“Sweat, feces and gasoline” – What smells tells us about life in Moria

Access the podcast version of this article here https://soundcloud.com/sensory-activism

Smell is probably our most irrational sense, triggering an immediate reaction without any need for explanation or processing. To explain what goes on in Moria, Europe’s most infamous refugee camp and a testament to the failure of human rights and humanitarianism in the European Union, we could provide you with thousands of testimonies, videos, reports and studies. But all these resources are still unable to transmit the heinous feeling of being in Moria, knowing it exists despite all the rhetoric about protecting refugees. Smell, on the other hand, can be quite effective at describing the real hopelessness of a situation. 

Therefore, it is no wonder that most news reports on Moria will devote at least one line to the sickening stench. A volunteer has aptly described it as a mix of “sweat, feces and gasoline”  and a journalist from the Washington Post was deeply impacted as well, writing: “The first thing you notice is the smell: the stench from open-pit latrines mingling with the odor of thousands of unwashed bodies and the acrid tang of olive trees being burned for warmth”.

The smell is not a coincidence or a fatality. It is the consequence of an overcrowded refugee camp holding people three times its capacity, rife with human rights violations. Residents of Moria lack proper access to clean water, hygienic sanitation, health care and psychological support. This situation is not a new development – at least since 2018, these human rights violations had already been identified by NGOs working on the ground and were reiterated by other reports in 2019

The conditions are dire for all residents, but especially so for women and children. The lack of gender sensitive facilities expose women and girls to gender-based violence and children living in the midst of the camp have tried to commit suicide and many are abused in prostitution in order to survive. The emotional stress and pressure caused by the living conditions have also led to violence among residents, including rape, stabbing and homicide


We could think this situation had completely disempowered residents of Moria, but we would be wrong. On the 3rd and 4th of February, hundreds of Moria’s unwilling residents took to the streets of the port town of Mytilini. Their goal was to demand better living conditions. Videos and testimonies of the protest were shared by journalists on Twitter. However, the protest received little coverage in mainstream media. The refugees were blocked from attending the protest by the Greek police, and the 200 protesters who managed to reach Mytilini were received with tear gas, including children, resulting in injuries among people who tried to escape. Journalists covering the event were also threatened.

Although a few media outlets reported on these attacks, the events were mostly live-tweeted through the hashtag #refugeesgr. An illustration of the importance of social media to call attention to the rights of the Lesbos refugees. 

After dwelling for months and even years in a camp of “sweat, feces and gasoline”, Moria’s residents were still willing to face tear gas and the Greek riot police in the fight for better living conditions. 

By now, European citizens must already have gotten used to the shocking reports concerning Europe’s largest refugee camp. It also seems decision-makers have still not made it a priority. 

The least activists outside of Greece can do is amplify the message of those in Moria. We must remind our fellow citizens that there are over 20,000 people living in appalling conditions on the shores of Europe, with no political solution in sight. 

And perhaps one way we can do that is by spreading this poignant description by freelance journalist Funda Ağırbaş about what the smell tells us about life in Moria:

“With every step you get closer, the air changes as if the oxygen was being extracted from it. As if it were replaced by a bestial stench that turns insidiously. Consequent. That envelops everything, becomes enormously common. Then at some point you don’t notice because he has become normal. Because there is no other air to breathe. The Greek sun intensifies the smell of Moria, which announces misery long before it is visible.” 

who to follow

If you want to support activists on the ground fighting for “another air to breathe” in Moria, here are some people to follow on Twitter:

  • Franziska Grillmeier – @FranziEire
  • Lighthouse Relief – @LighthouseRR
  • Katy Fallon – @katymfallon
  • roberto salomone – @mindeyeheart

Picture by Roberto Salomone (@mindeyeheart] : “An Afghan woman is grabbed by a police officer during clashes between refugees and anti riot police in the center of Mytilini Lesbos on February 4, 2020. Some 300 asylum seekers were peacefully protesting against the inhuman conditions of the Moria camp.”

Author: Margarida Costa Da Silva Catela Teixeira

Margarida is a feminist activist working with both grassroots feminist groups and established women’s organizations in Portugal and Europe. With a background in Cinema, Philosophy and Human Rights, she is particularly interested in ending sexual exploitation of women and girls in all its forms and seizing upon innovative and gender sensitive ways of communication to do so.

4 thoughts on ““Sweat, feces and gasoline” – What smells tells us about life in Moria”

  1. I enjoyed reading this article. You have correctly captured the importance of images and media in enabling people to become invested in events in different parts of the world. Furthermore, it has noted how the rise of videos is consistent with the innate human need for visual evidence.

    I agree with you that the visual representation of communities and events has a consequential effect on the level of engagement that they receive from audiences across the world. I think the blog has demonstrated the impact that developing a visual vocabulary of an event determines its relevance and reach. However, you could have done more to highlight the importance of visual representation in increasing audience interest in a story or events in different parts of the world.

    1. Hey Masudur! Actually, trying to write a blogposts from the perspective of “smell” made me realize how dependent we are in our activism in just sight and hearing. Since many of my fellow writers have been devoting a lot of attention to sight, I thought I would steer away from that topic for this particular blogpost, but I understand your perspective – if you don’t visually exist on the web, you basically don’t exist at all.

      1. Margarida, above you write ‘if you don’t visually exist on the web, you basically don’t exist at all’. To that I say: unless you have podcasts! Then you can also exist in audio on the web as well 😉
        Access the podcast version of this article here https://soundcloud.com/sensory-activism

        I really enjoyed how this article was so efficient in bringing up senses (that are not sight) into the picture. Our society is too focused on sight and I was really impressed how you somehow made the experience of this blogpost come more vivid and encompassing by bringing in the sense of smell. I really enjoyed recording this blog post.

        1. You’re absolutely right Amanda, and thank you 🙂 I’m very happy you enjoyed the blog post and it was fantastic to hear it in a podcast!

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