When a refugee camp burns to the ground

Written for the Initium 

The night of 8th of September 2020, the hilltop military base surrounded by olive groves that in 2015 the EU transformed into a hotspot for the hundred of thousands of migrants reaching by boat the island of Lesbos from nearby Turkey, went on fire. 

For days the rapid blaze destroyed most of Moria camp so that people had to flee with their maigre belongings and settle in the dark of the night, on the parking lots of supermarkets and shops on the road leading to Mytilini. The access to the main port of the island was blocked by a series of police buses, restricting the area where the 13.000 stranded from the camp, organised themselves some temporary shelters to spend the night. Amongst the debris of the burnt camp that still smelt like ashes and burnt plastic, for some days migrants still tried to survive, cooking the food that was saved from the fire on the big camp’s market. People were still looking to collect their belongings: some clothes, a small child bicycle, an old pot for cooking. 

They were mainly from Syria and Afghanistan, some of them had their asylum requests denied, all of them still had in mind that same question I heard repeating as a mantra on the past four years: when are they letting us leaving this island? 

People were only passing by Moria back in 2015, when the camp was chosen to be a hectic giant filter, where the thousands of migrants arriving would be screened and fingerprinted. They were traveling with a backpack of essential things and the eyes pointing towards the new destination on their journey towards Northern Europe, with the hope of a new life. Those who made it through their dangerous journeys, paying smugglers something like 1200€ to cross the smallest strait of sea dividing Turkey with the European Union, were received with hot tea and blankets by humanitarian workers and volunteer activists. Every early morning dozens of boats were reaching the island of Lesbos, and their passengers were quickly transferred to Moria with UNHCR buses for registration. People had the choice to either move on towards a new border, to ask asylum in Greece or to rather apply to the so-called temporary emergency relocation scheme. Most people chose the first option. 

The misery of life for the refugees in 2015 was temporary, but became permanent after years of EU’s policies designed to curb illegal migration, therefore at the eve of the fire, Moria camp had become a permanent structure, accommodating five or six times more people that those it was designed too, in a quite inhumane condition. Now, even their documents were turned to ashes by the blaze. 

A new state of emergency was called for the island and again, in a state of emergency, the ‘Fortress Europe’ had to face the necessity of rethinking its inadequate migration policy, yet without modifying its fundaments, five years after the images of the death body of the little Alan Kurdi, drowned while trying to cross the sea from Turkey to Greece, shocked the whole world. 

##Those Excluded

“I am looking for my mum. Do you know how I can find her?” an Afghan child asked me in good English while yanking on my trousers. “I haven’t seen her since we escaped the fire, I don’t know where to find her, to whom to ask”. The days after the blaze, the people stranded all around the area seemed to be completely lost. 

“Come with me please” suddenly a woman told me. “This man just had a stroke. He has lost consciousness. What should we do? He cannot move”. No authorities were there to help, no NGO was allowed to provide people assistance. People were stranded, hungry, in the parking lot of a supermarket that wouldn’t open, because of their presence. “Please could you buy some bread for my children in the supermarket? They don’t let us in” a woman asked me while almost crying out of desperation. 

Through the windows of the shop I could see the staff looking outside to the crowd of people. They were ready to open, but they wouldn’t. None was allowed to step in. Government trucks were passing by every now and then, throwing packs of water towards the migrants that had to fiercely compete to be saved from thirst. Some people were tripping while chasing the truck and several bottles of water crashed on the soil sprouting liquid everywhere. People were stuck in an area surrounded by police checkpoints, forbidden to leave, controlled by Greek police officers positioned all along the area of the olive groves who were often chasing somebody trying to force the block. 

To protect themselves from the torrid midday sun migrants started to build up temporary shelters with tree branches, but soon organised themselves to protest against the situation they found themselves in. “We don’t want to return to Moria”, “we don’t need food, we need freedom”, “we don’t want to be a political sacrifice”, “we don’t want to go to a new camp” they were shouting in the numerous demonstrations the days following the fire. In the meantime, the Greek government was doing exactly that: building a new camp in the former military shooting base of Kara Tepe, where to accommodate the people stranded from Moria camp. People had to be registered, be tested for Covid-19 and move to the new camp under lockdown measures. 

“If we go there, we’ll be in prison again” four Afghan women were saying while looking at the Greek army working to set up the new tents. “We did not come to Europe to be locked down there. We don’t need another Moria. We don’t need another hell”. The women had slept in a tent on the side of the road for several nights but had no intention to register and enter into the camp, for how much more comfortable it seemed to be. They were afraid the camp would not be a temporary solution but a permanent one, as it was the case for the one of Moria. 

In 2015 over 800.000 entered Greece from Turkey and initially Europe was more tolerant towards the new arrivals, considering that many of them were leaving the terrible Syrian war. With the rise of nationalism and political populism many EU’s member countries started to progressively closing their borders, leaving thousands stranded in Greece. Moria became a squalid overcrowded structure symbolising Europe’s hardening approach to migrants in the aftermath of the 2015 crisis. EU’s countries did not cooperate to allow the emergency relocation scheme, an attempt to take 160,000 refugees from the beleaguered frontline states of Greece and Italy and share them between EU’s states, to function. Countries like Hungary and Poland decided not to take any refugees. The scheme moreover, applied only to nationalities with a 75 percent average recognition rate of international protection across the whole of the EU, leaving Afghan people, the most numerous group of people seeking protection, outside of the plan. 

In March 2016 the EU signed a pact with Turkey offering 6bn euros and promising visa-free travel to the EU for Turkish citizens, to prevent sea crossing, improve facilities for mainly Syrian refugees and return people who were not entitled for asylum. The number of crossings decreased drastically due to the increased Turkish controls. The migrants who were already in Europe would be held in the Greek islands pending their asylum procedure. Due to a chronic shortage of staff, it sometimes took years to determine whether someone was entitled to asylum and therefore asylum seekers ended up staying longer than expected in the camp of Moria, stripped off of their human and political rights. The situation has not been better in other camps on nearby Greek islands which before the fire were accommodating over 23,000 people crammed into camps built for just 6,000, according to recent statistics compiled by aid groups.  

‘The situation in the camps is totally inhumane and untenable’, Caroline Willemen of Doctors without Borders (MSF)  had told me in mid-August, few weeks before the final arson. Because of the enormous crowds - you can smell camp Moria far before you see it - there are widespread scabies in the camp, as is diarrhea. There is an average of one shower for every 600 inhabitants, a significant proportion of residents are seriously considering suicide and with only three government-paid doctors working in the largest reception camp in the EU, the many sick migrants rely mainly on aid organizations. That also applies to the children. Doctors without Borders (MSF) alone treats an average of 120 sick children a day. This means that there is an incessant queue every day in front of the mobile clinic. A line of mothers with children who have stopped talking, children who have stopped sleeping, children aged 10 who have started to urinate in their bed again. 

Because it is also difficult to leave the camp due to the coronavirus (the lockdown has been lifted throughout Greece, except in the refugee camps), the aggression is also increasingly visible”, says Willemen. “We see violence every day. There have been stabbing at night, aggressions, robberies’ ‘. MSF had defined in one of its recent reports the unlawful lockdown as “toxic,” “blatant discrimination,” and “absolutely unjustified from a public health point of view”. The lockdown was extended until August 31st, despite the fact that MSF and others had confirmed how there was no public health justification for such measures, which violated national, regional and international law, including Article 14 of the European Convention on Human Rights, and Article 21 of the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union. “People have become always more enraged and desperate for the endless delays of asylum procedures and the conditions in which they are forced to live” Caroline Willemen concluded. 

##Before and after the Ashes

A few weeks before Moria burnt down I had met Ahmed, a Syrian refugee who started to work with the NGOs ‘Refugee for Refugee’ to provide assistance to other people in camp. According to Ahmed, the pandemic was used to detain people in the camp and make them invisible on the island. “The situation in the camp has deteriorated since they enforce the lockdown. The camp has become increasingly unsafe” he tells me when showing me his tents.

“There were gangs of Afghans migrants robbing people at night, opening our tents, trying to steal our telephones. We call them Ali Baba. Sometimes they even steal our food” Ahmed continued. 

“We don’t even go out at night” Ndayenge, a woman from Kinshasa, Congo, had told me that same day. She said she was often sleeping in the day to be awake at night and that she used a bucket to pee, afraid to leave her shelter in Moria camp. 

In the lockdown period the Reception and Identification Service was only allowing permission to just 120 people each day, less than 1% of Moria’s camp population. These requests had to be done the day before a person wished to leave the camp for specified purposes. People found without authorisation from the Greek police faced a fine of 150€. At least until September 2nd the camp of Moria managed to keep coronavirus away, until a 40-year-old man from Somalia, who had been granted refugee status and returned to Moria camp after failing to settle in Athens, was tested positive. In the following days other 35 people were tested positive for Covid-19 and a decision was taken to lockdown Moria camp again. One night later, the camp was burning. 

Authorities said the fire was deliberately lit by the migrants after the camp was locked down, because a number of residents had tested positive for COVID-19. Aid workers have said that the fire began sometime after 10 pm on the following protest against the recent coronavirus restriction and that is quickly spreading because of the strong winds and the explosion of gas canisters. The president of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen expressed “deep sorrow” for the fire and the EU’s executive arm decided to immediately help relocate the 400 unaccompanied minors to mainland Greece and onward to new homes in EU member states.

On the other edge on the island, in the small tourist town of Sigri, a ferryboat was parked on the port to serve as a makeshift hotel for the most vulnerable, as Ylva Johansoon, European Commissioner for migration, had anticipated. The Greek government has so far arrested six Afghans whom they accuse of setting the fires that razed Moria to the ground. Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis, elected last year pledging to take a tougher line on migration and restart deportation, ending the four-years left-wing government of Alexis Tsipras, said that the disaster could “become an opportunity to deliver better conditions and a new reality in Lesbos”. 

Mitsotakis, who months earlier had proposed to build a 2.7 kilometres floating dam between Turkey and Lesbos, immediately declared the state of emergency for the island and declared that all accompanied minors would be transferred to the mainland. Two of the minors which were transferred to Thessaloniki, were later arrested as responsible for the arson in the camp.  

“The Covid-19 pandemic is not only being instrumentalised to detain migrants, but it also appears that the continued prolongation of the lockdown is paving the way towards the Greek government’s long and publicly-held objective of creating closed centres for migrants” tells me Efi Latsousi, core team member of Lesbos Solidarity and winner of the Nansen Refugee Award 2016. 

Originally from Athens, Latsoudi moved to Lesbos in 2001 and started the Pipka camp, which hosts people with disabilities, young offenders and the most vulnerable people on the island. Its legions of volunteers offer access to medical care, education, legal assistance, food, clothes and, crucially, a sense of dignity and respect. Yet, the government has just communicated to Pipka that in October the center will face an eviction. 

“In the past years we witnessed a change of narrative towards the refugees and the NGOs operating in Lesbos” Latsoudi tells me. “In 2015 all the world was seeing what was happening on this island. It became a humanitarian crisis so that even organisations like UNHCR, IRC and the Red Cross stepped in and started to operate inside Europe for the first time. At the time the solidarity movement was very strong, NGOs were coming from all over the world to bring support, some even started their work here. However, since 2015 the pressures have become too heavy for the humanitarian sector: NGOs started to be targeted because people started to believe that all NGOs are corrupted and are part of the problem. NGOs were criminalised, in a political contest that shifted always more toward xenophobia, racism and fascism. In March of 2020, after Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan threatened to “open the gate” and let refugees enter into Greece, a wave of protests by angry local people in Lesbos turned into violent fights between them and NGOs workers, journalists, volunteers, tourists and every car who seemed not to be from local people” Latsoudi recalls. “If all of this happens, and goes unpunished, imagine how vulnerable the refugees have become now. The worst behaviours have been legitimised. It doesn’t constitute a crime anymore to do push backs at the sea and to violate human rights. A few months ago people blocked a boat of migrants docking on Lesbos island: people were shouting to send them back, or to drown them. The only narrative surviving now is the one of avoiding in every way to let migrants reaching the island.” 

“I cannot believe this is the best we can do in Europe. I believe we can provide better solutions”. Latsoudi continues.

##A Future to Nowhere

In the small fishermen village of Skala Sikaminias, one hour drive north of Moria camp, life now seems to have returned to normal. Fishermen are going out during the night for catching their prays, tavernas are open to accommodate the few tourists, and there is a feeling of relaxation. 

This village however, five years ago was the epicentre of the arrivals of migrants from Turkey to Greece. For a period, thousands people everyday were arriving to the coast of Skala Sikaminias, during the night or in the first hours of the day. 

“Some nights there were more than fifty boats making the crossing, I don’t know how many people would have died if we weren’t there to help them” Stratis Valamios tells me, a local fisherman who was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2016 after having saved hundreds of life of refugees stranded in the sea. “For a period in 2015 I have fished more people than fishes out of the sea” Stratis tells me. “We were rescuing the children first and then their parents, if they hadn’t already drowned. At that time there was a nice sense of welcoming in the island, most of the islanders descend from Greek refugees forced over the Aegean Sea by boat from Turkey in 1922 when both sides expelled their minorities. But five years later I can say that that feeling is now gone. People want to have their island back” 

He continues, sipping a coffee sitting on the taverna where he occasionally works in its town. This year the season is again finishing early, as there isn’t much tourism since 2015. “Although those migrants have surely been the biggest victims of this crisis, we have also become victims. Life on the island have become always more difficult to us, as we have been associated with the flow of refugees. We faced an emergency, and we helped solved it, but for how long do we have to live like this? Before the Covid-19 outbreak, boats were still arriving here overnight.”

“We cannot blame the refugees. If they were to put 15.000 Greeks in a camp like Moria, we would have probably burnt the camp in two weeks. For us, however, it’s time to change. They have transformed an international problem into our problem, we cannot continue like this” Stratis says.  

There is a general feeling among local people in Lesbos to have become the forgotten victims of the situation. They have seen people coming from distant conflicts all throughout these years, even when the lights of international television shut off but. When rumours of the construction of a second closed camp to receive migrants started to circulate, the islanders reacted with strong hostility, joining in protest to express their opposition. Several protests took place in Moria village, a normal laid-back village whose existence completely changed with the construction of the camp. 

“Europe gives us money to build a prison in Moria. And as a result we are scared to walk out at night, to let our children free, to spend a day at the nearby beach where we have always been going. We are tired. It’s time to have our island back!” said Kleoniki Chronis, president of the Moria village residents’ association, during a protest nearby the camp in August. Protesters were stopping a bus with refugees, waving black flags and shouting slogans against the camp and the NGOs working on it. 

The anger of the local population against refugees and NGOs workers have reached such a level that even local people still engaged in solidarity nowadays feel threatened. Niko Katsouris is a local fishermen and restaurateur who decided to cook for migrants and refugees during the crisis in 2015 and has never stopped since. Having grown up in Lesbos he knows most people in the island, but because of his solidarity work, his fellow citizens now avoid him, boycott his restaurant and his fish shop. “Customers I know since 20 years now think I am the one perpetuating the migration problem, just because I think it’s fair to help. However, I will not stop. Many of these people just need a chance, they need to be cared off, they can’t be abandoned like this in Moria” Nikos continues. “I am just doing what I can do.” 

He tells me while we drive towards its home, where he started a garden employing people from South Sudan, Syria and Iraq in agriculture. “They come here for some hours everyday. For them it’s good to be away from the atmosphere of the camp and to gain some money with their work. Despite all the difficulties I am happy to help, there is nothing else I could do” Nikos tells me. He later shows me photos of the van he used to transport the fish from his shop to the city. He was completely smashed by some local angry people in March of this year, yet Nikos is determined not to give up. “I personally cannot contribute to making life impossible for people who have already lost everything,” Nikos concludes. 

“We have had very tense days with local population attacks on our staff. Under those circumstances, we do what we can” head of the UNHCR mission on Lesbos Astrid Castelein also said. These days, she has been trying to convince the migrants to enter the new camp in Karatepe, despite their resistance. “Europe must do something now that we are here by the thousands on the streets in front of the world press” Castelein said. The Greek government has announced that last Monday a total of 9.200 people have been transferred to the new facility, and that the process of examining their asylum application has been launched. A number of 243 people have tested positive at Covid-19, the 3.44% of the people which have been tested, and are now under lockdown, again. 

In the meantime, the latest plan to overhaul migration policy was released by the European Commission last week, proposing stronger measures to return people whose asylum claims were rejected and dropping the plan of a new mandatory distribution of asylum seekers across the bloc because of the aversion of several member states. The Commission has created a new “solidarity and responsibility” mechanism, where countries that do not want to accept applicants can instead opt to manage the return of people who are denied asylum. So far according to EU data, of the 370.000 application rejected each year, only one-third of the people are expelled from the bloc. The Commission proposes now the appointment of a EU Return Coordinator. The new plan does not change the EU’s Dublin Regulations that ensure that the first EU country of entry is generally responsible for the asylum seeker’s registration,which have put huge responsibility on the weaker shoulders of Europe’s Mediterranean states, while Norther European states had the power to ping-pong people back to where the people first registered. Greece had therefore decided to be the bad policeman to ease the pressures at its borders,  deliberately maintaining a dysfunctional asylum system in the hope to deter migrants to come 

“They thought that if they burned Moria they would be able to leave the island undetected” government spokesman Stelios declared. “This is not going to happen.” At the gates of the Fortress Europe, life is being made impossible for migrants who dare to break in, to deter other people to embark in the same experiences. Everyone, including those have nowhere else to go back to, including those who are seeking international protection because returning it’s not an option. 

Published version on: https://theinitium.com/article/20201002-international-lesvos-refugee-camp/

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