News | Southeastern Europe - Greece The Unknown Dead of Lesbos

Four years after the Moria fire, the next generation of refugee camps is developing on Lesbos — with prison-like conditions


A ceremony at the refugee cemetery near the village Kato Trito on the island of Lesbos, 17 April 2024.
A ceremony at the refugee cemetery near the village Kato Trito on the island of Lesbos, 17 April 2024. Photo: Hibai Arbide Aza

To the upper left of the grave’s edging, there is a number: 197. Beside it, a small stone tablet has been set into the grey concrete. The stark inscription reads: “ΑΓΝΩΣΤΟΣ — UNKOWN”. Nameless corpses occupy most of the graves in the refugee cemetery on the Greek island of Lesbos. They were washed up on the beach or perished in the refugee camps of Moria and Kara Tepe. The smaller graves are those of children. The 198th person has just been buried; a small mound of loose earth lies above the grave.

Boris Kanzleiter directs the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation’s Athens Office.

Lesbos in April 2024: the Greek island off the coast of Turkey, which can be clearly seen from the beach, has long been absent from the headlines. In the years following the “long summer of migration” nine years ago, when hundreds of thousands of refugees from the war zones in Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan attempted to make their way to an supposedly safe Europe by passing through Turkey, Lesbos was a symbol of the European Union’s closed borders policy. At the time, the giant camp in Moria was the largest refugee camp in Europe. Here, up to 20,000 people were crammed into tents behind barbed wire. The living conditions were inhumane.

The camp burned down in September 2020. Since then, the media has gone quiet about Lesbos. The cemetery in the olive grove near the village of Kato Tritos had long been littered with scrap metal, bottles, and plastic waste. Scrub grew rampant over the site. The forlorn and unknown dead have no family or friends on Lesbos who could tend to their graves. They died on their way to Europe, from Afghanistan, Syria, Nigeria.

No one else was going to look after the cemetery, which is unknown to many of the island’s inhabitants. The initiative to finally arrange the refugee cemetery in a dignified manner was the initiative of a non-governmental organization. It received support from the German association Armut und Gesundheit (Poverty and Health), led by Gerhard Trabert, one of the four leading candidates for Die Linke in the coming European elections.

The doctor and professor of social medicine and social psychiatry also came to the opening ceremony. In his speech to the assembled mourners he spoke of the “shame” that Europe was bringing upon itself at its external borders every day. He thanked the people on Lesbos who have put work into maintaining the graveyard. Helping refugees is a risk here — even dead refugees. A broken plaque, destroyed two days before the ceremony, testifies to this.

“At Least a Humane Burial”

Nilab Taufiq also came from Germany to visit the cemetery at Kato Tritos. The young woman herself fled Afghanistan for Germany and knows the bitterness of life as a refugee. She has spent years campaigning for the rights of those who have fled, for freedom, and for justice. “There are thousands of organizations around the world that are dedicated to saving lives,” she says into the microphone, set up to one side of the graves. “But in these times of war, personally I have come to understand that a dignified death — or at least, a humane burial — are just as important.”

In conversations with representatives from local and international human rights organizations, it quickly becomes clear that refugees continue to suffer. There are severe human rights violations taking place on Lesbos in full view of the European Union, and these must be brought to the attention of the public. However, activists are very careful about what they say, fearing retribution from the Greek authorities and fascists. Most activists prefer to remain anonymous. “On Lesbos everybody knows everybody else. Violent fascists work together with the police and with right-wing politicians. You have to be careful what you say,” says an activist in an office in the island’s capital, Mytilini.

While sea rescue is being criminalized, the Greek authorities are openly making use of illegal practices themselves.

But reports from organizations like the Lesbos Legal Centre, the Border Violence Monitoring Network, or Doctors Without Borders, all of which work for the protection of refugees on the island, paint a clear picture: in the Aegean Sea, the north-eastern part of the Mediterranean between Turkey and Greece, Greek authorities and the EU border protection agency FRONTEX have worked together to make independent sea rescue practically impossible.

A 2020 law passed by the right-wing conservative government under prime minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis in the name of the “fight against people smuggling” actually has the potential to criminalize anyone who helps refugees in emergency situations. Simply making contact with refugees who reach land can be construed as facilitating their escape, and be punished with a harsh prison sentence. Around 2,000 people are currently incarcerated in Greece (some under inhumane conditions) for “abetting illegal immigration” or similar offences. Most are refugees themselves — like Homayoun Sabetara, from Iran, sentenced to 18 years in prison by a Thessaloniki court for driving a car in which seven refugees without papers were riding as passengers.

Illegal Pushbacks Undeniable

While sea rescue is being criminalized, the Greek authorities are openly making use of illegal practices themselves. Staff of the human rights organizations on Lesbos say that so-called pushbacks have become routine. Numerous reports document how the police and the Greek coastguards capture refugees at sea or even on dry land and forcibly return them to Turkish sovereign territory. This often puts refugees in mortal danger. Reports about the pushbacks, from non-governmental organizations as well as the United Nations Refugee Agency UNHCR and the official Greek National Commission for Human Rights, have been circulating for years. But they have had little effect. The Greek authorities dismiss the accusations. Institutions at the European level turn a blind eye.

“The situation only really started changing in May last year, when the New York Times reported on the pushbacks”, explains an activist from the Border Violence Monitoring Network on Lesbos. “Since then, the pushbacks can no longer be denied.” The New York Times video footage clearly shows a group of 12 refugees — including children — being loaded into a van by masked men and subsequently being towed on a lifeboat by the coastguards into the Aegean Sea, where they are transferred into Turkish custody. This practice is known as a pullback. The Greek and Turkish coastguards work together to prevent people from crossing the border, making it impossible to apply for asylum in European Union territory.

“The actions of the Greek and Turkish coastguards contravene applicable laws and the conventions for the protection of refugees. Politically, however, these actions serve the interests of the new Common European Asylum Policy (CEAS), which was adopted by the European Parliament at the beginning of April”, explains Lea Reisner, who is investigating the situation of refugees on Lesbos with a delegation from the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation. Reisner, a trained nurse, worked on sea rescue vessels herself from 2017 to 2022. Like Gerhard Trabert, she is a candidate for Die Linke in the European Parliament elections. “With CEAS, Fortress Europe will be further sealed off. Human rights are simply being left by the wayside”, she says.

Making Refugees Invisible

Activists from human rights organizations on Lesbos fear that the situation will continue to deteriorate following the European Parliament's decision. “One major difference will be that in future refugees will be locked up in the camps under prison-like conditions if they want to apply for asylum,” the Border Violence Monitoring Network employee explains. This de facto incarceration, which children will also be subjected to, is designed to enable rapid deportation to so-called safe third countries in the event that an asylum application is rejected.

The legal basis for this internment plan is the legal fiction that the refugees have not entered the European Union, even though they have physically crossed the border. Similar to passengers in the transit area of an airport, the refugees will not have officially entered the European Union until a decision has been made on their asylum application, in what is known as a border procedure.

The purpose of the plan is obvious: to prevent any outside contact with the refugees and to keep the people in the camp under round-the-clock surveillance.

On Lesbos, this change is expected to come in with the opening of a new Closed Controlled Access Center (CCAC) in Vastria that is currently under construction. Compared to the relatively open camp in Kara Tepe, built on the beach near Mytilini after the Moria fire, the new CCAC will be a highly secure and isolated camp. Viewed from a nearby hill, the huge construction site looks like an open-pit coal mine. The camp is dug into a valley in the middle of a forest. The white container houses and administrative buildings are surrounded by a high barbed-wire fence. The next inhabited place is many kilometres away.

The purpose of the plan is obvious: to prevent any outside contact with the refugees and to keep the people in the camp under round-the-clock surveillance. The less visible the refugees are, the more freely their basic human rights can be violated. Like the other closed camps that have recently been constructed on the islands of Samos, Kos, Leros, and Chios, the Vastria camp is also being fully funded by the European Union.

Translated by Sam Langer and Ryan Eyers for Gegensatz Translation Collective.