Refugee camps hold forgotten thousands

Syrians are trapped in squalid camps in Europe and beyond, suffering in silence

Migrant wait for humanitarian aid on the Greek island of Lesbos after crossing with other migrants and refugees the Aegean Sea from Turkey, on November 25, 2015.  More than 800.000 migrants, mostly fleeing war and persecution in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan, have crossed the Mediterranean this year to reach Europe. AFP PHOTO / BULENT KILIC / AFP PHOTO / BULENT KILIC
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They escaped warfare, conflict and violence in their home countries and washed up on European shores, imagining the worst of their suffering was over. Instead, the refugees encamped on Greek islands are trapped in an interminable hell, confined to squalid, overcrowded camps, in fear of drug pushers and sexual violence, with little support for months on end. Many escaped atrocities in Syria but are contemplating the unthinkable – a return to a warzone because the conditions in the camps are driving them to depression and suicide. They are the forgotten masses, left to face unspeakable deprivation while the world looks the other way. At the height of the exodus, the number of migrants making the perilous journey by boat from Turkey to Greece reached more than 1.2 million in 2015. Three years on, they are still arriving in their thousands, sold the promise of an escape by unprincipled people smugglers and transiting into a living nightmare. Many have died in the process. Of those who make it, there are many who have tried to take their own lives, as The National reported. Such is the backlog of Medecins sans Frontieres cases that even reporting suicidal thoughts is not enough to get to see an emergency doctor.

In the Moria holding camp on the Greek island of Lesbos, physically and psychologically scarred refugees have been left to languish. The Greek islands, once the site of funseeking holidaymakers, have become the setting of a modern day tragedy. Refugees are confined to filthy camps for months on end while their asylum applications are processed. Fears of sexual assault force women in Moria – a camp with a capacity for 2,000 but with 6,000 people crammed in – to take humiliating precautions to avoid using outside bathrooms at night. Yet more keep arriving, with Turkey, which promised to stem the flow of refugees in 2016, disgracefully using their plight as a tool to pile pressure on Europe, "turning on the tap and letting more people through", according to Greek officials struggling to cope with the strain on resources.

Many Syrian refugees now face a wretched choice between languishing in squalor hoping for a reprieve and returning to Syria, seven years after the war began. That is no choice at all, other than a choice between a slow, malingering death through starvation and deprivation or putting oneself into the hands of a brutal, murderous regime. Yet many are opting for the latter. Meanwhile the regime has continued its offensive against rebel-held enclaves, killing civilians and displacing others. On Saturday, negotiators agreed an evacuation plan to take the wounded out of Douma in Eastern Ghouta. If Bashar Al Assad follows through on his promise, what horrors await them if they escape? In Europe, those refugees fortunate enough to reach the mainland are treated with hostility and suspicion or subjected to racial abuse form politicians, such as Hungarian Prime Minister Victor Orban, who in February declared: "We have prevented the Muslim world from inundating us from the south". Three years on from all but disappearing from headlines, the crisis facing refugees is still acute. The case of Moria is indicative of the incalculable suffering it has wrought. Millions of vulnerable refugees in Europe and beyond are trapped, weighing up dismal options. The least we can do, in their time of need, is ensure they are not forgotten.