Moria camp tragedy is a wake-up call for Europe's failed migration policy

Moria camp tragedy is a wake-up call for Europe's failed migration policy
The fire that destroyed Greece's Moria refugee camp highlights the failure of a political calculus designed to create misery.
6 min read
16 September, 2020
Critics have called on the EU to radically overhaul its migration policies. [Getty]
Last week, three fires started on the outskirts of the notorious Moria camp on the Greek island of Lesbos. 

Caught by warm summer winds, they gathered momentum and moved inwards. As the fire engulfed makeshift tents and ISO-boxes, the 13,000 camp residents fled. By the morning, almost all of the camp had burned to the ground.

Fires in Moria were not uncommon. Cramped living conditions, flammable tents and limited access to cooking equipment forced people to use open fires in dangerous circumstances for cooking and warmth. A six year-old child died from one such fire in March.

But this fire was different - it appears deliberate and its material destruction of the camp is near total. 

Questions remain as to whether it was lit by protesting refugees or organised far-right groups; and how 13,000 people were kept trapped in this holding pen during the pandemic, despite relentless demands to evacuate them. 

EU migration policy 

Anna Benedictsson is a 28-year-old from Sweden who has worked with Search and Rescue and a legal support organisation in Lesbos since 2018. "Moria was built on an old military base to house around 2,500 asylum seekers in very basic facilities," Benedictsson tells The New Arab

The EU allowed Moria to become a hell in order to stop people from coming to Europe

The legislation that forced so many to live in Moria can be traced back to the EU-Turkey deal in 2016. The memorandum designated a limited number of 'hotspot' areas to "manage migratory flows". This means that newly arrived refugees in Greece were required to stay in the hotspot whilst their asylum decision was processed. 

As people kept arriving on the Aegean islands fleeing continued violence in nearby countries, numbers and overcrowding swelled. Over 22,000 were crammed into the shanty-like space at its height.

Read more: 'No one should be left to die': Fighting to
protect refugees in Europe amid Covid-19

"The EU could have admitted the EU-Turkey deal to be a failed deal years ago, and reconsidered their whole approach to asylum reception" says Benedictsson.

Instead, the deal has now expired but no radically different solutions have been tabled. 

Life in Moria 

Since it was built, living conditions in the camp have deteriorated. 

"People spent hours a day in line waiting just to get the basics they need to survive. Three hours for food, two hours for the toilet. 250 people would be forced to share a single toilet and shower facility," Benedictsson says.

"And there was no effective access to medical care, no effective access to rehabilitation for survivors of torture, rape and war".

Asylum procedures could also be near impossible to follow. "I met a woman who missed her asylum interview because she was giving birth. The asylum service rejected her claim because she didn't show up, and there was no lawyer available to help her appeal that decision," says Benedictsson. 

Since the right-wing New Democracy party resumed power in July 2019 there has been a marked escalation in anti-refugee rhetoric and policy

Siavash Shahabi is a refugee from Iran living in Greece who is among those who argue that the conditions in Moria camp are deliberately designed as a deterrence measure. "The EU allowed Moria to become a hell in order to stop people from coming to Europe," says Shahabi. 

Greek politics and the far right

Since the right-wing New Democracy party resumed power in July 2019 there has been a marked escalation in anti-refugee rhetoric and policy. Some members of the dissolved neo-Nazi Golden Dawn party swell its ranks. Critics argue that greater restrictions on refugees are being used by New Democracy to distract the electorate from other unpopular measures. 

Read more: Refugee groups fearful as Greek government brings back dictatorship-era anti-protest law

Lesbos and other Aegean islands have been a stage for Europe's far-right. In March a number of far-right and fascist organisations descended on the islands to back protests by locals against plans to build new refugee detention facilities. In the last month, their campaigns have escalated again.

"Just like in March, fascist groups have been back to attack, sabotage and threaten both humanitarian workers and asylum seekers," says Benedictsson. Some residents of the camp believe that it is groups such as these that set the fires in Moria.

Read more: The city where young migrants risk everything to escape Greece's immigration nightmare

Siavash Shahabi describes their presence on the night of the fire. "When people fled, the far-right moped gangs were waiting. Some threatened the refugees with guns and cudgels, and the police did virtually nothing to protect them."

Protest not working 

People living inside Moria camp have also repeatedly peacefully protested, demanding the evacuation of the camp in the face of the Covid-19 pandemic.

"They tried letters. They had rallies, marches, hunger strikes - it did not work. Nobody heard them. Nothing improved. The answer they received was silence: and now, more tear gas," says Shahabi.

Solidarity protests around Europe also mounted through 2020 but were unable to achieve change; whilst some European cities pledged to take small numbers of refugees from the camps, the number moved to safe housing remains low. 

For now, 13,000 refugees sleep rough on the fields, roads and cemeteries of Lesbos island, exhausted and hungry

Covid-19 in Moria

Moria was placed into lockdown at the onset of the pandemic. The closure measures were stricter than those placed on the rest of the country including that of the rest of the island of Lesbos. It was enforced despite no cases being found in the camp until September.

Yousif Al Shewaili is a refugee from Iraq who lived in Moria for two years. He volunteered independently and with a number of organisations supporting other refugees in the camp. 

"Whilst everyone in Moria was locked inside, health and hygiene facilities were not improved. We still had to queue for three hours with no distance for food. We still didn't have any masks," Al Shewaili told The New Arab.

Read more: 'Catastrophe is coming': Disaster looms as
coronavirus reaches Greek refugee camps

Yousif describes the mood in the camp before the fire.  "People were becoming very stressed. They knew that coronavirus had entered the camp and that there were still few options to get treated here. They looked at the one NGO-provided quarantine area - closed wooden boxes with no ventilators or doctors - and thought: we are being left to die". 

Shahabi echoes this sentiment. "When the policy pursued by the authorities is 'let them die', you can understand how people might take the only action possible. Can we really call the fire a tragedy?" 

What next?

The Greek Minister for Migration, Notis Mitarachi, has laid out plans to reconstruct Moria, but this time with more extensive prison-like controls.

Critics have called on the Greek government, the EU and its member states to radically overhaul these migration policies, warning that nothing short of total evacuation will simply rebuild the tinderbox.

For now, 13,000 refugees sleep rough on the fields, roads and cemeteries of Lesbos island, exhausted and hungry.

Keira Dignan is a freelance journalist and librarian based in Athens, Greece

Follow her on Twitter: @DignanKeira