A response to the EU Commissioner for Home Affairs Ylva Johansson’s statement and visit to Lesvos
30 March 2021
After the fire that burnt down Moria Camp in September 2020, the EU Commissioner for Home Affairs Ylva Johansson pledged: “No More Morias”. However, just days later, the European Commission announced the establishment of a taskforce to improve the situation on the island and implement a joint pilot, in coordination with the Greek authorities, for new ‘reception facilities’ with even more movement restrictions for asylum seekers. Following these statements, Mavrovouni Camp was set up on Lesvos with the oversight of the EU task force.
Yesterday, in a fleeting 20 minute visit, the Commissioner, together with Greece’s Minister of Migration Notis Mitarakis, assessed Mavrovouni camp where asylum seekers have been forced to live for the past six months in horrifying conditions that she has described as “unfortunate”.
Over 6.500 people live in Mavrovouni camp in alarming conditions. People with serious medical conditions - cancer, hepatitis B and other chronic diseases - sleep in poorly insulated tents that are susceptible to flooding during frequent winter storms. People in wheelchairs are pushed through mud in order to access small, inadequate and dirty chemical toilets. Men queue for hours in order to receive barely-edible food to feed their families. During most of the winter months, people had to choose between cold bucket showers or no showers, while living amidst scabies, fleas, rats and snakes.
One third of the population in the camp are children; many of them arrive alone without any family members to care for them. Due to lack of expertise or rushed procedures, many children are wrongly assessed as adults and denied the rights they are entitled to as unaccompanied minors. They are housed with the general population in the camp where they are exposed to violence. Children have limited or no access to education and play in the mud at a site formerly used as a military firing range. According to MSF, at least 49 young children have attempted suicide or had suicidal ideations in Lesvos in 2020. In blatant disregard of these alarming concerns, neither the Commissioner nor the Minister have provided answers to how the worsening mental health crisis of already traumatized individuals will be addressed in another controlled camp, despite knowing that such new camp will be even further isolated from the mental health, protection and psycho-educational centers established in the town of Mytilini.
Pursuant to lockdown measures the local population on Lesvos is entitled to exercise outside or go to shops, and yet asylum seekers live by different standards. They must wait for their file number to be called on the weekly lists that are provided by camp management, so they can go through multiple police checkpoints to purchase whatever they can afford with the 70 euros monthly assistance from the government. Both the Commissioner and the Minister described the controlled nature of the new camp in Lesvos, including the benefit that movement restrictions will have for the local population. This seems to be a very harmful discourse, suggesting that allowing people’s freedom of movement would somehow be dangerous or damaging to locals.
Whilst the Greek government vocally praises itself for the increased levels of safety inside the new camp, NGOs on the ground continue to report a different reality. Concerns have been raised about the increased levels of violence, especially against women who are too scared to go to toilets at night due to lack of proper lighting and adequate safety measures. Following the rape of a three year old child in December, organizations on the ground report that at least three other people have been sexually abused in the camp in the last month. After six months, there are still no safe areas for the most vulnerable and accommodation alternatives in Lesvos have or will be shut down by the government in the following few weeks. During the press conference, the Minister announced that the new camp will not be ready until at least after the summer. If the priority is to treat people as “human beings with rights and dignity,” as the Commissioner stated, it is unclear why more adequate accommodation structures will be shut down before the camp “with dignified conditions” is set up. No acknowledgement was made regarding the thousands of people, including children and people with medical conditions and disabilities, that will continue to be trapped in the horrifying conditions of Mavrovouni for the months to come.
In total disregard of the numerous joint statements presented by legal organizations on the 2020 Greek asylum law, the Commissioner and the Minister praised the Greek asylum system as the second best in Europe and denied it having any structural issues. However, reality seems to be very different to the “fair and swift” system described in the press conference. In the appalling context of Mavrovouni camp, asylum seekers are rushed through online asylum interviews conducted by caseworkers, many lacking the expertise to deal with vulnerable populations. These interviews are currently taking place within 3 to 7 days after being registered in the camp which makes legal, mental health or medical support close to impossible. These rushed interviews with limited or no access to legal information or representation are the defining factor that will establish whether a human being will be welcomed into Europe or deported back; or as the Commissioner puts it: “not allowed to stay”.
This situation is not, as the EU Commissioner says, unfortunate. On the contrary, it is the result of the systematic implementation of practices that contradict the most basic values and commitments that Europe claims to stand for. It is not a coincidence that, as the Commissioner correctly says, “arrivals have been at their lowest for 8 years”. The reduced arrivals can be explained by hundreds of illegal pushbacks in the Aegean sea that have been reported by dozens of organizations including UNHCR and Human Rights Watch; but that the Minister seemed to qualify as “fake news” while highlighting the importance of protecting the borders. It is also not a surprise that, as the Commissioner says, “backlogs are being cleared”. Rather than representing a “high quality” asylum procedure, this is the result of the rushed processes described above that force highly vulnerable asylum seekers through undignified interviews that do not respect their fundamental rights.
It is extremely concerning that the majority of legal organizations on Lesvos, including the chair of the Legal Working Group, have been excluded from yesterday's NGO meeting with the Commissioner. Organizations providing legal and protection services to survivors of sexual violence and torture, people with severe medical issues and disabilities and unaccompanied children, all people classified as vulnerable and in need of special reception conditions, have a unique insight into the specific issues faced by some of the most vulnerable in the camp. If the Commissioner came to Lesvos to truly listen, we believe it was paramount that voices of the legal, advocacy, protection and rights organizations were included in the conversation, especially those that have been consistently reporting on the inhumane reception conditions in the camp, and successfully taken Greece to the European Court of Human Rights on the basis of such conditions.
Contrary to the Commissioner’s statements, the long awaited Pact on Asylum and Migration, presented by the European Commission at the end of 2020, provides no hope for better treatment of asylum seekers on European soil. Instead, it seems to further seal off its borders, mirror the current regulations on reception conditions and fast track procedures without any guarantees for the protection of fundamental rights. Fenix believes this will lead to an increase in detention, protection gaps, severe suffering for individuals already fleeing the worst kinds of violence and an increase in the burden of the already overwhelmed host communities in the borders of Europe. The existence of Morias is not, as the Commissioner suggests, the result of the lack of a Europeanized solution, but the consequence of five years of European entrapment policies.
We live on a continent that has sufficient knowledge, tools and resources to handle the reception of asylum seekers with an approach based on solidarity, dignity and empowerment. Yet, European leaders seem to struggle to find the political courage or will to turn their promises into actions. Forced migration demands a practical and moral response that considers the long term consequences of its current undignified and inhumane practices.
The values of tolerance, dignity, collective solidarity and adherence to human rights are the very foundation of the European Union; but these values remain lacking in the current response to the refugee crisis.
A clear change in direction is urgently needed.
It is time that ‘No More Morias’ becomes a reality.