[Fire in the camp, credit: stonisi.gr]
Last Tuesday night, Moria Camp, Lesvos, burned to the ground, and the whole of European refugee policy was thrown into utter disarray.
Initial reports indicate that some few among the refugees started the blaze. The fire appeared to have started from multiple locations inside the camp, firefighters were obstructed in the efforts to extinguish it, and, on the following days and nights, further blazes were ignited, likely to ensure that entirety of the camp would be utterly incinerated.
There have been no reports of fatalities. It seems the 12,000 refugees who were trapped in the camp designed to house just 3,000 managed to escape relatively unharmed. Many, however, have lost what few possessions they might have managed to take with them in their flight from their home countries. That will include passports, identity and asylum application documents, preciously guarded for years in the seemingly hopeless quest for refuge.
Without food, shelter or water, the 12,000 were forced onto the highway outside the camp. There, they were encircled by riot police, who barricaded the road and forcefully pushed back any who tried to approach the island capital, Mytilene.
[Refugees on the highway after the fire, credit: humans of moria, instagram]
A state of emergency was declared on the island and the Greek Prime Minister, Kyriakos Mitsotakis, held a crisis meeting of senior officials to address the situation. Their response so far has been a mix of emergency humanitarian relief, use of force by police to reassert control over refugee movement, and the expedited implementation - with even greater determination - of new, closed facilities on the island.
“Events taking place in Moria raise serious issues of national security, humanity and protection of public health,” said government spokesman Stelios Petsas. Later, his tone became more punitive. “The camp was set on fire by refugees and migrants who wanted to blackmail the government in order to get them off the island immediately.”
Minister for Immigration and Asylum, Panagiotis Mitarachis, noted that the fires “demonstrate the need to speed up the process of creating a closed controlled structure,” while Prime Mistotakis reiterated on Monday that “it is an opportunity to create a permanent structure [on Lesvos], which will not carry the negative legacy and the many problems of Moria.” He too accused “some ‘hyperactive’ immigrants… [who] wanted to possibly blackmail the government by demanding their immediate removal.”
[A second fire at Moria, credit: stonisi.gr]
The government’s proposals continues to be opposed by civil society across Greece. One statement from the Board of Directors of the Association of Athens sharply rebutted the governments apportioning of blame for the incident.
“Regardless of whether the natural perpetrator of the fire is ‘our bad luck,’ agents, jihadists, outraged refugees or local fascists, the moral perpetrator of the “premeditated crime” is all governments and parties that agree on its policy. Open or closed structures, including the local authorities, who ostentatiously listened to the constant demands of organizations, unions, doctors and residents for the release of refugees and the decongestion of structures.”
Such demands, made continuously over the course of years, were again repeated - notably in a petition signed by more than 200 European NGOs - as well as by representatives of the Greek people at all levels of government. Local council faction leader Panagiotis Christofas stated that “the solution of repairing and reusing the space is a non-solution, as is the possibility of creating a new structure in any other part of the island.”
The regional Governor, Costas Moutzouris, announced that “the regional authority, expressing the will and indignation of the residents of Lesvos, states that it will not accept any new structure and asks the Government to make coordinated moves in cooperation with European countries to resolve the problem.” And MP Costas Arvanitis, of the opposition party Syriza, accused the immigration minister of “playing the government fairy tale… not doing the slightest thing for Europe to assume its responsibilities.”
These criticism are in line with the majority of the citizens of Lesvos, long since fed-up with the Government’s failure to manage the orderly passage of people coming from Turkey.
“We will not accept again any operation of immigrant camps in the wider area of Moria,” the Association of Moria village said in a statement. “We make a constant call for mobilization if there is any attempt to place containers or tents in our area and a new settlement of people.”
Local mobilizations have followed in line with these announcements. A crowd of islanders gathered outside an old military camp last Wednesday to protest its usage as a temporary housing centre for the refugees, prompting the military to withdraw.
[Locals gather outside an army base to protest its temporary use as refugee housing, credit: stonisi.gr]
Local anger undoubtedly fuels anti-refugee and racist sentiment, which has been exacerbated and even enabled by the Government’s attitudes.
Vigilantes and extremists have reportedly attacked refugees stranded outside the burned camp. One national guard soldier stationed on the island has been dismissed for posting a photo of himself on social media in uniform with his rifle, writing that he was looking forward to target practice on “natural moving targets.”
In the midst of this debate, help is pouring into the site of the disaster. Aid groups are scrambling to provide relief in the form of emergency supplies and facilities – like the new medical clinic set up in a spare warehouse by Doctors Without Borders/Medesen San Frontier in just two days.
Emergency assistance is pouring in from all directions: Belgium has sent a C130 military cargo plane with a fully equipped team of doctors and nurses. Germany has sent 500 tents and announced it will immediately take 1500 more migrants currently held on the islands. Austria is adding temporary accommodation for 2000 people, and a team of doctors and nurses from its army – though still, Chancellor Sebastien Kurz is ruling out accepting any refugees.
Meanwhile, Greece itself has expedited the transfer of unaccompanied minors off the island, evacuating 400 over the weekend. There is talk of further imminent transfers, and of alternative accommodation solutions, such as the requisitioning of cruise ships.
[400 unaccompanied minors are evacuated from Lesvos, credit: stonisi]
That such resources can be so quickly marshalled is, in one way, heartening. But, in another way, it begs the question: why has it taken a catastrophe such as this to trigger what should have happened years ago? Why was it necessary for some among the refugees – subject for years to indefinite, arbitrary imprisonment in the most appalling conditions imaginable, faced with the certain prospect of an uncontrolled outbreak of coronavirus among their overcrowded number – to be driven to the point where they would allegedly burn down their own homes before adequate attention was given?
This is not to excuse the actions of the presumed arsonists. It is simply to echo the observations of Greek civil society itself, that such a conflagration is an entirely predictable outcome of the sordid, lamentable affair that is the Greek Government’s management – pitifully supported by the rest of Europe – of refugees coming to their shores.
That the government was able, in the course of just a few days, to set up new temporary accommodation on the island to house 5000 - something it has been unable to do for years - is nothing short of scandalous.
[One of several new temporary shelters, credit; humans of moria, instagram]
Many of the refugees are relocating there. But others remain on the highway, where they have been sleeping in the open for almost a week, refusing to comply. Their situation worsens by the day.
“The new structure is a prison and that is why we are not going to enter!” One Afghan family told local Greek media.
Protests organized by the refugees, demanding to be evacuated from the island, have been met by tear gas and police batons. Video footage shows men, women and small children with bruises and bleeding wounds from police action. Those who attempt to enter the cities to procure food from the supermarkets are likewise met by police.
[Refugees protesting on the highway have been met by a heavy police presence, credit: humans of mora, instagram]
It’s hardly surprising that attempts by the government to transfer refugees to another facility are met with such resistance. They should expect that resistance to continue to come, not just from refugees, but from Greek citizens as well, as they press ahead with their plans to build a new centre.
The pressure on the EU is greater than ever to finally evacuate all refugees from Lesvos and resettle them permanently in destination countries.