Thousands of refugees and migrants were forced to flee the overcrowded Moria refugee camp on the Greek island of Lesvos after multiple fires erupted on Tuesday night. Due to the flammable nature of refugee housing at the camp, the fire spread rapidly and by Wednesday morning, most of the containers and tents as well as other facilities had been burned to the ground.
Charity and activist groups on the grounds have confirmed that returning to Moria is not an option, since the camp was effectively destroyed by the fire. Those who were living in Moria are now left with nothing; already traumatized by their experience traveling to Europe, they have now lost the few belongings they still had, with no idea of where they will end up next.
Greek authorities were quick to accuse migrants of deliberately starting the fire as a reaction to COVID-19 related lockdown measures which had just been implemented after 35 people at the camp tested positive for the virus. But the real culprits are not the refugees living at the camp – it is the EU policies that enabled circumstances under which such a blaze or other catastrophe seemed unavoidable.
There have been concerns about poor conditions and overcrowding at Moria, Europe’s largest refugee camp, for years. In theory, it has the capacity to house about 3000 migrants. In reality, it was sheltering over 25000 people at its busiest time. Since the COVID-19 outbreak, that number was halved to about 12000, of which at least 4000 were children and young adults. A number of young unaccompanied migrants were relocated to other EU member states, including the UK (https://www.seraphus.co.uk/news/files/9ceb468e732f0163c7ddd1f8de1d7596-30.php). Even so, the camp was still housing more than four times the number of people it was designed for in abysmal conditions, with many of them sleeping in self-made tents or even in the open air.
During the COVID-19 outbreak, conditions worsened, as it quickly became clear that social distance and good hygiene are impossible to maintain in the overcrowded camps. Doctors Without Borders accused the Greek government and EU leaders of using the pandemic as an excuse to exert control over migrants and refugees. The Doctors without Borders spokesmen went so far to state that the conditions that allowed for this fire to happen were not accidental, but rather a deliberate policy put in place by the EU to deter migrants from coming to the island, which is located just 10 kilometres from the Turkish coast.
This policy failure goes back to the 2015 migration “crisis,” when Germany emerged as one of the only EU countries taking action on the issue by accepting over one million refugees into Germany instead of looking the other way or fighting with other Member States. After the Moria fire, Germany rose to the occasion again, as Armin Laschet, the governor of a region in western Germany, said he was willing to admit up to 1000 refugees from the camp as part of a wider European resettlement programme that has yet to be developed.
That programme is long overdue. Earlier this year, Commission President Ursula von der Leyen promised a new migration pact proposal "right after Easter." It never materialised, because the same disagreements from 2015 persist and grow deeper as time goes on. Greece, Italy and other Southern countries have long sought a mandatory system to redistribute asylum seekers across the EU (which could help empty overcrowded camps like Moria) while Central and Eastern countries like Hungary and Poland are implacably opposed to such compulsory relocations. Now, the proposal is expected to be presented at the end of September, to be discussed by EU ministers during the fall, and be implemented in 2021. Previous delays have come at a great humanitarian cost – and there is no guarantee that this time, the proposals will fare any better.
Ironically, Brussels now said it would help with the immediate relief effort for the Moria camp. European Council President Charles Michel said his "thoughts go out to all those who have been put in danger" while Commission Vice President Margaritas Schinas is due to travel to Greece on Thursday for an emergency meeting.
These empty words are not enough. The EU may not be responsible for all the conflicts that force people from their homes, but there is no doubt about who is to blame for the 12000 displaced people who are homeless following the fire. The EU, with its lack of coherent policy on migration, is fully responsible for the erosion of key humanitarian protection systems, the heightened border security regime, the criminalisation of rescue ships, and for making life in reception camps unbearable for vulnerable people.