Three devastating fires in as many days have razed the heavily overcrowded asylum-seekers camp at Moria on the Greek island of Lesbos, forcing thousands of residents to seek temporary refuge from baking heat in parking lots, fields and even a cemetery.
No injuries were reported. But the Athens government now faces a stiff challenge to provide shelter for more than 13,000 asylum seekers, among them 4,000 children and hundreds of vulnerable elderly people. It has banned Moria residents from leaving the island.
Thanks to dismal living conditions and slow processing of applications for refugee status, Moria has become a symbol to many activists of the failures and increasing harshness of EU migration policy since almost 2.5m people applied for asylum in the bloc in 2015-16, sparking a political crisis as countries such as Hungary sealed their borders.
“Moria was a ticking time-bomb . . . nobody in the international aid community here is surprised by what’s happened given what people there have endured, especially in recent months,” said Epaminondas Farmakis, co-founder of HumanRights360, an Athens-based non-governmental organisation working on Lesbos.
As they grapple with the task of finding shelter for the residents of Moria, the local health authorities are also trying to contain a fast-spreading outbreak of Covid-19 on Lesbos, including 36 confirmed cases at the camp and dozens more suspected infections.
“We had a Covid-19 isolation unit at the camp but it was shut down last month by the local authorities,” said Faris Al-Jawab, a doctor with the Médecins Sans Frontières team on Lesbos. “Now we have a situation that’s getting out of control. Our view is that all the asylum seekers should be evacuated as soon as possible to the mainland.”
The camp had been under lockdown since March with only a few hundred residents allowed to go out, mostly for medical appointments. When a Somali resident tested positive this month for Covid-19, strict quarantine was imposed with people confined to small living spaces and banned from moving around the camp.
“Medical facilities at the camp were minimal, there were water cuts every day and not enough soap to go round. It was clear that under these conditions coronavirus would take hold,” said Mr Farmakis.
Greece’s centre-right government said its migration policy is “tough but fair”. It has transferred 13,000 asylum seekers from Lesbos and four other island camps to sites on the mainland and stepped up deportations. It has also announced plans to make Moria a closed camp, a move the NGOs strongly oppose.
Babis Petsikos, an aid worker with Lesvos Solidarity, a local NGO, said: “The government’s policy is simple, and it’s being implemented. It’s to make the lives of asylum seekers so difficult in Greece that they stop coming. The result [of this policy] is the burning of Moria.”
The first blaze early on Wednesday destroyed hundreds of container homes as well as the Greek asylum service offices, wiping out computer records of several thousand recent arrivals that had not been backed up, according to one official. The second gutted a tent camp with more than 7,000 occupants and the third an electricity substation that served the camp.
Mousa, a data analyst from Sudan who crossed by boat from Turkey a year ago, said he was more concerned over the destruction of asylum service records than losing his tent and some personal belongings in the fire.
“My asylum interview is still a year away. Now I’m worried that it’ll get pushed back to 2022,” he said.
On Thursday, islanders used municipal rubbish trucks to block access to the Moria site by several army bulldozers ordered to clear the debris so that rebuilding could start. A growing number of inhabitants of Lesbos, fed up with the continuous inflows of asylum seekers from Turkey for the past five years, are pressing the government to shut down the camp permanently.
The European Commission is expected this month to publish its latest attempt at migration policy reform, after years of bitter deadlock over the refusal of some countries to accept the redistribution of asylum seekers from the Mediterranean nations where most arrive.
Critics said the EU has responded to the disunity by hardening a strategy of doing deals with authorities in transit countries such as Turkey and Libya to stop migrants travelling to the bloc. For those that do make it, the bleak conditions in camps such as Moria are supposed to deter others thinking of the same journey — although migration specialists said there is a lack of evidence such an effect exists.
“The danger and the suffering in Moria have been well documented for a long time, and such a disaster was entirely predictable and avoidable,” said Izza Leghtas, a migration expert and consultant. “European governments have been failing the men, women and children seeking refuge on this continent for years, and this shameful situation is the direct result of European policies that have trapped them on this small island in inhumane conditions.”
The number of asylum seekers arriving from Turkey has fallen sharply this year, dropping to 12,000 in the first eight months, compared with 46,000 for the first nine months of 2019, according to figures from the UNHCR, the UN’s refugee agency. Most are Afghans and Syrians. Mr Farmakis said the recent fall in crossings reflected both concerns about the pandemic and the current government’s tighter monitoring of Greece’s maritime border.
Asked if the dire conditions in Moria and this week’s fires were both an inevitable result and an indictment of the EU’s approach to migration, Josep Borrell, the bloc’s foreign policy chief, told the Financial Times: “It is not a secret that, until now, the European Union has failed on revamping their migration ad asylum policy. And the commission is working hard to try to build a new deal to face situations like the one in Greece, which is a relic of what happened in 2016.”