Some accuse authorities of keeping conditions poor in the Moria camp to discourage other asylum seekers. (Mauricio Lima for The New York Times).
By Patrick Kingsley
MORIA, Greece — He survived torture in Congo, and a perilous boat journey from Turkey. But Michael Tamba, a former Congolese political prisoner, came closest to death only after he had supposedly found sanctuary at Europe’s biggest refugee camp.
Stuck for months at the camp on the Greek island of Lesbos, Mr. Tamba, 31, tried to end his life by drinking a bottle of bleach. The trigger: Camp Moria itself.
“Eleven months in Moria, Moria, Moria,” said Mr. Tamba, who survived after being rushed to a hospital. “It’s very traumatic.”
Mr. Tamba’s experience has become a common one at Moria, a camp of around 9,000 people living in a space designed for 3,100, where squalid conditions and an inscrutable asylum process have led to what aid groups say is a mental health crisis.
The overcrowding is so extreme that asylum seekers spend as much as 12 hours a day waiting in line for food that is sometimes moldy. Last month, there were about 80 people for each shower, and around 70 per toilet, with aid workers complaining about raw sewage leaking into tents. Sexual assaults, knife attacks and suicide attempts are common.
There are accusations that the camp has been left to fester in order to deter migration and that European Union funds provided to help Greece deal with asylum seekers are being misused. In late September, the European Union’s anti-fraud agency announced an investigation.
At the height of the migrant crisis in 2015, Moria was merely a way station as tens of thousands of asylum seekers — many fleeing wars in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan — poured through the region on their way to northern Europe. The numbers were so great, the migrants were effectively waved through.
European Union countries tried to gain control by closing internal borders and building camps at the bloc’s periphery in places like Lesbos. Now refugees are stuck here.
Today, Moria is the most visible symbol of the hardening European stance toward migrants — one that has drastically reduced unauthorized migration, but at what critics see as a deep moral and humanitarian cost.
Outside Europe, the European Union has courted authoritarian governments in Turkey, Sudan and Egypt, while Italy has negotiated with warlords in Libya, in a successful effort to stem the flow of migrants toward the Mediterranean.
Inside Europe itself, those who still make it to the Greek islands — about 23,000 have arrived this year, down from 850,000 in 2015 — must stay at camps like Moria until their cases are settled. It can take up to two years before they are sent home or move on.
“I have been in some pretty horrendous camps and situations,” said Louise Roland-Gosselin, a Doctors Without Borders official who also worked in Congo and South Sudan. “Moria is the camp in which I’ve seen the highest level of suffering.”
The group’s lead psychiatrist on Lesbos, Alessandro Barberio, said he had never seen such overwhelming numbers of severe mental health cases. Of the roughly 120 people his team has the capacity to treat, the vast majority have been prescribed anti-psychotic medication.
“Moria has become a trigger for an acute expression of psychosis and post-traumatic stress disorder,” he said.
The International Rescue Committee said that just under a third of the 126 people its psychosocial workers have assessed at Moria since March have attempted suicide.
Few suicide attempts result in death; the camp is so crowded that they are usually discovered quickly, aid workers say. But the damage can be lasting — Mr. Tamba’s attempt scarred his stomach, which still causes him pain.
Mr. Tamba, who has said he was arrested at a political protest in Congo, has been allowed to move to another camp on the Greek mainland. But conditions there are not much better.
The Greek government says it plans to move a third of residents to the mainland in the coming weeks.
But for those stuck at Moria, few feel safe. A 25-year-old Iraqi student revealed a recent set of stab wounds. These were the result of an attack by other campers, he said.
Sexual violence is also common. The International Rescue Committee has assessed over 70 people since March who have reported being sexually abused. Women say they are wary of walking alone at night.
And many residents feel trapped in an endlessly bureaucratic asylum application process that they do not fully understand.
Those arriving at the camp in the coming weeks can expect to wait until at least March for an interview, said Philip Worthington, managing director of European Lawyers in Lesvos, a legal aid group operating on the island.
Should an applicant be rejected, there are currently no state-sponsored lawyers to assist them with their appeal, in contravention of both Greek and European law, Mr. Worthington said.
There is growing acrimony — and now an investigation — over why the camp is so bad when so much money has been provided by the European Union to help improve the Greek asylum system since migration levels started to rise in 2014.
The European Union has allocated nearly 1.62 billion euros — about $1.9 billion — to the Greek asylum effort over the past half-decade, of which €1.1 billion has already been paid out, according to data supplied to The New York Times by the bloc.
A spokesman for the Greek migration ministry, Alexis Bouzis, denied any financial misuse on the part of the government, and attributed the situation to a small rise in migration flows over the summer, which led to a backlog.
“No one could have predicted it,” Mr. Bouzis said.
Rahmuddin Ashrafi, an Afghan farmer, arrived here in June with his wife, Sohaela, and their three small children.
In Afghanistan, Mr. Ashrafi, 34, said their house and land were destroyed in fighting between the Taliban and the Afghan army. At Moria, the five of them now share a small two-person tent.
“Before, I thought that Greece would be one of the best places to live,” Mr. Ashrafi said. “Now I feel it would have been better to drown while crossing the sea.”