Written by: Anna Nardone, Arina Lopukhina
Until now, the Moria migrant facility on the Greek island of Lesbos was seen as the most faithful representation of hell on earth, despite rarely making big headlines. Nobody could predict that, after the fire occurred in the night between the 8th and the 9th of September, this image could have been worse.
Built in 2015, the Moria Reception and Identification Centre was the largest refugee camp in Europe, a symbol of the inefficiency of the current European policy in terms of migration and asylum. In fact, when the fire broke out, the facility sheltered people more than four times the allowed capacity, forcing them to live in appalling living conditions. The residents, mainly, migrants from Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, and Pakistan, were housed in shacks surrounded by garbage with no running water and electricity.
The cause of the fire is not clear yet. Last week, the Greek government arrested five residents of the camp, claiming their aim was to protest against the 179 days of COVID lockdown they had been under. In fact, the pandemic has degraded the situation already dramatic: in the facility, at least 35 people were isolated after testing positive for the virus. The residents of the camp did not dispose of enough information about the virus, and now they feel more hopeless than ever.
After the destruction of the camp, around 12500 people started living in the streets of Lesbos with no possibility to reach the main city, Mytilene. As the riot police of the island were blocking and attacking them with tear gas, the refugees could not even provide food and water for themselves and their children, even though the precious help of NGO workers, activists, and volunteers has been fundamental. The Greek government decided to transfer to the mainland only 400 unaccompanied minors but refused to shelter all the remaining people living in the street.
The Story of the Facility
Certainly, Moria would not be the same today if it wasn’t for the current migration policy, as well as the agreement between the European Union and Turkey aimed at regulating the Eastern Mediterranean Route. Since March 2016, the plan has imposed the decision to push all the migrants trying to reach Europe back to Turkey, with all the costs covered by the European Union. For Turkey, this deal has represented a way to “blackmail” Europe for years, treating all the refugees as a potential weapon against it .
The treaty wrote the destiny of Moria and redefined its meaning. In fact, the camp was initially conceived as a temporary shelter for a few days, due to the increasing arrivals from the East. This was the crucial step before the transfer of people to another European country. In 2017, the transfer program had been suspended, causing the desperate overcrowding and the terrible misery of the camp before the fire. In addition, the uncertain condition of the refugees on Lesbos has to deal with the tensions with the police and the local residents, making the situation even more dramatic.
While the situation was getting worse, the Greek government had to face the problem without support from the Central and Northern European countries. According to the New York Times, since March 2020 thousands of asylum seekers have been dropped at the sea by Greek officials, in the complete silence of a Europe struggling with the pandemic.
After the destruction of Moria, around 5000 people are now being housed in the new emergency facility in Kara Tepe, near the capital Mytilene. The capacity of the new facility has been expanded to 12,000 according to the Greek government, with 6180 new residents, although many remain wary of the new accommodation. Nevertheless, the former residents of Moria are afraid their condition is going to remain tragic, with no assistance and basic service.
The asylum seekers are stuck: if on the one hand they are not allowed to leave the island, on the other the government already stated it will not accept the asylum applications unless they move to the new camp.
As it is, for now, Lesbos is an enormous open-air prison.
The New Pact of Migration
Over the past two weeks, the New Pact on Migration and Asylum has become a widely discussed topic in European media. Presented on September 23 by the European Commission, the Pact aims at fixing the mistakes of the 2016 reform and at helping to resolve the ongoing problems with the inflow of refugees and uncontrolled migration. By amending the Council Directive (EC) 2003/109, the Commission aspires to improve border control screening procedures for asylum seekers, especially in terms of ensuring the safety of women and children, as well as foster better communication between the EU countries regarding the matter. However, despite the promising pitch, numerous aspects point to the fact that the Pact might yield controversial results. Instead of easing the life-threatening challenges migrants face, the new legislation rather seems to focus on benefiting the state governments.
As Amnesty International’s Advocacy Director pointed out, the first major issue of the Pact is presuming continuous reliance on camp detentions. Even if border screening becomes more rapid, this will not drastically diminish the number of detainees, thus it will be as hazardous to keep people crammed together. Apart from the previously mentioned threats, with no COVID-19 vaccine in sight, detention centers such as Moria are also an easy target for potential virus outbreaks. Moreover, the new laws regarding Member States’ role in accommodating migrants’ needs allows countries to “choose whether to welcome, pay, or repatriate human beings fleeing their home countries”. As witnessed over the past decade, most states are reluctant to accept refugees to their territory, therefore they would rather sponsor returns of the latter to another EU-member or even their country of origin. In fact, Hungary, Poland, and the Czech Republic have already publicly expressed their negative opinion on the Pact, insisting that the EU should “seal the borders” and restrict the flow of illegal migrants. Remarkably, Viktor Orban stated that “Budapest will not agree to anything that could lead to Hungary being under obligation to take in people coming from the Middle East or Africa”. Such blunt unwillingness to provide assistance to asylum seekers, let alone granting them the right to reside, puts thousands of displaced people’s lives at risk, and the New Pact on Migration and Asylum would only aggravate the situation.