Rising Concerns Over Islamic State Presence in Greek Refugee Camp

By Kavya Verma

    In the wake of the migrant crisis, a growing concern among humanitarian observers has been health and safety standards in refugee camps set up across Europe. One of the premier examples of a camp stretched far beyond its mean is Camp Moria, on the Greek island of Lesbos.

    A 2016 deal reached between Turkey and the European Union hoped to deter refugees and migrants from reaching Europe. A component of this non-binding statement entails the Greek government hosting migrants and refugees on five Greek islands for the duration of their asylum process. One of these islands is Lesbos, located just off the coast of Turkey. Lesbos, which is a part of the EU, is close to the coast of Turkey, making it tauntingly close to those fleeing conflict.  Labelled in a New York Times article as ‘Greece’s Island of Despair’, the largest camp on Lesbos is Camp Moria, a former military base now hosting 8,000+ asylum seekers in highly inhospitable conditions. The camp recently made headlines when a BBC programme interviewed residents stuck on the camp, who noted the perpetual fear they live in, with tense race relations leading to outbreaks of extreme violence between groups such as Kurds and Arabs, as well as reports of rape, deplorable health conditions, and little judicial procedure. While it was already clear that the situation in Moria is grave and unlikely to improve in the immediate future, the predicament of the camp has now now taken a previously unforeseen turn for the worse.

    One of the factors pushing migrants towards the EU is the presence of the Islamic State (IS) in their home countries, but recent evidence suggests IS may have established a presence in Camp Moria. On September 29, German news agency Deutsche Welle published a report claiming the presence of IS-led gang violence taking place in the camp. The video footage goes as far as to show the face of an alleged henchman of the gang with ties to IS. When violence occurs by alleged members of the gang, the perpetrators justify it by citing Sharia law.

    Providing validity to these claims is the recent influx in arrivals from Deir ez-Zor, one of the final IS strongholds in Syria. Besides the evident security issues that a potential IS presence in a camp in the EU presents, it is also uncertain whether these individuals are truly members of IS or are simply perpetrators of organized crime who hide behind the organization’s guise of religious moral superiority to further spread fear among victims of the violence and residents of the camp. Greek authorities have yet to investigate these rumors.

    Part of what makes these allegations difficult to investigate is that crime and violence have been rampant in Moria, and it is entirely possible that the perpetrators of these crimes could be using the label of the Islamic State and violence in the name of religion to scare residents away from reporting the perpetrators to Greek authorities. Furthermore, even if judicial proceedings are initiated on Lesbos, they have moved at a very slow place in the past. A New York Times piece detailing conditions in the camp told the story of a woman who was raped in the camp, reported the rape to the police, and was returned to Moria after her complaint had been filed.

Regardless of whether these individuals are truly ex-members or current envoys of the Islamic State, even the rumor of their presence in the EU further complicates the already onerous process of seeking asylum in the EU. The associated security concerns will likely raise anti-immigrant sentiment within Europe - especially in countries which serve as entry points for migrants - and play into the racist narrative often used by far-right movements on the continent. Furthermore, thousands of society’s most vulnerable must now live in even greater fear that the very reason they fled has now followed them and found them while they are in an even more fragile state with little room for escape. As this story develops, it will be critical to watch for how Greek and EU authorities handle this news, how far-right political movements on the continent utilize this report ahead of upcoming elections in Europe, and in the long term, how this potentially severe security threat affects EU policy towards screening asylum seekers and new arrivals.