One year after the notorious Moria Camp on the Greek Island of Lesvos burned down refugees are still living in bad conditions.
By Shirin Tinnesand, 10.09.2021
It has now been 1 year since Moria Camp, often referred to as Europe’s largest refugee camp had burnt down, – and I was there that night. I witnessed the high flames and the dark smoke that forced the refugees into yet another displacement. The asylum seekers emerged out of the flames with no more than what they could carry, which was usually a backpack, a small plastic-bag of things, coupled with one of two children in their arms. Whatever they could not carry were most likely lost. I had been on Lesvos for the larger half of 2020, including the lockdown, working with Stand By Me Lesvos, a local Greek NGO that focuses on education, empowerment and environment. While I had come to Lesvos with a fair amount of skepticism towards NGOs, I liked this NGO because it was true grassroot, and it did not accept volunteers, but instead focused on utilizing the manpower and resources which were already on the island – with me being one of their rare exceptions to their team. Moreover, Stand By Me Lesvos’ role was more like a bridge between the outside world and Moria Camp. What people don’t know they can learn, and what they already know they should be able to use, opposed to providing direct aid which risks limiting the autonomy of refugees by victimizing them into paralysis.
Anyhow, I had a lot of persons in my contact list, and through WhatsApp, I was checking if everyone I knew had gotten themselves out. For those who had not, I tried to guide them out. If you ever visited Moria after the fire, then you would have seen that from the remnants of what looked like a nuclear explosion, where everything was painted black by ash and metal had melted into bent shapes, there was only 1 location from Zone 12 still standing. This is the place formerly known as Moria Lyceum. The place was operated by a self organized refugee-group known as Moria Academia where refugees where providing education to other refugees, and this place was protected by a security-team consisting of some young Afghan men. When I asked about their whereabouts, they responded with a video of themselves still on the site of Lyceum, each of them with a fire extinguisher in their hands, some cloth wrapped around their nose and mouth, with Afghan music playing in the background. They laugh and calmy tell me “Shiiiiriiiin, Moria fire, but no problem, no problem!”. Meanwhile, the background of the video is completely covered in red and enraged flames reaching to the sky. In contrast to how peaceful the young afghans perceived their situation I reply with immediate panic: GET OUT!!! Leave Lyceum!! To this day, I still do not think any amount of education or training could have prepared me for the absurdity that this video-moment depicted. However, this was only the first of many reminders that I would get a first-hand experience over the year that followed.
While the fire of Moria certainly marks itself as a contemporary tragedy, then it was in its aftermath also a source of optimism. To fully grasp this aspect one must revisit earlier events, starting at the beginning of 2020 when several violent clashes took place in Lesvos. This violence also affected both press and NGO staff, which resulted in NGOs mass-evacuating the island. Thus, when the pandemic arrived at the beginning of March, the support of aid in Moria Camp had gone from over 100 NGOs to a figure around 15. Forcing the 20-something-thousand refugees to face the pandemic completely unprepared and unassisted. It was in this vacuum that refugees organized themselves to solve their own problems, and with that the refugeegroups Moria Corona Awareness Team (MCAT), Moria White Helmets (MWH) and Moria Academia submerged. While operating different projects, then what all of these groups have in common is that they set out to solve their own problems. They have since established a role inside the camp as effective agents of aid by refugees for refugees, proving that they are more than capable to take on several of the unskilled tasks which were formerly perceived as the role of NGOs, such as distribution, education and waste management. Moreover, they managed to create an international platform through their social media pages and press in which they could speak for themselves and communicate out their own perception of hardship – in some instances correct or discipline NGO misconduct.
Proving many times over that refugees are normal human beings, while yes, in an unfortunate situation, they can still do things for themselves, just as they are able to speak for themselves, and it is these groups who have written several open letters addressed to the EU. Both Omid Alizadah from MCAT and Raed Al Obaid from MWH would make phone and video-interviews from their makeshift plastic-tents in Moria Camp. Omid, the Afghan pharmacist would emphasize the lack of privilege of Moria Camp to follow WHO covid-preventative advice. ‘Stay at home’ became ‘stay in your tent/camp’, but how to wash your hands when there was no water available? How to keep a distance when thousands of people were pushed together in the same foodline several times a day? While Raed, the human safety risk analyst from Syria would simply tell the press: we are here, waiting to find out how we are going to die. Perhaps Raed’s statement sounds dramatic, however, Raed was not wrong. The hotspot of Moria resembled more the description of a state-administered refugee slum, as the camp lacked infrastructure, water-, protection- and health services, accompanied by the ubiquity of violence. Violence which for the most party were administered by small in-camp groups simply referred to as ‘Ali Baba’ or ‘mafia’. Several of them incriminating young unaccompanied minors to their midst through a recruitment process of the boys being presented with the ultimatum of either being with them or against them. Stabbings had become commonplace, and so had rape, and as a consequence, female residents slept in diapers at night to avoid getting out of their tents. The U.S. Embassy & Consulate in Greece published a report that documents 18 knife attacks at Moria Center, summarizing 6 deaths and 14 individuals seriously injured and hospitalized over the first half of 2020. However, only few of these deaths ever made any headline past the local papers because it was perceived by activists as “leverage for right-wing extremists”, among other anti-refugee groups. This, coupled with a lack of criticism throughout from the NGOs. The press would respond to the information of these deaths with a disbelief since the main source of information, being the NGOs, would for a large part keep silent about it. Or they would pretend to be active, while not having a single representative on the island, and thus, knew nothing about it. If anything, the Dutch NGO ‘Movement On The Ground’, which was operative in this time period, by hosting refugees in the informal outskirt of this camp, had the audacity of describing their “CampUs project” as the ‘blueprint of refugee camps’.
Despite most of these conditions being well-documented and well-known to the rest of Europe, then the residents of the camp saw little improvement to their hazardous conditions. Over summer 2020, Greece opened their border for tourism and the NGOs returned, but simultaneously kept the camp in a lockdown under the pretense of covid-prevention – this despite the fact that there had not been a single documented covid-case in camp at this point. While the Greek government was able to make several transfers, then the social temperature kept operating at a near boiling-pressure simply waiting for the last percent to ignite the explosion. Finally, the inevitable happened: at the 8th and 9th of September 2020 Moria Camp was ablaze. Although it forced thousands of refugees into temporary homelessness, scattered across Mytilene’s roadside, then the fire marked the end of Moria Camp and the beginning of something new which surely could not get worse than what the refugees had already had to endure. The EU Commissioner Ylva Johanson proudly made the promise of ‘No More Morias’ and pledged to a so-called ‘more humane approach’ alongside Mr. Mitsotakis, the Prime Minister of Greece, – it did however not take long until this slogan turned into “No More Lies”.
“No More Lies”
Following the floods affecting the central-Europe, and the heatwaves causing wildfires at the Southern of Europe, it is easy to draw parallels to the aid and support the refugees from Moria RIC received, compared to European citizens. For example, it took over 8 weeks for the asylum seekers to receive any shower-option with the proposed solution manifesting into a 10L bucket filled with cold water in an enclosed space with hardly any privacy, a solution that was derived and implemented by the UN.
Meanwhile, the EU, the Greek ministers tried to cover up the poor conditions in the camp over winter. Die Welt publishes an article on 01.20.21, where they had gained access to an EU report about conditions in Mavrouvoni Camp, summarizing non-existent conditions such as: “Suitable radiant heaters” are available to heat the tents, “at least one per family”. Heaters were only distributed to cover the small number of residents who were temporarily living inside the rub-halls. As it was not possible to distribute the heaters to the residents due to a lack of a generator powerful enough to supply the electricity required. In February the local newspaper Stonisi states again that both blankets and radiators had been distributed to the residents to deal with the minus-degrees. Moreover, Mr. Mitaraki had been on a midnight-inspection and stated that “the extreme weather conditions have not created any particular problems”. In reality, a third of the camp was without electricity this night. This is revealed the next day when Stand By Me Lesvos make a call for donations to cover 200 meters of cable that had left the biggest zone in Camp without electricity for over 24 hours. Due to the delay of the contractor, and gimmick infrastructure solutions by certain NGOs, the refugees were – as they were over covid-19 – dependent upon themselves in finding solutions to their problems. Hence why Moria White Helmets has been in charge of installing and maintaining electric cables in the camp since November 2020, under the supervision, and in cooperation with the Camp Management’s Technical Department, – while Stand By Me Lesvos has been financing the electrical costs of the camp. Shortly after, the refugee groups publish videos stating that they never received any heaters, and that the EU, Greece and UN are all lying. No single European citizen would have ever accepted such a stateresponse to any emergency!
Moria is inherently political, – not a humanitarian disaster
“Moria hotspots” are ultimately the creations of failed politics, meaning a political problem, hence why it requires a political resolve. A humanitarian crisis can be remedied with resources; competent manpower, finances, and materials, but all of this was offered and received by the Greek Government and the NGOs too – so, why did it have to take nearly a full year to get some basic infrastructure? They all received large amount of donations to remedy the situation – whatever happened to all the money? 1 year later, these donations remain unaccounted for as several NGOs reject transparency around how much money they were donated, and for which purpose, – and they have since fundraised even more large amounts.
The Greek government had initially contracted a Greek construction company. They also contracted certain NGOs whom majority are all operating with short-term and unskilled volunteers to conduct the ‘winterization’- process, which means to make the camp ready for winter. While the Greek construction company was supposed to complete this job within 2,5 months of time, then the construction company did not even start working until the end of January 2021, 2 weeks past initial deadline. Consequently, the winterization process fell largely upon NGOs with clear shortcomings, as they neither had the appropriate competence, nor the correct type of equipment to conduct this type of work.
No reason to celebrate
It is only now that any visible improvement is made in the new camp at Lesvos. As the UNHCR celebrates “70 years of life-saving protection”, then the refugees rights being upheld is nothing worth celebrating over. Merely a week prior to UNHCR turning 70, an infant baby died inside Moria’s predecessor after choking on food. If anything, the UNHCR has been strikingly passive to all events unfolding inside the camps rather than pursuing the fulfillment of refugee’s rights per rule of law. While some criticism was offered by the refugees, alongside some legal and medical NGOs, then several of them can be said to have been painfully passive. Despite Mrs. Johansson officially recognizing the new camps’ inadequacy, when she stated last Spring that the Winter hardship of 2021 was “unfortunate” and “must be avoided”. With the new proposed camp’s distant geographic placement in ‘no-mans-land’, then these promises will most likely come true. However, regardless of which promises are being made towards a new camp, then one ought to address the problems of the current and past camp too, where the residents had their rights repeatedly violated. Yet, no consequence or other actions of accountability has been carried out. To which it must be emphasized that the responsibility of the EU, the UN and the Greek state towards refugees and asylum seekers is not an optional effort, but a mandatory obligation through the rule of law.
Whereas the human consequence of all this is immeasurable, as RSA published a report titled “The vanishing education of refugee children in Greece”, and IRC publishes another report stating that every third person in the camp reports suicidal thoughts, while one in five reports having made attempts to take their own life. With the now expected migrant influx from Afghanistan, European countries do what they do best and respond with ever taller walls and a new set of laws.
This article was published in a shortened version in German by medico International. Shirin Tinnesand is working for the Greek NGO Stand by me Lesvos, a close partner of Wadi.