Driving up the windy roads near Mount Olympus, Greece earlier this week, I couldn’t help but marvel at the beautiful fall leaves turning orange and gold. But at our destination, that beauty felt almost cruel in the reality of a refugee camp for people of the Yazidi minority with its hundreds of tents, women baking bread outside, and small children everywhere playing in the biting cold. We were in the Petra camp, where 1,200 Yazidi asylum-seekers are living in truly shocking conditions. It was set up by the Greek government in April on the site of an old psychiatric hospital.
Women describe the hardships of living in tents for months on end, how the wood they burn to warm water and bake bread gets wet when it rains. How many are tormented by the deaths and abduction of loved ones when ISIS attacked Sinjar, Iraq, in 2014, executing men and enslaving women and girls on a mass scale
Sara*, a 23-year-old-woman, told me she is terrified for her three month old daughter. “It’s dangerous in the tent with the insects and the smoke,” she said. After she gave birth, like other mothers and their newborns, she was given a room in the old hospital building. But after two months, she returned to her tent. “I left the rooms for others with smaller babies,” she said. During her pregnancy, “the toilets were the hardest part,” she said. She had to walk from her tent to the row of chemical toilets, afraid she would fall, her fear exacerbated by her loss of a child during her first pregnancy when she fled into the Sinjar Mountains. “I’ve lost a child. I don’t want to lose another,” she told me.
Leila* and Nasreen*, both 16 and from Mosul, have been the camp for eight months. Before that, they spent one month in the notorious camp of Idomeni on the Macedonian border, which the Greek authorities closed in May. “We bring wood from the forest but with the humidity and the rain, it got wet. The clothes don’t dry even after two or three days,” she said. Nasreen* and her mother applied for family reunification to join her father in Germany. Their interview is set for February 2017. Leila*, who is also hoping to join her brothers and sister in Germany, was registered into the asylum system at least five months ago. She told me that no date for her interview has been set.
Like the asylum seekers near Mount Olympus, thousands of others are living in camps on the Greek mainland and islands as they wait for their claims to be processed so they can move on to another country or stay in Greece as refugees. There are now 60,000 asylum seekers and migrants in Greece, 87 percent of them from Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq. Depending on their nationality, family links and the date they arrived in Europe, a complicated range of options are available to them. The people I met in the Petra camp had applied to join a family member in another European Union (EU) country or to be transferred to another country under the EU’s relocation scheme, which should allow a total of 160,000 asylum-seekers in Greece or Italy to travel to another EU country and apply for asylum once there. But so far only 4,846 have been relocated from Greece and 1,391 from Italy. EU countries have been reluctant to provide a meaningful number of relocations, and the process is taking months. A 33-year-old mother of five from Sinjar told me her interview for the EU relocation scheme is set for April 2017.
The Greek government is facing a tremendous challenge, largely on its own. But it should urgently provide adequate accommodation to those who are in camps with no end in sight – living in conditions that will only worsen as temperatures drop. For the Yazidis in the Petra camp, there is the torment of the atrocities they fled and fear of the uncertainties that lie ahead. They should not have to suffer the poor conditions of the camp and fear a freezing cold winter in the shadow of Mount Olympus too.
*Names have been changed to protect the identity of interviewees.