Part 3 of a series written by Inês, our Advocacy Officer at Fenix, for Revista Visão. Through the stories of 7 people, Layla, Armand, Sophie, Joseph, Jean, Marie and Thérès, Inês illustrates the difficulties that migrants face in their journey to Europe and the challenging situation they deal with once they arrive.
Just when you think things can't get any worse, reality shows you that everything can get worse than it already is… and that life can always become more difficult.
When the first case of Covid-19 in Moria was identified on 2 September 2020, the Greek government imposed a temporary movement ban on residents of the Camp (from 2 to 15 September). This blockade followed a set of measures restricting entry and exit that had already been in place for over 165 days. On 3 September, the Athens executive body announced that the camp would now be fenced off and closed. They justified this decision by the need to control the pandemic through offering greater security to both residents and the local community. In the days that followed, there was a large increase in the number of positive cases of Covid-19. To make things worse, in the early hours of 8-9 September, a fire quickly consumed a large part of Moria Camp, destroying not only the tents in which people slept, but also a substantial part of their few belongings. Much of the support infrastructure was also burnt down, including the premises of medical organisations, the tent of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and the European Asylum Support Office (EASO).
For years, the Greek government and the institutions of the European Union have ignored calls and warnings about the dangers of keeping so many people in unhealthy, inhumane conditions. The calls for attention came from asylum seekers and refugees, local and international NGOs and a wide variety of charities. On the night of the fire, many of the 13,000 residents in Moria were asleep. All were forced to flee on foot with little more than what they had with them. Asylum seekers and refugees with health problems or mobility difficulties were left to recover on their own.
Layla, Armand, Sophie, Joseph, Jean, Marie and Thérèse, the group of asylum seekers we have been following, were also taken by surprise. They, like almost everyone in Moria, were used to tent fires, but the fire on September 9 was on another level. Layla fled with only the clothes she had on her body and a small bag of her documents. After leaving the camp and trying to figure out what had happened, she started walking towards Mytilene, the nearest town. Armand, who was a minor but still registered as an adult, only managed to take a few items of clothing with him apart from the clothes he was wearing. He lost everything else including his documents. He tried again to argue that he was a minor, but was again ignored and so he continued to have no support. Joseph, struggling to move around, only managed to get out of his tent once the fire had already started to destroy it. He narrowly avoided being burnt and only managed to bring some of the documents he had. Once finally out of Moria Camp, Jean, Marie and Thérèse sought protection in a nearby wooded area. Thérèse - the minor daughter - was left with minor burns on her arms.
News of what was happening spread quickly. Volunteers and health and social workers were able to move in almost immediately, trying to help people who urgently needed immediate support. However, shortly after this informal aid process began, police or mobs began to prevent both aid workers trying to enter Moria and residents trying to flee to Mytilene. Some 13,000 asylum seekers and refugees - including the most vulnerable - were forced to sleep on the streets with almost nothing. Contrary to what the Greek Minister of Migration and Asylum said, the supply of food and water during the days after the fire was far from uninterrupted. Given the blockades imposed by the police and the violence against aid workers, the distribution of essential goods was impossible for several days.When distribution finally did take place, not everyone was made aware of the exact location of the few distribution sites given the huge number of people affected. Finally, the most vulnerable people had particular difficulty in accessing water and food since they could not move or stand in long queues to receive these essentials. On the other hand, medical support proved to be very limited and almost always at the initiative of NGOs. The lack of toilet facilities and water access points was also a major concern, especially given the impossibility of social distancing and other measures necessary to prevent the spread of Covid-19.
During the following days, Jean's family, Marie and Thérèse, were housed by an NGO based near the Moria camp, where they received food and water. Layla, Armand, Sophie and Joseph slept in the car park of a supermarket, sharing the space with hundreds of other people. Most days they were unable to access the food and water that was distributed.
A new camp, presented as temporary accommodation, has since been set up. The Greek government announced that the new space would have decent infrastructure, access to food, drinking water, electricity and toilets for everyone who needed it. On 12 September, the authorities began to transfer asylum seekers and refugees, who had been scattered since the fire on 9 September, to the site. After European Commissioner Ylva Johansson had said "No more Morias", the reality was again dramatic, now in Moria 2.0. Ten months after its construction, the space continues without viable living conditions for its inhabitants. Currently, there are still around 5,000 asylum seekers and refugees. The camp is still dominated by tents that are poorly adapted to the cold and humidity coming from the sea, the rain and the mud, and the heat and the dust. The specific needs of people with reduced mobility or other limitations also remain largely overlooked. The quantity and quality of the food leaves much to be desired. During autumn and winter, showers had no hot water. Outbreaks of scabies have occurred. The presence of rats and fleas, cockroaches and other insects is constant. Spaces for more vulnerable groups, such as unaccompanied women or minors in the age determination process, are still non-existent.
The new camp was also presented as safer. However, violence continues to be a constant issue, with the awful living conditions and widespread despair exacerbating aggression and tension within the camp. Not only are people forced to live in these conditions, but there is information about the progress of asylum requests. At the same time, there has been no improvement in the capacity to transfer victims of violence, and individuals with greater physical or psychological vulnerabilities, to other, safer, places - quite the contrary.
Exacerbating the day-to-day reality, in the face of silence from the EU institutions, the Greek Government has passed legislation that further restricts the rights and guarantees of asylum seekers and refugees. By way of example, I cite the rule that, in 2021, Turkey is now considered a safe third country for persons fleeing Syria, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Somalia throughout Greece (mainland Greece and islands). These nationalities accounted for around 70% of new asylum applications in 2020. At the current moment, in EU member states, apparently, no one expects the material and emotional reality anymore, that the legal protection of asylum seekers and refugees will improve in the coming months or years. While we witness constant political debates about what to do with these people, they continue to live in undignified conditions, with no prospect of a fundamental positive change in European asylum policy.
What has happened in the meantime to Layla, Armand, Sophie, Joseph, Jean, Marie and Thérèse? That is what I will tell you about in the next few chronicles.