Manos Moschopoulos is Director for Migration and Inclusion in Europe at the Open Society Foundations
Even by the gloomy standards of the Greek reception system, the fire in the Moria refugee camp is an unprecedented humanitarian disaster. A disaster that was predictable.
In order to enforce the agreement between the EU and Turkey, the Greek governments have prevented refugees from continuing their journey in recent years. As a result, the facilities in the Greek islands are extremely overcrowded. Designed to house fewer than 3,000 people, the Moria camp was home to an estimated 13,000 people, perhaps more. Additional Covid-19 restrictions meant that people were stranded in appalling and dangerous conditions.
It is still unclear how the fire started. Last night, even more fires broke out. We may not know who lit the flame, but we know the causes: a dirty warehouse with more than four times as many people as it can safely contain; an indigenous population suffering the burden of deadly ineffective EU policies; legitimate concerns about Covid-19 in the camp and on the island; and a poisonous cocktail of nationalism, conspiracy and scare tactics. All it took was a match.
Today, the top priority is to provide shelter, food and water for an estimated more than 10,000 homeless refugees. The Greek government seems to believe it will be able to rehabilitate Moria by clearing the charred remains of the existing structures and erecting tents.
She rules out the relocation of refugees to the mainland because she fears it will spread Covid-19. The local population on the island has today placed roadblocks to prevent reconstruction. Your resistance is understandable; they have been promised for years that they will find a solution to the situation.
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It is likely that most refugees will remain homeless for a long time and sleep on the streets and sidewalks, as most did the night before. Worryingly, the government seemed to be downplaying the number of people in need, claiming that only 3,500 refugees were made homeless by the fire. Despite the fact that their own officials claim that at least 8,000 houses in Moria have been destroyed.
Existing tensions between locals, migrants and NGOs on the island have increased in recent months and days as a result of the Covid-19 cases in Moria. These tensions are likely to intensify in the coming days as the government adopts – or even intensifies – malicious presentations in an attempt to blame others.
Many have pointed out how happy it is that no one was killed in the fire. Yet Moria has been killing people for years. Self-harm and suicide are common; last year a baby died of dehydration; Knife wounds, attacks, open sewage, insufficient medical care are the order of the day. Dozens died in Moria.
There will be more such disasters
But one wonders if this dramatic fire had killed people, would the political response be stronger? Would Europe stumble forward like Aylan Kurdi, the boy who washed up on the Turkish coast five years ago, screaming “never again”? Is this the grotesque price it takes to trade?
If the current asylum system remains unchanged, we will continue to experience disasters like this one. It doesn’t have to be. First we must close these camps. The new EU Migration Pact includes even more camps like Moria, despite all indications that they are at the heart of a failed policy.
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Not only do these camps fail to meet our human rights standards, which undermines the EU’s humanitarian position, but they cannot deter people who are desperately fleeing war and poverty. The Greek government had declared it would turn the camps into prisons, posing an even greater danger to those seeking refuge in Europe.
Cities and regions across Europe have offered to resettle refugees from the camps. In Germany, the state of North Rhine-Westphalia has pledged to take in 1,000 refugees displaced by the fire. There are others such as Brandenburg, Thuringia and Berlin. This was preceded by a long nationwide campaign by the municipalities to take in refugees from the Greek islands, a proposal that has so far been blocked by the Federal Ministry of the Interior, which must give the green light to any resettlement.
The atmosphere in Greece will become even more toxic
More voices should join those calling on German and other governments to allow humanitarian aid. Cities outside Germany have also offered to take in refugees and asylum seekers from Greece – about 119 Dutch municipalities in particular. The wish and the infrastructure for an evacuation are present; they only need to be expanded and made permanent through a resettlement program.
Without appropriate EU action, I also fear what will happen to my own country, Greece. The political atmosphere is already very toxic. Yesterday, while the first fire was still burning, officials from the Ministry of Migration Policy informed journalists that “foreign NGOs” were responsible for the fire. The government spokesman then claimed the fire was not an accident and refused to rule out Turkey’s involvement. I fear that the chance of consensus and sensible politics is diminishing. Some now call Greece the Hungary of the Mediterranean. If the EU cannot agree on asylum policy, it may agree that one Hungarian in the EU is completely sufficient.