The fire in the Moria refugee camp on the Greek island of Lesbos has revealed the full hypocrisy of the European Union's refugee policy. Pressure is growing to finally take action.
Shahrzad made it. She managed to escape the flames that transformed Moria, Europe's largest refugee camp, into a wasteland of scorched earth. But now she doesn't know where to go next. A shy 25-year-old from Afghanistan with delicate features, Shahrzad is sitting in front of the burned-out camp on the Greek island of Lesbos on Wednesday evening with her husband and two small children. What next? "We don't know," she says. They have their documents with them, she says, but little else. "We have hardly anything to eat, just a bit of water. Nobody tells us anything."
The family had been living in Moria for eight months when the fire broke out on Tuesday night, and they were sleeping in their container in the camp. "It was cold. We were wrapped up in our blankets," Shahrzad says.
Then, she smelled smoke. And she knew immediately that something was wrong. "We woke up. When we saw the flames and heard people yelling, we packed up the kids and ran out into the darkness up the hill." They watched the flames in disbelief. Once again, their lives were being dissolved into nothingness.
"Moria was never a good place," Shahrzad says quietly. The perennially overcrowded camp was always a desolate place full of misery and fear and the family was confronted by the anguish every day. But at least they had a roof over their heads.
Almost 13,000 people were suddenly made homeless by the Moria fire and Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis declared a state of emergency for Lesbos. His government plans to temporarily shelter the migrants on warships or ferries in addition to tents.
The cause of the fire has not yet been precisely determined. On Wednesday, Lesbos was rife with all manner of theories, from plausible to absurd. Some were saying it was set by right-wing radicals, others blamed the refugees themselves, while still others were convinced Turkey was behind the blaze as a way of provoking the Greeks. On Thursday, though, the Greek Ministry of Migration Policy announced that the fire had most likely been started by the asylum-seekers themselves as a reaction to the coronavirus quarantine measures that had been imposed.
Lying in Ruins
Undoubtable, however, is the fact that Moria isn't the only thing lying in ruins. European asylum policy is as well.
The European Union wanted to establish Moria as a model. The concept called for asylum applications to be processed within just a few weeks at hotspots located on several Greek islands. Those recognized as refugees would then be distributed to other EU member states, while those whose applications were rejected would be sent back to Turkey. That, at least, was the process codified in the migration deal the EU agreed to with Turkey in 2016.
Little of it has been implemented, though. Instead of rapidly processing asylum applications, Greek officials have been holding asylum-seekers on Lesbos and other Aegean islands for extended periods – several years in some instances. Few refugees have been sent back to Turkey, but hardly any have been allowed to travel onward to northern Europe, either. The result is that more and more people have found themselves stuck on the islands.
The EU sees itself not only as an economic and political power, but also as a moral power. But on Lesbos, the bloc has forfeited whatever might have been left of its moral authority. It is no accident, no act of negligence, that asylum-seekers have been locked up and humiliated in Moria. It is an element of EU migration policy.
A walk through Moria before the fire revealed one of the filthiest, most dangerous places in all of Europe. The people here lived crammed together beneath tarps, with rotting garbage strewn everywhere and streams blocked by dams of plastic waste. The situation on the island had only grown worse in recent weeks due to the corona crisis. Long before that, though, and long before the fire, Moria had already become a symbol of European bigotry. Berlin-based political adviser Gerald Knaus has referred to the camp as a "Guantanamo for refugees."
Shahrzad, the mother from Afghanistan, looks out over the ruins of the camp. As she tells the story of how she fled the terror of the Taliban in Afghanistan by making her way to Greece via Turkey, a dark cloud of smoke once again rises into the blue sky above Moria. Another fire has broken out in the camp on this Wednesday evening and those who sought shelter in the immediate vicinity of the camp after the first blaze begin running for safety. Men heave their families' belongings over their shoulders in black plastic bags, children cry out of fear and women shove their way through the crowd. Panic breaks out.
"Get Out of Here!"
"We have to go. Now. We'll be burned alive," an agitated woman calls out to Shahrzad. The family quickly joins the stream of people heading for the road as they try to escape the burning camp.
Older people in wheelchairs, small children clutching their teddy bears, pregnant women, young families, men, women and children all push their way down the sparsely lit road toward Mytilene, the capital of Lesbos. But they don't get far.
The march comes to an abrupt end at a roadblock set up by riot police from Athens. They are there to ensure that nobody from the immediate vicinity of the camp can escape. "Get out of here! Go back!" a policeman yells at a family with a baby. When a group of migrants lights an adjacent field on fire in protest, the police fire off tear gas. Hundreds of migrants are left with no other choice than to make their way back toward the inferno.
The people stumble over each other, coughing and crying, as they wander around aimlessly in the acrid cloud of tear gas. No form of organized aid is in sight, no agency officials and no emergency personnel. Shahrzad and her family, like thousands of others, are left with no other choice but to lie down for the night on the side of the road.
The fire spreads rapidly in Moria, but it hardly came as a surprise. The catastrophe has been months, if not years, in the making. For refugees, aid workers and doctors on Lesbos, the question was never if the camp would go up in flames, but when. Moria was the most predictable of disasters. And that predictability began with the 2016 refugee deal with Turkey.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel saw the deal as a way of saving her chancellorship following the turbulent refugee summer of 2015. But it quickly became clear that a central element of that plan, that of deporting refugees back to Turkey, wouldn't work. Courts blocked such deportations because they didn't consider Turkey to be safe enough, and asylum officials were taking months to decide on individual cases instead of the days that had been promised.
Prisons for Refugees
Ankara did ramp up its border protection activities and put a stop to most refugee boats departing from the Turkish coast on their way to the Greek islands. Indeed, the number of refugees reaching the islands plunged by 97 percent in the first three years the deal was in effect. But those few refugees who did arrive in Greece were stuck. The camps essentially became prisons for refugees.
Moria, a former military barracks, quickly developed into the bleakest of the island camps. It is situated in the middle of olive groves on a hill circled by concrete walls and barbed wire. There is a kind of main street running through the camp, starting from the gate at the main entrance. When you enter the camp, you walk past a sign reading: "Co-funded by the Internal Security Fund of the European Union," with the contribution listed as 6,167,750 euros.
Inside, there are containers for housing and some homemade market stands, where refugees are selling melons, telephone cards and flashlights.
Food is distributed in the camp three times a day, with residents standing in line for hours to receive one of the food packets, wrapped in plastic. Sometimes, there aren't enough packets for everyone. In line, it is survival of the fittest.
When Pope Francis visited Moria in April 2016, the camp, which was originally designed for 3,000 people, was already overcrowded, and the pope took 12 Syrian refugees back to Italy with him. During the cold winter following his visit, at least five people died in Moria.
By mid-2018, twice as many people were living in Moria than planned. There was no longer enough room for the residents in the containers and they were assigned spots in the olive grove, where flimsy tents and wooden shacks were set up. Soon, the grove was given a bleak nickname: "The Jungle." There were hardly any toilets and women didn't dare leave their tents at night for fear of being raped.
During this period, the Greek government would frequently evacuate refugees from the camp, sometimes hundreds in a single day. It was always just enough to prevent the threat of a mass uprising, but never enough to actually improve conditions in the camp.
The Brink of Collapse
Between July and late September 2019, more than 25,000 refugees reached the Greek islands, almost as many as the entire preceding year. The surge could in no way be compared to 2015, but it was sufficient to drive the camp to the brink of collapse.
Moria continued to grow, first to 10,000 and then, in March 2020, to almost 20,000 people. The camp's infrastructure essentially collapsed, with the water supply and pipes around Moria unable to handle so many people. Water would be unavailable in parts of the camp for hours at a time – every single day. The portable toilets became filthy.
The camp became so large that the power supply also began to fail, leading to some asylum-seekers to tap into the power lines. Psychologists reported children waking up at night screaming and running out of their tents in a panic or cutting themselves with knives. Or trying to commit suicide.
The residents of Lesbos had long tolerated their island being used as a catchment for asylum-seekers from around the world. But the mood among the populace began to shift as well. Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis wanted to build a new camp in the north of the island in 2020 and he sent police early one morning to secure the property. But locals had gathered at the site and they went after the officers, who fought back.
The chaos on Lesbos lasted for two days, before the police finally retreated. From that point on, the people's rage was increasingly directed at the refugees themselves.
The situation for the Greeks was made all the more difficult by the fact that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan felt less and less bound by the refugee deal. The Turkish navy began reducing their patrols before Erdoğan, in March of this year, finally went ahead and opened the border entirely.
In the eyes of some island residents, the refugees had now become little more than a hostile instrument for the Turkish enemy, while NGOs and journalists were seen as enemies of the state. In the port of Mytilene, locals berated a boat full of incoming refugees, yelling: "Go back to Turkey!" Right-wing radicals temporarily took control over parts of the island, while NGOs pulled out aid workers and doctors.
Worries about the Virus
Lesbos was facing a state of emergency – and then the coronavirus arrived in Greece. In the initial months of the pandemic, Lesbos was largely untouched. But government agencies, aid workers and the refugees themselves all knew that the situation would ultimately change. And they all knew that once the virus reached the camp, it would spread quickly. The Greek government developed a plan to address that eventuality, a plan named after the legendary figure thought to be the first female doctor in Greek antiquity: Agnodice.
On March 17, new rules were implemented due to the coronavirus that essentially prohibited refugees from leaving the camp at all. Even those simply wanting to go to the doctor or the supermarket needed to obtain permission from the police. But the majority of the asylum-seekers were already living in the Jungle outside of the camp. Many volunteer helpers had to leave the camp, with only those NGO workers who were absolutely necessary for day-to-day operations allowed to remain.
Andrea Wegener, 45, a faithful Christian from near Cologne, was one of them. She organizes camp logistics on behalf of the NGO Euro Relief and few know the camp as well as she does. She writes a blog documenting conditions at Moria, and in March, she wrote: "It can't be that we will all be surprised when there are suddenly hundreds of corona cases in the camp?! That we aren't prepared at all?! The people are weakened after the winter. There will be more deaths than among comparable populations."
Doctors grew even more concerned about the psychological health of the refugees. In just the first two weeks of April, the NGO Fenix reported 13 incidents of violence against women, while the organization Doctors Without Borders found itself treating an increasing number of rape victims. "I hope that riots don't break out," Wegener wrote in April. "In recent weeks, there has been tension and an atmosphere of latent violence in the air. It's impossible to know exactly how it will be released. The lockdown has not been good for the residents of Moria."
Despite the measures, the virus reached Moria on Sept. 2, with a Somalian man developing a fever and testing positive a short time later. Public officials responded according to plan, implementing even stricter lockdown rules: Nobody at all was allowed in or out. It is a significant challenge to keep the presumed sick and the healthy apart from each other in tight quarters. And inside the camp, rumors began making the rounds that the government wanted to use the virus as an excuse to build a fence around Moria.
The NGOs put up a significant fuss about the mass quarantine, and Doctors Without Borders appealed to Germany: "The German government bears a significant degree of responsibility for the disastrous conditions in Moria." Germany, the organization demanded, had to ensure at the EU level that the people in the camp were protected from the coronavirus.
By Tuesday, the day before the fire, 35 cases had been confirmed in the camp. On orders from the administration, all medical care was discontinued, with the exception of emergencies, and all schools were closed. Camp residents were no longer allowed to go to the supermarket, forcing them to stand in line for their food. Ultimately, the frustration and desperation at the conditions they were living in grew so great that they began setting fire to the camp. That, at least, is the supposition of observers on site.
Since 2014, the European Union has transferred some 2.9 billion euros to Greece to accommodate the refugees, roughly the equivalent of half the annual budge of the UN Refugee Agency, which is responsible for refugees across the entire globe. Nevertheless, Athens hasn't managed over the years to set up a half-way functioning infrastructure for migrants of a kind that could have prevented such an escalation as the one seen this week. And in Brussels, nobody was apparently interested in figuring out how all of that aid money had been spent. Did the governments simply not care? Did they simply not want to see what was going on as long as the migrants stayed in the camp?
Political adviser Gerald Knaus, who is considered the architect of the EU-Turkey deal, is convinced that the conditions in Moria can't merely be explained by the incompetence of the politicians responsible. He believes that the Europeans deliberately tolerate the squalor on Lesbos to deter others who might be interested in making the journey.
Whatever the case, it is indisputable that the governments in Berlin, Paris and Brussels were happy that the refugees in recent years weren't their problem, but that of the Greeks and Italians. The fire in Moria has now put an end to the self-deception that the issue of migration can be outsourced.
The dismay over Moria in European capital cities appears to be significant. "I am deeply sorrowed by last night's events at the Moria refugees camp in Greece," European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen wrote on Twitter. Still, it is debatable whether EU policymakers will learn any lessons from the inferno.
Rebuilding the Camp?
It starts with the fact that the Greeks see no need to change anything about their repressive migration policies. Officials did transfer 400 unaccompanied minors out of the camp on Wednesday, but the majority of the migrants there are still stuck on the island. The government also intends to rebuild the camp as quickly as possible, but as a "closed and controlled camp," as Greek Migration Minister Notis Mitarachi said this week.
"If a fire was sufficient to close a camp, then we would start seeing fires in all the other hotspots. Tomorrow we'd have a fire on Samos and then one in Chios," a high-ranking Greek official says, explaining his government's calculus. After the islands, he continues, there would then be fires on the mainland, because the people want to head onward to Europe. And who can exclude the possibility that migrants might set themselves on fire at the Maritsa River – to the point that Greece may ultimately see the kind of self-immolation that triggered the Arab Spring?
In the background, it is said in Berlin, Greece is standing in the way of the possible resettlement of the migrants in Moria to other EU countries. The country is apparently concerned that doing so might attract even more migrants from Turkey.
Athens and Ankara have been at the precipice of violence for the last several weeks as their conflict over access to natural resources has intensified. People close to Mitsotakis are concerned that Erdoğan could once again send migrants toward Greece to put Athens under pressure, just as he did in spring.
Europe as a whole, meanwhile, is just as far away from implementing a coherent refugee policy as ever. A few countries, like Luxembourg, believe that following the Moria catastrophe, the EU can't simply go on as before and are demanding that member states take in asylum-seekers from Greece. Other countries, like Austria, are continuing to categorically reject such proposals.
"Europe will remain sick for as long as it has not found a way out of the refugee crisis," Luxembourg Foreign Minister Jean Asselborn told DER SPIEGEL. "For me, the offender is named Sebastian Kurz," he adds, in reference to the Austrian chancellor. "He is the person primarily responsible for this pathetic situation."
Time to "Force Solidarity"
Kurz has indeed been posing for years as a refugee policy hardliner. "All of Europe was deceived by Kurz's insistence that all you had to do to solve the refugee problem was close the borders," says Asselborn. "On top of that, Austria in 2018, right when it held the rotating presidency of the Council of the EU, rejected the UN migration pact."
Back in March, Asselborn had proposed during a meeting of EU interior ministers that unaccompanied minors from Moria and other refugee camps in the EU be distributed across the bloc. Asselborn even had a formula ready, which envisioned 10 minors for every half-million residents. That would have meant that Luxembourg took in 10 while Germany would have to accept 1,600 and France 1,200. "When I made my proposal, the Austrian representative said they wouldn't accept any young people, but they would send containers to the islands. Toilets, in other words," Asselborn recalls.
Burned out shelters in the Moria refugee camp on Sept. 9, 2020. Video: Reuters
He is no longer prepared to accept such a position. If the EU doesn't take action now, it can no longer be helped, he says. "It is high time for the Commission president to use all the levers at her disposal to force solidarity from the two-thirds of EU member states that continue to act as though the refugees on Europe's doorstep are of no consequence to them."
Thus far, there is little to indicate that she will be successful. After several delays, the Commission finally plans to present its proposals for a new asylum and migration policy at the end of September. The plan's details are being carefully guarded, but according to the scuttlebutt, von der Leyen will largely be proposing ideas that have already been around for some time: initial checks of the migrants on the EU's external border, including the possibility of immediate repatriation. And the distribution of the remaining refugees among those countries that indicate a willingness to accept them, more or less on a voluntary basis.
Even EU interior ministers doubt that such a plan would represent progress. In April, German Interior Minister Horst Seehofer and his counterparts from France, Spain and Italy warned that they were not prepared to accept a plan that allowed countries like Hungary to simply disregard EU solidarity.
"Currently, a handful of member states are bearing an excessive burden, which reveals a lack of solidarity and increases the risk that the entire system will become dysfunctional," the letter reads. "That is why we are in favor of a fair apportionment of responsibility and the creation of a binding mechanism for a fair distribution."
Paralyzed on Refugee Policy
Because the EU appears paralyzed on refugee policy, calls in Germany are growing for Berlin to take unilateral action to at least help some of those suffering in Greece.
In addition, several thousand people protested in Berlin on Wednesday evening to demand the evacuation of the Moria camp. Kevin Kühnert, deputy head of Germany's Social Democrats (SPD), a party which is Merkel's junior coalition partner, joined the protest. So too did Katrin Göring-Eckardt, the Green Party group leader in German parliament.
German Interior Minister Seehofer, a member of the conservative Christian Social Union (CSU), the Bavarian sister party to Merkel's Christian Democrats (CDU), is facing particular pressure. Many in the opposition consider him to be the main culprit for the conditions in Moria. "Seehofer has blocked quick help,” Katja Kipping, the head of the Left Party, says critically. "Now he has sick and possibly even dead people on his conscience.”
Meanwhile, the SPD has long been guarded when it comes to accepting refugees from Greece. But SPD deputy head Kühnert told DER SPIEGEL that he is in favor of taking people in swiftly. "The question of the distribution of refugees in the EU has remained unresolved for years,” he says. "This urgently needs to be clarified, but that won’t happen in three days. In light of the acute humanitarian disaster, it’s not new working groups that we need right now – we must act immediately.” He adds that Germany "cannot wait for a European solution now – it needs to lead the way.”
The issue of refugees in Greece has driven a wedge through German politics for quite some time. In late 2019 and early 2020, several German politicians visited Moria, and some, including Lower Saxony Interior Minister Boris Pistorius of the SPD, have written letters to Seehofer asking him to allow asylum-seekers into the country. Several municipalities and cities in Germany joined forces and agreed to accept children from Greece.
But among the conservatives, the idea of unilaterally accepting refugees is a contentious one. Many German conservatives believe Merkel’s 2015 refugee policy was a mistake, and they argue that Germany should not act on its own.
Still, there are other voices among the conservatives. At a spring meeting of their parliamentary group, one member of parliament, a farmer, is said to have expressed it as such: If he were to keep his animals in conditions like those in the refugee camps, his business would be shut down.
Shortly afterward, the CDU/CSU and the SPD agreed on a minimal compromise in the Chancellery. Under the agreement, Germany would accept children "who are either in urgent need of treatment due to a serious illness or unaccompanied and younger than 14 years old, most should be girls.”
When the plan was finally to be implemented, aid organizations working in the camps were asked to find appropriate refugees within a very short amount of time. But most of the unaccompanied minors in Greece are boys. It all took a while, but Germany is now planning to take in up to 1,000 people from Moria this year – unaccompanied minors as well as sick children and their families.
Following this week’s fire, Pistorius is now offering to accommodate around 500 people from Moria in a reception camp in his state. He argues that if a comparable burden was taken on by all German states, the country could take in a total of 5,000 migrants from Moria. He says there is no longer time left to select people from individual groups. And waiting for an EU solution also isn’t an option for him. "If everyone is always waiting for everyone to join in, no one is going to do anything in the end.” He calls it "organized irresponsibility.” If necessary, he argues, Merkel needs to force her interior minister to take responsibility.
"A European Disgrace”
The states of Thuringia and Berlin had already offered to take in migrants previously, but they were rejected. The Federal Interior Ministry rejected Thuringia’s initiative at the beginning of August, arguing that the legal requirements had not been met. Thuringia Governor Bodo Ramelow of the Left Party believes his position has been affirmed by the fire. "The conditions in Moria were a European disgrace even before the fire – and the living conditions there were intolerable." He says it is high time to speed up the admission procedures and to immediately begin distributing the asylum-seekers across Europe.
At the moment, however, it doesn’t appear as though that will happen. German Chancellor Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron did say on Thursday that they would be prepared to take in several hundred underage refugees from Moria as part of a European initiative. But it would largely be symbolic.
Thorsten Frei, deputy chairman of the CDU/CSU party group in the Bundestag, says, "I am very critical of countries taking unilateral action in taking in migrants. It would abruptly stifle interest in reforming European asylum policy. A unilateral effort could also easily send out the message that the route to Germany is open again.” During her summer press conference, the chancellor also spoke out in favor of a European solution.
Even after the fire, the German government’s strategy appears to be that it will do nothing until the EU acts as a bloc. For years, this has meant that nothing happens in the end.
No One Wants to Return
Meanwhile, on Lesbos, the refugees are waiting in the streets. Some have spent the night in the parking lot of a Lidl supermarket, while others have squeezed themselves between the gravestones of a cemetery to find some shelter there. Small tents have been erected along the edge of a main road. People stretch out in the fields in the morning as they seek shade under the dry branches of the olive trees in 30-degree-Celsius (86 degrees Fahrenheit) heat.
Meanwhile, police rigorously shield the capital city of Mytilene and angry residents are also there blocking the streets. Aid workers are distributing water and food in isolated parts of the island, but to get to it, most refugees are dependent on the mercy of the police.
It’s very quiet on the hill at the Moria camp on Thursday. Small fires continue to flare up throughout the day, and an acrid stench still lingers over the place. No one on the island wants to return here.
Many refugees and local residents alike are hoping that the disgrace that is Moria will remain forever razed to the ground. And yet, it is more than likely that the camp will grow again. The government of Prime Minister Mitsotakis has announced that it will not remove anyone from the island with the exception of unaccompanied minors.
The people by the roadside have heard that news. They simply absorb it. There is no palpable hatred, no anger. Instead, there’s a kind of stoic endurance – and a deep sense of abandonment.
Icon: Der Spiegel