About

SHIELD OF EUROPE is an interactive long-read experience about the human cost of European migration policies. Shot, produced, edited, and written by Jelle Krings, it gives an up-close perspective on the lives of the people who are stuck on the Greek islands, while also explaining the cause of their suffering. Marzia’s story focuses on one of the most commonly used entry routes into Europe used by refugees, but stories like hers are common throughout the European border region. They are the result of policies intended to shield Europe from internationally recognized asylum seekers that come at high humanitarian costs.

Asylum seekers wishing to enter Europe have been getting stuck on Greek islands since 2016. Living in camps under dire circumstances, they are restricted to the islands until their asylum procedures are completed. That can take years. “The hardship they endure during that time is the result of policy decisions aimed at preventing and deterring migration, made despite the high humanitarian cost,” says Krings. The photojournalist first saw camp Moria in November 2019. He had worked in refugee camps before but was shocked by the conditions of the camp on European soil. “The project arose from my desire to understand why these people were living under such dire circumstances,” he says. “When I found out this was a result of European and Greek migration policies, I wanted to show the humanity of the people affected, so the actual cost of those policies would become more visible.” Krings returned to the island several times and spent a total of three months there, working on the documentary.

SHIELD OF EUROPE was made possible by the many asylum seekers like Marzia who had the courage to share their stories and let the photojournalist into their lives.

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For any inquiries please email: Jelle@ShieldofEurope.com

Press: download press release and royalty free images here.

The human cost of migration policy

A young woman from Afghanistan is forced into an arranged marriage. She escapes her fate but ends up in Moria, a refugee camp on the Greek island of Lesbos. Living through the effects of European migration policies, she witnesses first-hand the humanitarian cost at which they come.

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An interactive long-read experience by Jelle Krings. Duration approximately 20 minutes. Best viewed full screen, sound on.
You have to fight for your dreams, for your freedom. And if you are lucky… your family supports you.
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Marzia’s story: The beginning

01Containment

On the morning of August 25th, 2019, a rubber boat lands on the shores of the Greek island of Lesbos. Marzia Majidi has just arrived in Europe, even though it would take a long time before she would feel like that.

By the time she climbs out of the boat, Marzia has been living the life of a refugee for 22 years – her whole life. Born in Iran as the daughter of refugees from Afghanistan, she grew up undocumented. In her teens, she became threatened by a Muslim extremist whom she was promised to marry when she was just a child. A forced marriage, but Marzia resisted. She knew she would never get asylum in Iran and when the threats kept coming, the then young Afghan woman set course for Europe.

She made it into Turkey, but then found out there are no legal entry points into Europe for refugees. That gave Marzia no choice but to turn to human traffickers. One night, they took her to the Turkish coast from where she could see the lights of Europe twinkle, just a few miles of Aegean Sea away. When she entered the boat, freedom seemed so close, she felt she could almost grasp it.

But when Maria finally arrives on the shores of Europe, she also enters its migration system. A system that has changed much since the height of the migration crisis in 2015. In order to curb the surge of asylum seekers coming to Europe at that time, the EU signed a deal with Turkey aimed at deterring migrants from making the journey. Those who did make it to the Greek islands were restricted to them until their asylum procedures were concluded: a policy of hotspots that became known as ‘geographical containment’. It effectively transformed the Greek islands into detention spaces.

Marzia ended up in one of the camps on those islands. A camp that by then, had become notorious for its dire conditions: Camp Moria.

‘The Jungle’ in December 2019. When the official camp starts overflowing with asylum seekers, newcomers begin pitching tents in the surrounding olive groves. At the end of 2019, more than 20,000 migrants are living in the camp that was originally designed for 3,000 people.

Children warming by a fire in the winter of 2019. Average temperatures drop to 5℃ at night during the winter.

Young asylum seekers make a selfie on a hill overlooking the Moria camp.

A family of asylum seekers picking olives in the hills surrounding the camp.

Safar (age 6) on a sleeping bag at night, just before she falls asleep. Two small pop-up tents joined together with a tarp serve as a home for the young Afghan girl and her family. Her grandfather says the Moria camp is even worse than Afghanistan where, he lost two sons, a daughter and his home to the Taliban because of the family’s Hazara roots.

Children playing in one of the ‘isoboxes’ in the official camp. The container home is typically shared by two large families. It is usually divided into two compartments with a blanket for some privacy. Living in one of the containers is seen as a privilege that is mainly reserved for the most vulnerable families.

A girl walks past the garbage piling up at the fence of the official facility. Authorities collect it, but infrequently. Waste and faeces are scattered throughout the camp. Wastewater streams from broken pipes, creating open sewage near people’s tents. In May 2020, there were fewer than 120 toilets in the camp for its then 19,200 residents.

A small shop in the hills of the camp. As procedures slow, asylum seekers get stuck in the camp for months and years. The camp begins functioning as a small village. Shops and bakeries pop up around the olive grove.

A young Afghan at a makeshift bakery overlooking the camp.

Marzia’s story: Working in the camp clinic

02Deterrence

As a result of the geographical containment policy, the island starts filling up with migrants. Newcomers are forced to live in the olive groves surrounding the official camp: ‘The Jungle’. Soon, families with young children are forced to live in muddy tents with rain and open sewage is leaking in. Infectious diseases spread like wildfire. Sexual assaults, fights, and suicide attempts keep medics busy at night. Marzia volunteers at one of the clinics in the camp, translating Farsi-English for a Dutch NGO. Looking at all the suffering around her, she starts to ask herself a question: Why?

Political scientist Angeliki Dimitriadi may have an answer. She heads the migration program at ELIAMEP, an independent think tank based in Athens that conducts policy-oriented research in Europe. Dimitriadi says that the containment policy is a result of the EU-Turkey deal. It was implemented both as a deterrent measure and as a way of ensuring that eligible asylum seekers could be returned to Turkey, she explains. Under the agreement, asylum seekers can be returned if their applications are deemed inadmissible, for example because Turkey is seen as a ‘safe third country’ for them. The islands function as a buffer zone, isolating asylum seekers from the mainland until the admissibility of their case is determined. Politicians in turn believe the buffer zone itself and the threat of deportation under the EU-Turkey agreement will prevent other migrants from making the journey.

When rights organizations warned that conditions were getting particularly grim in the winter of 2018, Greek Migration Minister Mouzalas acknowledged that he believed moving people to the mainland would create new incentives for migrants to make the crossing. He told German news magazine, Der Spiegel, that relieving the islands “would play into the hands of the smugglers” and result in a “mini version of 2015.” Back then, the surge of asylum seekers was so large that the islands were no more than a waypoint on the journey to Western Europe.

Migration experts have spent the last five years explaining that this assumption is not supported by research. They find that people are motivated to migrate mainly because of the conditions in their place of departure, their financial situation, and the availability of a support network. Conditions of the journey and at the destination only matter to a small extent. Nonetheless, officials have kept explaining policy with references to ‘push and pull factors’ in border regions.

In the almost five years that Camp Moria existed, living conditions in the camp have only worsened, as documented by organizations like Doctors Without Borders. They have provided medical care to migrants on Lesbos since 2014. They have also warned about the conditions in the camp continuously, says Karel Hendriks, Humanitarian Representative for the organization: “It started with warnings about bad hygiene, then outbreaks of infectious diseases. In the end, we were reporting about auto-mutilating children.” That nothing was done with these warnings is no accident, Hendriks emphasizes: “It is not difficult to make facilities better than they are now.” Why has it not happened? “Because they hoped it would have a deterrent effect”.

Political advisor Gerald Knaus, who is considered the architect of the EU-Turkey deal, would agree with that point. He says conditions in camp Moria cannot merely be explained by the incompetence of responsible politicians. “Europeans deliberately tolerate the conditions on the island to deter others who might be thinking of making the journey,” he told Der Spiegel in November 2020. A policy of deterrence by omission. “Having no policy, is a policy,” Dimitriadi adds, “for a very long time, there was no effort, and that was the policy.” It calls into question the use of the EUR 6,167,750 stated as the EU’s contribution on a sign at the entrance to the Moria camp.

Deterrence may also be one of the reasons for the long delays in the Greek asylum system, which is why migrants are stuck on the islands for such long periods of time. Marzia had to wait for a year before she could finally argue her case in an interview with the asylum services, and she is not the only one. In 2020, most asylum seekers in camp Moria had been there for more than a year, in some cases for more than three years. Recognition rates for Afghans and Syrians – the predominant nationalities in the camp – were over 75% and 85% that year. It shows that most migrants had legitimate reasons to be there, even by the standards of the Asylum Service itself.

It is difficult to establish the extent to which these delays are the result of deliberate policy decisions. Authorities deny any such allegations and attribute them to overloaded asylum systems. But while arrivals have remained relatively stable over the last five years, authorities have failed to address the issue and waiting times for asylum seekers on the Greek islands have not been reduced.

Dimitriadi says deterrence lies at the core of the European migration system. The EU relies on the idea that free movement within its territory requires strong external borders to survive, she explains: “The purpose of the border countries was from the beginning to filter and prevent entry”. A notion that conflicts with another strong principle under EU law: the right to asylum. The crossing of these principles is where, according to Dimitriadi, European migration policy has formed. “This is where the catch lies,” she explains, “Yes, access to asylum has to be guaranteed, but only for those who succeed in crossing the border. The trick is, to get in.”

Marzia managed to ‘get in’, but then got stuck on one of the Greek islands, where she was forced to live in a refugee camp under dire circumstances while waiting for her case to be decided. If her asylum procedure would have completed within a reasonable time, Marzia would have been spared much of the hardship she went through. But rights organizations say this is exactly the point. As emphasized by Greek Prime Minister Mitsotakis: “They need to understand that if they give their money to a trafficker to bring them to Greece, they will lose it.” It fits the characterization of the country made by European Commission President Ursula von der Lehen in March 2020, when she thanked Greece for being the “Shield of Europe”.

A young asylum seeker from Syria at the fence of Mytilini port. Every day, hopeless migrants gather by the port and gaze enviously at the ferries departing for Athens. When people are granted asylum, they leave the island from the terminal.

Marzia’s story: The system

03Humans

Some asylum seekers on the Greek islands have made journeys from war-stricken regions in Congo, Somalia, Iraq or Cameroon, but most are from Afghanistan or Syria. Unlike Syrians, whose procedures have for the most part been prioritized since the EU-Turkey agreement, Afghans are subject to standard procedures with longer waiting times, keeping them stuck on the islands longer.

One of the problems Afghan asylum seekers have been facing for a long time is what Dimitriadi calls their ‘nationality bias’: they are increasingly seen as economic migrants, and not as refugees or asylum seekers. “People don’t understand that after forty years, they are still one of the largest groups of refugees in the world,” Dimitriadi says.

Afghans have long suffered war and persecution, mostly by groups like the Taliban. In 2020, the US further reduced its military presence in the country, with plans for a full draw-back in 2021. Peace talks between Afghan and Taliban leaders are underway. But with Taliban violence on the rise, the future remains uncertain for Afghanistan and as such for its people and the flow of asylum seekers from the county.

On Lesbos, the stories of war and persecution are abundant, their details often difficult to hear. While they are accounts of war and persecution in other parts of the world, they also define the people at the heart of European policies.

The numbers

The Numbers

The numbers show that most migrants who cross the border into Greece are indeed in need of international protection. Although the road to asylum is long, most asylum requests are recognized in the end. As Dimitiradi says: “The trick is, to get in.”

Most common nationalities of sea arrivals in Greece from January to September 2020 (source: UNHCR). Most asylum seekers crossing the border into Greece are Syrian or Afghan nationals.

First instance asylum decisions in Greece from January to September 2020 (source: Eurostat / RSA). Most asylum applications from the largest groups of asylum-seekers were recognised.

The Aminis

FLTR up: Tawhid Amini, Idris Amini, Mohammad Osman Amini, Hadis Amini. FLTR down: Mah Khanum Amini, Hoodad Amini, Makai Amini, Safiullah Amini, Tayeba Amini.

When Safiullah’s nephew in Afghanistan converted to Christianity, it put a target on his back. In the country, some believe a ‘Murtadd’ (one who turns his back on Islam) may be killed on sight. The Aminis’ helped their nephew escape and handed him over to the Afghan government. With the help of the British and American forces, the boy was brought to safety. But when it became known that the Aminis had helped the boy, they became targets themselves. Persecuted by religious leaders and the Taliban, Saifullah’s brother was killed. They fled to another village, but another family member was killed. When the family kept receiving death threats, they decided to flee their country.

Abdol Azimi

Abdol Azimi (age 70) is suffering from Parkinson’s Disease, dementia, and post-traumatic stress disorder. He fled Afghanistan with his family after their home was invaded by the Taliban. The women and children were harmed that night, Abdul was powerless to intervene. His son Saeid says Abdol was never quite the same after that.

Saeid took turns with his brother, carrying their father across the Turkish border. They walked for ten days, trying to avoid border patrols. On their first try, they didn’t make it. Bullets flew, and Abdol’s sister dies. Prison and deportation followed, and the family found itself back in Afghanistan, their village now controlled by the Taliban. They never planned to stay. After a year, they once again set off on the 3000-mile journey to Europe. This time, they made it.

The Azimis were on Lesbos for fifteen months before being granted asylum. They now live in Athens.

Marzia’s story: Why she fled

Sayed and Basiraa Kabir (from Herat, Afghanistan) with their daughter on a bench in Mytilini, about 10 kilometers from Moria Camp.

04Consequences

On the night of September 8th, 2020, a fire rages through Camp Moria. By dawn, the camp is almost completely destroyed. 12,767 asylum seekers become homeless overnight.

The Greek Ministry of Migration quickly announces that the fire has most likely been started by a small group of asylum seekers in reaction to COVID-19 quarantine measures imposed in the camp, but rights organizations see a deeper cause.

“This fire was expected,” Eva Cossé of Human Rights Watch tells The New York Times. “It’s a testament to the European Union’s negligence and Greece’s negligence,” she says. Apostolos Veizis, Director of Doctors Without Borders’ Medical Operational Support Unit in Greece also responds to the disaster: “The fire in Moria is put in place by European policies, a political choice by the EU, followed by the Greek state. A deliberate policy put in place clearly as a deterrent measure.”

That morning, thousands of asylum seekers pour into the streets surrounding the camp, scrambling for shelter once again. The place Gerald Knaus once referred to as the “Guantanamo for refugees” is gone.

Follow Abdul after the fire

A Cat Story in the Ruins of Camp Moria

Abdul Ali Akhlaghi (age 55) from Ghazni, Afghanistan is nurturing some of the cats and kittens in Camp Moria. After the fire, most asylum seekers flee to nearby streets, but a small group of migrants stays behind. Living in the ashes of the camp, they start taking care of the cats and kittens that were also left homeless by the fire.

A lonely cat shoots away in the ruins of the camp. Many of the animals are injured and have almost no access to food. They are completely dependent on the migrants who feed and take care of them.

A wounded kitten tries to find its way through the ruins of the camp. Its soft cries on the morning after the fire catches the attention of Mr. Akhlaghi, who starts taking care of the animal.

Since that day, Akhlaghi feeds the homeless cats and kittens every morning and before he goes to bed at night. Why? Akhlaghi says: “We are humans, and they are animals, but we are the same. They need the same things we need; the only difference is that we can talk.”

Another group of young men joins in taking care of the animals. Since the fire, they’ve been sleeping in the only tent left standing. The fire has destroyed everything else.

Mahammed Berro (age 24) from Latika, Syria, is feeding the blinded kitten in the morning. The group named it ‘Isos’, Greek for ‘maybe’. Mahammed uses one of his blankets to make a small bed for the kitten behind a fence, warm and safe from the dangers of the night. Isos suffered severe burns over its body and face and was blinded by the fire. The men whistle to guide the kitten to its food.

Nine days after the fire, Greek authorities begin forcing all the migrants into a new camp. Many of them are afraid to enter the camp. Animals are not allowed, so the cats must be left behind.

Worried about the well-being of the cats, the group approaches some local people through Facebook and asks them to help take care of the animals. Larisa Burak and her husband are two of the people who come forward to help. They already have a number of pets, mainly cats and dogs, living together in harmony.

Larisa Burak is taking care of two kittens that suffered minor injuries in the Moria fire. Another severely injured cat is also recovering in her care.

Kitten Isos is taken in by another local woman: Mrs. Melpo. She gets in touch with a veterinarian, but the kitten’s injuries are too severe. It passes away in her care. Akhlagi takes comfort in the fact that Isos was nurtured and loved in its final weeks.

Mr. Akhlaghi on the side of the road, waiting to enter the new camp for the first time. Mr. Akhlaghi still makes the 30-minute journey by foot to Moria several times a week to feed the homeless cats that were left behind.

“Nobody cared about them”

To the streets

As thousands of migrants flee to surrounding streets, they find their way blocked off by riot police. Contained on a stretch of road not more than a mile long, the asphalt will be their home for ten days to come.

Qutaiba Alawad (age 28) from Syria is playing with his daughter Dana Alawad (age 3) on the second night after the fire. When he noticed the fire in the camp, Qutaiba hastily grabbed some blankets and fled to the streets with his family. “If this is Europe, we don’t want to be here,” he says. “All we want is our freedom and to be treated as human beings.”

A boy is sleeping on the street in the afternoon. The street is blocked by authorities on both sides. The migrants are not allowed to go outside the contained area. They are dependent on authorities for food and water. As the days pass, the contained migrants grow more and more exhausted. Food does not arrive.

Hamida Mirzayi (age 50) on the fourth day after the fire. Mirzayi finds shelter in an abandoned building she shares with several other families. She and her daughter have already been granted asylum, but they have remained on Lesbos, waiting for her husband and son. They were supposed to meet with the asylum service on the morning after the fire.

Mitra (age 5) and her mother Feresthe (age 21) are sleeping against the guardrail during the nights after the fire. Mitra has fallen ill and misses the comfort of her doll, which she lost in the fire.

Follow Mitra for a night on the street

Against the Guardrail: A Night with Mitra

When Feresthe wakes up deep in the night, she smells smoke. “There must be a fire again,” she thinks and wakes up her husband Naser. Together they listen to the sounds outside their tent. After a while, they hear the shouting. “The fire is not going away,” they realize. Fereshte packs a bag with diapers and Naser grabs some blankets. Together with their daughter Mitra, they start running. Soon they are joined by thousands more. They find a spot by the road against the guardrail. Before they know it, night falls for the third time after the fire.

Mitra’s legs are covered with red spots, most likely scabies. Her medicine was lost in the fire.

Mitra is being comforted by her mother. She is struggling with mental issues after witnessing a knife attack in Moria camp. The doll Fereshte bought to help her overcome the trauma was lost in the fire.

The family tries to sleep, but it will be a restless night. Mitra is ill and many people around them are still awake.

Mitra is the first to wake in the morning. She tries to get her parents to wake up too.

Morning rituals are just as important to the family when living on the street. Naser helps Mitra wash and brush her teeth. Fereshte brushes her hair.

Fereshte feels hopeless about the future: “Only now I realize how much Europe doesn’t want us”, she says.

Four days after the fire, food is finally distributed for the first time to the asylum seekers.

Asylum seekers use the water from a broken irrigation hose on an evening after the fire.

FLTR: Tahar (age 8), Sadjad (age 7), Jamill (age 6) and Ali (age 6). The boys from Afghanistan are playing with their friends on an old military turret, overlooking an emergency camp Greek authorities started setting up on a former military base. The boys have all been on the island for over a year and are now sleeping together on the street.

A woman holds her child after a peaceful protest was broken up by police with teargas. The protestors held up signs and chanted texts, asking for their freedom and to be allowed off the island.

A young asylum seeker is waiting in line for food on a parking lot in Mytilini, two months after the fire. Some migrants have not entered a new camp set up by authorities because their freedoms would be further restricted. The volunteers distributing the food are on the lookout for police, they say it is illegal to feed the asylum seekers.

An Afghan asylum seeker holds her daughter on the street in front of the new emergency camp.

05Epilogue

Two weeks after a fire destroyed Europe’s most significant symbol of the suffering caused by its migration policies, most asylum seekers had been moved to a new camp. The camp was originally intended as an ‘emergency solution’, but five months later it seems to have replaced the old camp in all its deterring respects. Built on a former military firing range by the sea, prone to flooding and exposed to the wind, the asylum seekers are now only allowed outside for limited amounts of time. Inside, conditions remain dire.

In response to the increased media-attention that followed the fire, politicians throughout Europe expressed their sympathies for the unfolding disaster in Lesbos. A moment of collective shame perhaps, but not one that has so far led to much actual change. Europe’s sympathy came at a time of rising populism and growing anti-asylum sentiment. A time in which hard proof has been presented that the Greek Coastguard has – with knowledge of the European border agency Frontex – been pushing rubber rafts with asylum seekers into the Turkish territorial waters of the Aegean Sea. A clear violation of international and EU law, according to experts.

On September 23rd, 2020, the European Commission announced its plans for new common legislation on migration: a European Migration Pact that has been years in the making. While the pact was also introduced as a solution to the suffering on the Greek islands, migration researchers and rights organizations are sceptical.

The new plans call for closed asylum centers on the Greek islands, keeping the policy of geographical containment intact and further limiting the freedom of movement for asylum seekers. Dimitriadi says the pact is built on the same principles of prevention and deterrence that lay at the root of the policies that caused the suffering on the Greek Islands in the first place: policies of shielding Europe from asylum seekers that have proven to come at a high humanitarian cost.

Christos Christou, International President of Doctors Without Borders, says the pact “will only further entrap people and exacerbate mental health issues.” He says the only solution is to “end the geographical restrictions that trap people on the islands, evacuate and relocate them.”

Since the influx of migration in 2015, deterrence and human rights have constantly been put on the scale of migration policy. So far, the balance always seemed to be tipping towards deterrence. After the EU signed its deal with Turkey in 2016, the humanitarian cost of deterrence policies has become clear, climaxing with the disaster following the fire in Camp Moria in September 2020. The question remains whether politicians will continue to pay that price, or if the humanitarian values that lie at the core of the union between European states, can regain some of their original weight. Only when that happens can the scale be tipped away from deterrence and towards human rights, within a more balanced migration system.

Marjam Alizade (age 29) from Herat, Afghanistan sits on the outskirts of the new ‘emergency’ camp. Her husband Abdullah is fishing. They left Afghanistan with their 7-year-old daughter and have been on Lesbos for a year.

To the camp

The new Moria

The new camp, ‘Mavrovouni’, seen from one of the surrounding hills. In February 2021, 6,700 people live in the camp. While originally intended as an emergency solution, it seems to have replaced camp Moria in every way.

The line in front of the new camp that forms daily due to heavy security checks. Migrants are only allowed outside for limited amounts of time. Items such as cameras, alcohol and pets are forbidden.

Children playing inside the coronavirus quarantine section of the camp, which is just next to an area that was formally used as a military shooting range. Human Rights Watch reports serious concerns that the soil could be contaminated as a result. They fear the asylum seekers are being exposed to lead poisoning. Together with other human rights organizations, they criticize Greek authorities for the lack of research and transparency about the issue.

Congolese women walk past a police tent in the reception area of the new camp. There is a heavy police presence in and outside the camp. Life inside is subject to strict monitoring, privacy is minimal.

An Afghan woman and her daughter at the fence of the camp, looking out over the Aegean Sea crossing with Turkey. The asylum seekers in the camp are only allowed outside for limited periods of time. On Sundays and holidays, the camp is closed, and migrants are locked inside.

A girl on the bus from the city to the Moria camp, before its destruction.

Marzia’s Story: Finally, asylum
Created by Jelle Krings
For Marzia
Color grading by Joan Roig
Web design by Dot Alpha
Web developed by Comfort Studio
Thanks to

Marzia Majidi

Andrea Bruce
Maral Noshad Sharifi

Robbert Vermue
Pauke van der Heuvel
Natalia Toret
Jasper Veenstra
Ilvy Njiokiktjien
Ksenia Kuleshova

Amir Hussein (fire footage)
Chandler Borries

The Azimis
The Aminis
Abdul Ali Akhlaghi
Feresthe
Naser
Mitra
Safar
Marjam Alizade
Hamida Mirzayi
Qutaiba Alawad
Tahar
Sadjad
Jamill

& everyone who let me be close to them

Containment Deterrence Humans Consequences Epilogue More