Moria = Murder

Conditions in the detention centre in Moria outside Mytilene, dubbed the “Guantánamo Bay of Europe” and “the worst refugee camp on earth”; an illegal de facto regime of indefinite, arbitrary incarceration of people in Moria or on the island.

The characterization “Guantánamo Bay of Europe” draws a parallel to the notorious offshore US military prison in the Naval Base in Guantánamo, Cuba (captured during the Spanish-American War in 1898 and “leased” to the US in 1903 with no expiration date, an “agreement” that Cubans regard as an instance of US imperialism). It is based on a statement made by Dimitris Avramopoulos, EU Migration Commissioner, reacting to the proposal of European Council President Donald Tusk, inspired by an earlier suggestion by Hungarian President Viktor Orbán, that the EU create “regional disembarkation platforms” outside the EU, where agencies collaborating with UNHCR and IOM would sort so-called legitimate asylum seekers from economic migrants, before they reach EU borders. Avramopoulos’ protestations that such a proposal goes against “European values”. In fact, evincing the tendentiousness of the offshore/onshore distinction, here, a number of journalistic articles have, before and since Avramopoulos’ declarations, referred to Lesvos/Moria as the “Guantánamo Bay of Europe,” quoting conservative Lesvos Mayor Spyros Gallinos, and indicating the scenario officials variously propose or reject is already a reality under the current European Agenda on Migration. 

A reference to Moria as the worst refugee camp on earth is the title of a documentary aired on BBC produced by reporter Catrin Nye, who “went inside” Moria during a media blackout enforced by the Greek military, who have authority over the prison camp. The characterisation is based on a statement by Luca Fontana, Médicins Sans Frontiers (MSF) Coordinator in Lesvos, who says “Lesvos is the worst place I’ve been, in my whole life, and in my whole MSF experience; and I’ve been working in several countries, war zones; I’ve been working in refugee camps in Central African Republic, in Congo; in the biggest Ebola outbreaks in West Africa in 2014-15. But I’ve never seen—ever—the level of suffering we are witnessing here, everyday.”  MSF operates a clinic just outside the camp since 2016, when along with most INGOs and UNHCR withdrew from Moria and the other hotspot camps in protest, as they were turned into detention centres after the implementation of the EU-Turkey deal. “We took the extremely difficult decision to end our activities in Moria because continuing to work inside would make us complicit in a system we consider to be both unfair and inhumane … We will not allow our assistance to be instrumentalized for a mass expulsion operation and we refuse to be part of a system that has no regard for the humanitarian or protection needs of asylum seekers and migrants,” said Marie Elisabeth Ingres, MSF Head of Mission in Greece, cited in The Press Project, “UNHCR and NGO’s withdraw from Greek islands, tension is rising in Idomeni.” 

Moria refugee camp was originally intended to hold 3,000 people and in 2019 it has grown to become a shanty town of 19,000, from which according to journalist Harriet Grant 40% of whom are under 18. Around 13,000 of those are living in a filthy unofficial camp of tarpaulin tents and makeshift huts made of pallets, in an olive grove surrounding the main site. There is no electricity, not enough water and rivers of mud and rubbish run through the tents. To incarcerate someone in Moria in these conditions equals murder.

Myrto Tsilimpounidi
December 2019


‘Moria = murder’ wall writing in Mytilene, December 2019
Photo by Anna Carastathis

Wall writing

(Freedom of) Movement

Freedom of Movement, 2018, Moria camp

Here I am, making another, bound to fail, attempt to position myself in a world characterized by mobility, liquidity, and speed, not the celebratory ones in which people, products, and ideas flow nicely as elaborated in the globalization studies mantra. The other one, in which you find yourself bumping awkwardly against walls, borders, fences, defenses, and hegemonic attitudes all the time. This is why I find it difficult to position myself, but for sure I know which side I am on. So, perhaps it is much more relevant to clarify this: I’m side by side with the ones who resist and revolt against dominant narratives, who fail and then join the collective depression, before they realize that they have to make room for queer failures and utopias, and, perhaps, then find the ways to resist again. At this very moment I’m struggling to make space again for hope and new utopias. Perhaps this is the most honest justification of the photographic workshop, accompanied by my training and my belief that, sometimes, theory has the capacity to dismantle and provoke certain reactions. Photographs have the capacity to capture the untold, the unspeakable, the untranslatable, all those delicate performances that are not registered in speech. Photography adds an invaluable layer to our logocentric qualitative data collection mechanisms. Perhaps this is another reason to use the medium of photography in order to invoke the soft, daily, omnipresent affects of crisis and the things yet to come. To quote Ursula Le Guin,

You cannot take what you have not given, and you must give yourself. You cannot buy Utopia. You cannot make Utopia. You can only be the Utopia. Utopia is in the individual spirit, or it is nowhere. It is for all or it is nothing. If it is seen as having any end, it will never truly begin. We can’t stop here. We must go on. We must take the risks.

So, utopia is a transforming force that plays with the limits of the human. Yet, as Susan Sontag says “humankind lingers unregenerately in Plato’s cave, still reveling, its age-old habit, in mere images of the truth.” In this sense, most utopias are like photographs, offering glimpses at a moment or time that portrays the desirable outcomes of the utopian imagination. Utopia is a representation, evincing that which is not in itself present (this is the first meaning of the word “representation”, its theatrical or politico-moral meaning); specifically, it puts on display and makes present the impossible itself. Yet, to return to Plato’s cave, what limits and constitutes our understanding of utopian representations is the position of the guards.


Myrto Tsilimpounidi


Movement, 2018, Moria camp


Extract from research diary published in: Tsilimpounidi, Myrto & Carastathis, Anna (forthcoming) ‘Facing Crisis: Queer Representations against the backdrop of Athens’, in Eithne, L. & Karma, C. (eds.) Queer Migrations 2: Illegalization, Detention, and Deportation. Champaign: University of Illinois Press. 

Susan Sontag (1973) On Photography. New York: Penguin.

Ursula Le Guin (1974) The Dispossessed. London: Millenium.

photos by: Myrto Tsilimpounidi