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Refugees occupy Syriza party office in Lesbos

Refugees occupy Syriza party office in Lesbos

Mytilene, Lesbos Island, Greece – When 17-year-old Karime Qias, an Afghan refugee, arrived in Greece's Moria refugee camp two months back, she felt as though she had arrived in prison.

Along with her mother and seven siblings, she shared a flimsy tent with strangers.

"The facilities were not hygienic, and the food was not edible," she says, sitting in the kitchen of a Syriza party office in Mytilene.

Qias is one of 34 refugees and migrants who have occupied the local office of Syriza, Greece's ruling left-wing party, to protest foul living conditions asylum seekers endure in Moria and other camps.

Local anti-fascist and solidarity activists helped the group in the planning and occupation of the building, and the demonstration has extended two weeks.

"Because the food in Moria was not edible, we continuously suffered from vomiting, diarrhoea and constant dehydration," Qias says. "When we would go to the doctor, the doctor would say everything is fine."

Built to house some 2,000 people, more than 6,000 refugees and migrants currently live in Moria, on the eastern part of Lesbos Island.

Rights groups and aid organisations have decried the camp's decrepit living conditions, calling on the Greek government to move asylum seekers to the country's mainland.

After a fortnight inside the overcrowded camp, violent clashes between Arab and Afghan refugees prompted Qias, her family and dozens of other refugees to leave.

"During the first fight we saw, 16 of us were in a tent made for eight people," she says, explaining the clash was one of 10 fights during her time there.

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"It was a massive fight, and they were throwing rocks. The authorities seemed to not want to do anything."

After they left, dozens of refugees and migrants set up tents in Sappho Square, a central area in Mytilene, for more than a month to protest unsafe conditions in Moria.

Several went on hunger strike during that period.

'Treating people like animals'

On November 25, police evicted the refugees from the square after failing the convince them to move to a remote area outside of town.

During that incident, the protesters say police officers struck members of the group and hurled racist insults as they pushed them out.

The refugees also accuse local authorities, including the mayor and deputy mayor, of stoking xenophobia.

They are treating people like animals and slaves and in a very dehumanising way. We didn't come to Europe to be imprisoned … and have no agency. It's every human's right to have control of their choices.

Karime Qias, Afghan refugee occupying Syriza office

Lesbos Mayor Spiros Galinos, who has urged the government to transfer asylum seekers to the mainland, led a strike against the presence of refugees on the island on November 27.

At the time of publication, local police had not replied to Al Jazeera's request for a comment.

Following the eviction from Sappho Square, the asylum seekers, mostly Afghans and Iranians, marched through the city before eventually storming and occupying the local Syriza office.

Karime Qias came to Greece in the autumn of 2017 [Patrick Strickland/Al Jazeera]

They issued a statement demanding the release of a refugee who was arrested during the Sappho Square altercation and called on the Greek government to lift geographical restrictions that confine the asylum seekers to islands.

They also demanded accommodation in Athens for the duration of their asylum application process.

"They are treating people like animals and slaves and in a very dehumanising way," Qias adds. "We didn't come to Europe to be imprisoned … and have no agency. It's every human's right to have control of their choices."

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Syriza came to power in January 2015 after campaigning on a left-wing programme that included overhauling the country's migration policies.

Yet, the party has come under fire since taking office for reneging on promises and complying with a March 2016 EU-Turkey deal to stem the flow of refugees to Europe.

More than 60,000 refugees and migrants are stranded in Greece due to that agreement and border closures across the Balkan region.

'Until the doors of Moria close'

Syriza's Lesbos branch has decried the takeover of its headquarters as "adventurous".

In a statement, the party accused the protesters of strengthening "xenophobic and racist voices" that have been stoking anti-refugee sentiment on the island.

"This extreme attitude of this small group of refugees does not reflect, and far more does not mirror, the thousands of peaceful refugees and immigrants on our island," the statement read.

The Greek government has to be held responsible for turning this beautiful island into a concentration camp for refugees

Arash Hampay

Arash Hampay, a 32-year-old Iranian refugee and the group's spokesperson, says there are two main reasons they decided to occupy Syriza's office.

"Firstly, it is the hall of the ruling party, and it is this government's home," he tells Al Jazeera in the squat.

Arash Hampay is one of 34 refugees occupying Syriza's office in Lesbos [Al Jazeera]

"Secondly, dirty European policies created these conditions for refugees, and it is the 'leftist' government of Greece that is implementing these policies," he adds.

"The Greek government has to be held responsible for turning this beautiful island into a concentration camp for refugees."

Hampay says no aid groups or human rights organisations supported the refugees, including the hunger strikers, during the month-long Sappho Square protest.

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One German politician did visit them, however, but urged them to accept the fact that Europe has closed its borders.

Hampay says he replied: "If Europe wants to close its borders, can it also shut down the arms factories that create refugees as well?"

Although Hampay has asylum in Greece, his brother is still confined to Lesbos while asylum authorities process his application.

Even if his brother is granted permission to leave the island, he says, "I will stay here until the doors of Moria are finally closed."

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