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Self-Harm, Fear, Neglect: New Reports Show Horror Faced by Lone Children at Greek Migrant Camp

"Everything is dangerous here—the cold, the place I sleep, the fights. I don't feel safe."

A young girl stands inside a tent at a makeshift camp next to the camp of Moria in the island of Lesbos on November 30, 2019.

A young girl stands inside a tent at a makeshift camp next to the camp of Moria in the island of Lesbos on November 30, 2019. Conditions remain difficult in the overcrowded camp counting over 18,000 people with winter fast approaching. (Photo: Aris Messinis/AFP via Getty Images)

Human rights advocates on Wednesday spotlighted the deplorable conditions and physical and mental health impacts that unaccompanied children suffer as they remain trapped in an overcrowded refugee camp on the Greek island of Lesbos.

"I sleep on the street. I and some other guys my age," 16-year-old Saleh* from Somalia told Human Rights Watch (HRW). "There are drunk people at night and we are very scared. We don't have a container or a tent. We just live outside, on the street, inside the camp. When we sleep on the ground, at night it's wet and cold."

Saleh was one of 22 children HRW interviewed mid-October among thousands languishing at the over-capacity Moria camp, where conditions have been decried as horrendous. Moria is Europe's largest refugee camp, holding migrants from countries including war-ravaged Syria and Afghanistan as they wait months to be transferred to the mainland. Housed on a former military base, the camp was set up for 2,000 migrants and asylum-seekers. Moria currently holds over 18,000 people, including thousands of children.

HRW published a report Wednesday focusing on the unaccompanied children at Moria—a group the human rights group said is facing grave insecurity.

"Hundreds of lone children on Lesbos are left to fend for themselves, sleeping on mats and cardboard boxes, exposed to worsening and dangerous weather conditions," Eva Cossé, Greece researcher at Human Rights Watch, said in a statement Wednesday. "The Greek authorities need to urgently make sure these children are safe and cared for."

With the tent in Moria for unaccompanied children already filled with 600 children, other lone children are either set up with the crowded general population or outside, forced to construct their own precarious makeshift shelter of pallets or cardboard. Yet, HRW, said in its new report, "leaving children to fend for themselves in the open camps is akin to leaving them on the streets."

"Everything is dangerous here—the cold, the place I sleep, the fights. I don't feel safe," said 14-year-old Rachid, who arrived from Afghanistan at the end of August. "We are around 50 people sleeping in the big tent. It smells really bad, there are rats, and sometimes they die inside the tent and it smells bad. There are so many."

The children in Moria—many of whom were already traumatized by the war and violence they've fled—are showing signs of emotional distress, sometimes though self-harm. Some young children say they want to die, as a BBC video published Tuesday shows.

"This is a place that can only compound psychological trauma, not soothe it," London-based neurologist Jules Montague wrote in October following a research trip to Lesbos.

It's not just kids suffering at Moria.

Reuters reported in October that protests broke out at the camp after a woman died in a fire, the third death at the camp in two months. "An Afghan teenager was killed in a fight in August and a five-year-old Afghan boy was accidentally run over by a truck while playing in a cardboard box outside the camp in September," the outlet reported.

Writing at The Atlantic last month, Rachel Donadio described Moria as where "where Europe's ideals—solidarity, human rights, a safe haven for victims of war and violence—dissolve in a tangle of bureaucracy, indifference, and lack of political will. It is the normalization of a humanitarian crisis. It is the moral failure of Europe."

German MEP Damian Boeselager wrote in an op-ed at The Guardian Wednesday that people are stuck in Moria under "horrendous conditions without an end in sight" and called it "a humanitarian crisis and it is happening on European soil. Standing in that camp, listening to people tell me their stories, I could not feel proud to be European."

"Every night we don't address the situation, another woman is likely to get raped, another child might die, and another person will get stabbed," wrote Boeselager. "We must find short-term measures immediately, to meet the magnitude of the suffering. We should start with relocating the 1,200 unaccompanied minors freezing in the open right now."

* The children's names in the HRW report were changed to protect their safety.

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