The Moria fires one year on
In the early hours of 9 September 2020, a fire raged through Moria Refugee Camp on the island of Lesvos. Thousands of asylum seekers and refugees fled for their lives, once again, seeking shelter to protect themselves and their families from the flames that burnt the overcrowded camp to the ground.
The Greek Government had no evacuation plan for a camp that at some point hosted over 20.000 people, exceeding 7 times its capacity. Fire blazed through tents in a matter of minutes. Once again, Moria residents had to flee in search for afety, leaving their few belongings behind, without any support or plan.
Between 12,000-13,000 survivors of torture, survivors of war and violence, pregnant women, children and babies, people with disabilities and severe medical condition, slept on the streets for days without access to toilets or running water, and limited access to food, drinking water and medical attention.
The fire was the culmination of almost six months of a Government imposed lockdown on the camp that aggravated the preexisting inhumane conditions. Greece, and the European Union, blatantly disregarded the multiple calls for action of international and local organisations and civil society over the years, ignoring the imminent risk that could come about from housing people in such conditions. Camp residents were disproportionately targeted by lockdown measures that strongly impacted the residents’ mental health.
On 12 September 2020, the Ministry of Migration and Asylum announced that a temporary accommodation area with tents, running water and supplies’ had been created, and invited everyone to go to the new camp to be registered and accommodated. According to information provided by the first residents of the new temporary accommodation, the camp had no running water, soap, showers, functioning toilets, blankets inside the tents, baby food or electricity, and many waited for hours under the sun and even through the night to be housed. Its location near the sea made the camp susceptible to strong winds and flooding. Additionally, Human Rights Watch and many other organizations raised serious concerns about the possibility of lead in the soil. There were many other protection concerns, for example, unrecognised minors were sleeping in big Rubb halls with hundreds of single male adults, there was no protected area for many of the single women or female heads of household that were not transferred to safe shelters, and people with disabilities and medical conditions slept on the floor of humid tents, without any consideration of their special needs. The hopes of "No Moria Morias", as raised by the European Commission, quickly extinguished.
Despite the significant decrease in the number of persons living in the Mavrovouni Camp and the construction efforts that have been carried out in the camp in the last 12 months, asylum seekers and refugees continue to live in dire conditions, while navigating a rushed, complicated, everchanging, and most of the times unfair asylum procedure with limited access to legal information and support.
While Greece has opened its borders for tourism, residents of Mavrovouni camp -regardless of their vaccination status- are not allowed to leave the site unless they have an appointment with a lawyer, hospital or other authorities, or one time per week for three hours.
The Greek Government shielded itself from criticism by alleging that Mavrovouni was an emergency and temporary solution and that a new and humane facility would be built. In the meantime, other dignified accommodation structures like Kara Tepe and Pikpa were closed.
The plans for the new centers bring no hope for how Europe welcomes asylum seekers. New controlled centres far from the cities – such as the one built in Samos or the one planned for Lesvos − and the setting up of high concrete walls surrounding current camps − such as Ritsona Camp − further isolate already vulnerable populations. At the land border between Greece and Turkey, new advanced technologies and the construction of more walls are being used to deter people from seeking safety in Europe.
In March 2021, during a joint press conference with the Greek Minister of Migration and Asylum, the EU Commissioner expressed that it was their priority to treat asylum seekers “as human beings with rights and dignity”. The recent changes in Greek regulation continue to contradict this statement. In July 2020, a new regulation established Turkey as a safe country for nationals of Syria, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia and Bangladesh, denying them the right to seek asylum in Greece and forcing them to go back to a country that does not offer effective access to international protection. Additionally, Turkey has refused to take back rejected asylum seekers for over 18 months subjecting thousands to a legal and protection limbo. Recently a new Deportations and Returns Bill was passed restricting once more the right to asylum in Greece. The new Bill facilitates deportation and return procedures, imposes new fees for subsequent applications, and restricts the activity of organisations that work in areas under responsibility of the Coast Guard, imposing criminal sanctions and fines.
Over the last six years, Greece and the EU have focused their efforts in hindering asylum seekers' access to international protection in Europe through a lack of safe passage and means of regular entry, as well as pushbacks and the militarisation and externalisation of migration and asylum policies. To those that are able to reach the safe shores of Europe, undignified conditions, unfair and arbitrary asylum procedures and concrete walls await: a clear dishonor to the European principles. The fire that destroyed Moria was not a casualty, but the inevitable result of 6 years of containment and entrapment policies of vulnerable populations in overcrowded, squalid, and inhumane facilities.
Europe should stop closing the door to those seeking protection. Europe should stop externalising asylumpolicies. Europe should stop violating international and European law by abolishing the right to seek asylum. What we ask is simple: create safe and legal pathways and dignified asylum reception conditionsfor the people in need of international protection, so ‘no more Morias’ becomes a reality.