funding to build additional camps, monetary aid has been far outpaced by the stampede of new arrivals. With the conclusion of a landmark agreement in March 2016 between the EU and Turkey, new refugees arriving to the EU after that date have remained confined on six Greek islands, including Lesbos.

According to official figures, 11,133 new migrants and refugees have crossed the Mediterranean into Greece so far this year. More than 60 percent of new arrivals were women and children.

Correction: This report has been updated to reflect new narratives that emerged about what sparked the Moria clashes.

Barrett Limoges

Barrett Limoges is an investigative journalist who has reported from across the MENA region, his work appearing previously in Al Jazeera, Middle East Eye, PBS Newshour, Al-Monitor, Huffington Post and other publications. He studied journalism at the University of King's College and is currently pursuing a MA in Political Science at the American University of Beirut.

Media al-Kurdi

Media al-Kurdi is from the city of Qamishli in Al-Hasakah province. She relocated to Jordan in 2013 fleeing the war and the conditions in East Ghouta where she was residing. She studied English Literature and is trianing with Syria Direct because of her passion for journalism, and because she wanted to highlight voices overlooked inside of Syria.