Three weeks ago, student journalists from the US’s Princeton University began visiting migration camps and interviewing residents about their new lives in Greece. On Monday afternoon, they were working on the island of Lesvos outside the camp at Moria when they heard an explosion.
More followed, as did flames and an immense plume of black smoke. In the distance, they saw migrants inside the camp throwing stones. Then hundreds of migrants began pouring out of the camp. At least two collapsed in the street and were carried away for treatment.
The students, enrolled in a journalism class on global reporting led by Ferris Professor of Journalism Joe Stephens, realized they were the only reporters at the scene and sprang into action by videotaping, shooting photographs and conducting interviews. They asked fleeing migrants to share images from within the inflamed camp.
Over previous days, residents of the Moria camp had complained in interviews about what they described as bad food, crowded conditions, violence at night and their inability to plan their futures because of their indeterminate status in Greece. Some residents reportedly lacked medication and were sleeping on the ground.
As the riot roiled, some migrants told the students that residents set the blaze to protest the dismal conditions and the sluggish asylum application process. One claimed that tensions erupted between residents and the non-governmental organization Euro Relief.
“They burned the camp because (authorities) don’t want to let people” leave, Dandeen Matoko, a migrant from the Congo who has lived in Moria for eight months, said in a videotaped interview as the riot raged in the background.
“People are suffering,” Dandeen said. “They are giving us dry rice. No meat, no soup. How can you survive? Back there [at the camp] it’s so difficult that we can’t really stand it. People are so tired of this place, they don’t want to live,” he said.
At one point, a squad of uniformed men bearing clear riot shields marched into the camp. Fire trucks approached the gates of the camp, which is circled by coiled razor wire, but did not enter. One migrant collapsed just outside the gate and others splashed her face with water. A man groaned on the ground before being carried away down a two-lane access road.
The camp houses more than 3,000 refugees, well beyond the capacity it was built to hold.
The Princeton journalists on the scene were Talya Nevins, Alice Maiden and Jack Lohmann. Their work was supported by student journalists Ethan Sterenfeld, Chiara Ficarelli and Andie Ayala, who helped with reporting and editing.
Their work at Moria was underwritten by Princeton University’s Global Reporting initiative, under the direction of Professor Stephens, a veteran investigative reporter for The Washington Post. Students will be reporting in Greece for two more weeks, and their work will be published at commons.princeton.edu/globalreporting2017.