World Bulletin / News Desk
African refugees, buttoned up against the cold and carrying plastic bags with their belongings, march aboard a Greek navy cargo ship docked in the port of Lesbos, while another one smokes a cigarette just inside the hatchway.
The vessel, also called Lesbos, is home to about 160 migrants and refugees, transported there from the Aegean island’s Moria camp. Most are trying to find shelter from the winter weather.
Stanislas, a 25-year-old migrant from Togo, is one of the asylum seekers living on the vessel. His bed is located behind a huge Hellenic Navy flag which obscures the view inside the vessel.
“It is somehow better in the boat than it was in Moria,” Stanislas told Anadolu Agency: “The food is the same and heating is medium level but at least I am not sleeping in a tent in the cold.”
The young man stayed in Moria for five months before he moved to the ferry a few days ago. While in the camp, he slept in a summer tent, enduring below-zero temperatures and heavy snowfall.
According to official government numbers, more than 6,000 refugees are stranded in Lesbos, an island that can accommodate no more than 3,500.
Even though the Kara Tepe refugee camp -- also located in Lesbos -- is equipped with prefabricated cabins, enough for all the residents, some asylum seekers in Moria have to sleep in summer tents as the area is overcrowded.
“I applied for asylum, but I am not hopeful,” Stanislas said. “It is better to kill me than to return me,” he added.
He is one of the many who are afraid to stay on the island, terrified of deportation. Proof of that is that the cargo ship can accommodate around 500 people. However, only 160 have dared to move in.
The rest are afraid the ship will sail off one day and they will wake up outside the EU, Stanislas said.
The Greek government denies rumors that the Lesbos will be used to suddenly deport migrants and asylum seekers.
“That is not why the vessel is there,” said Kyriakos Mantouvalos, a Greek Migration Ministry spokesman.
The purpose of the ship is to provide shelter to migrants during cold weather conditions and it will stay docked in Lesbos "until the weather improves and winter shelters are placed in Moria camp,” he added.
“I just want my freedom, to be able to go wherever I want to. I don’t want anything else, just my freedom,” Stanislas said. He has been caught by the Greek authorities three times while trying to flee Lesbos.
The cargo ship arrived at the island only after the weather had significantly improved. According to Mantouvalos, this only happened because the government hoped all the refugees and migrants would be accommodated in hotels and apartments.
“Women, children and vulnerable individuals have been taken to hotels, so only adult men are left in Moria camp and in the boat,” the spokesman said.
“We were hoping that everyone will be able to relocate to a hotel until the severe weather phenomena are over,” he added.
However, Mantouvalos told Anadolu Agency the island’s hoteliers had adopted a directive banning refugees from finding shelter in their premises as “they are meant to accommodate tourists”.
UNHCR data show that almost 63,000 migrants and refugees remain in Greece, 943 of them having crossed from Turkey in 2017, with one third going directly to Lesbos.
Since an EU-Turkish agreement was signed in March 2016, refugee flows from Turkey to Greece have decreased significantly, however, a small number of migrants and refugees arrive at the Aegean islands daily.
‘I left to save my life’
Patrick, a 20-year-old migrant from Congo, is one of Lesbos’ most recent arrivals, having crossed to Greece 20 days ago.
“I fled my country because of the political problems. I left to save my life,” he told Anadolu Agency.
Patrick smiled when he explained the living conditions in the boat, after having experienced life in the Moria camp. “It isn’t great, but it definitely is better,” he said.
“(In the boat) the beds are better. We don’t have to fight to protect our food, or wait in a queue,” Patrick explained.
However, the lack of bathrooms in the premises creates a problem. “You have to go to Moria to take a bath and some people don’t take a bath for two or three weeks,” he said. “The water in Moria is cold, too.”
Adding to the struggle, the only available toilets are located at the dock, forcing migrants to leave the boat whenever they need to use them. “But the toilets are so bad in Moria that some people go to the woods anyway” Patrick said.
“In Moria there is no electricity or water. Here we have TV inside and we can watch even football games. Also, there is Wi-Fi connection,” he said.
But with a long winter ahead, and fears that they could be removed, many people are choosing to brave the cold in summer tents -- a testament to their determination to flee their own countries and make a better life in Europe.