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.
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Since 2008, an average of 26.4 million people per year have been forcibly displaced by weather-related hazards. This is the equivalent of one person being displaced per second every day. The UN Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre (IDMC) and the Norwegian Refugee Council identify natural disasters as the number one cause for the international displacement of people. Many of those displaced find refuge within their own region or country. In fact, almost two-thirds (61%) of all new internal displacement in 2018 was triggered by natural disasters such as floods, windstorms, earthquakes or droughts. Others, however, are forced to go abroad and seek refuge in a foreign country.
Migrants fleeing their home country for environmental reasons are informally called “climate refugees.” They broadly fall into two groups: on the one hand, those fleeing immediate natural disasters such as storms, droughts or earthquakes, and on the other hand, those fleeing climate impacts that deteriorate over time, like rising ocean levels and desert expansion. With climate change, the number of both types of climate refugees is set to rise for years to come. The response to this global challenge of displacement has thus far been limited, and protection remains lacking.
Traditional asylum law is based on the 1951 Geneva Convention, which grants a right to asylum to people who “have a well-founded fear of being persecuted because of their race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, and are unable or unwilling to seek protection from their home countries.” Although the Convention is a living document and it is possible to push the boundaries of these definitions, shoehorning climate refugees into it has proven to be a challenging undertaking. The 1951 definition of a refugee is hard to apply to those who are forced to flee their home due to environmental disasters; climate change does not fall under “persecution,” nor are any of the grounds for persecution compatible with haphazard natural catastrophes.
Environmental migration can take many forms. Sometimes it is forced, sometimes voluntary, often somewhere in a grey zone in between. The very notion of climate refugees seems to challenge the boundaries of asylum law as we know it. It blurs the line between economic and political migrants, a dichotomy which lies at the core of the 1951 Convention. Moreover, instead of focusing cross-border movement as the Geneva Convention does, climate change displacement forces us to consider internal displacement, as the majority of today’s climate refugees are displaced within the borders of their own country. As such, the 1951 definition of a refugee is clearly not applicable to those who are forced to flee their home due to environmental disasters; climate change does not fall under “persecution,” nor are any of the grounds for persecution compatible with haphazard natural catastrophes.
The European Parliament has recognised that the “protection gap” for climate refugees is a problem. In his 2015 State of the Union speech, then European Commission President, Jean-Claude Juncker, said: 'Climate change is one of the root causes of a new migration phenomenon. Climate refugees will become a new challenge – if we do not act swiftly'. Five years later, there is still no formal legal definition of who exactly qualifies as a climate refugee, nor any formal protection under existing international law.
Laws are slow to adapt to the reality of increasingly frequent and accelerated natural disasters, but there has been some progress. In January, a landmark decision by the United Nations Human Rights Committee found it unlawful to force climate refugees to return to their home countries. While a UN Committee judgment is not formally binding on countries, it points to legal obligations that countries have under international law, and individual countries have to consider it within their own legal systems.
The ruling is the first of its kind to explicitly find that governments must take into account climate-related human rights violations when they consider deporting asylum seekers. Although on a personal level, the man at the centre of the case, Mr. Teitiota, was not considered at imminent risk of death upon deportation, and therefore lost his case, the ruling did open the door to a more concrete legal framework for climate refugees.
Nature does not stop for anyone; as climate emergencies become more frequent, many more cases like Mr. Teitiota’s will be brought to courts all over the globe. Needless to say, it is beyond time to integrate environmental and climatic factors into migration management laws and policies nationally and internationally, in order to prepare for the waves of climate migration to come.