06 / 03 / 2023

The Fire at Moria: A disaster destined to happen

The re-examination of information and revealing data call into question the credibility of the evidence that led to six young asylum seekers being convicted of setting fire to Europe's most notorious refugee camp.





Mustafa Hosseini never stopped believing in his brother’s innocence.

“I wonder how the Greek state is convinced that six young teenagers burned down the largest refugee camp in Europe,” says the 24-year-old from Afghanistan.

Mustafa arrived on Lesvos with his wife and younger brother in January 2020. He and his wife were later transferred to Athens under subsidiary protection status. His younger brother remained on the island.

The fire that completely destroyed Moria started on September 8, 2020. A few days later, Mustafa’s younger brother was charged with setting the fire along with five other teenage boys.

Mustafa maintains that his brother had no motive to set fire to the camp. Only a few days earlier he had learned that he was granted asylum, which meant his geographical restriction was lifted, and he could finally leave the island and be reunited with the rest of his family in Athens.

He himself had sent his younger brother money through Western Union so he could buy a ferry ticket. Solomon has obtained proof of the electronic transaction dated September 30, 2020.

“He was preparing to join us in Athens, he was free to leave the island. Why would he set fire to Moria?”

The Moria Six

By September 15, 2020, a week after the fire, police had arrested six young asylum seekers, (five claiming they were minors) and charged them with arson (felony) and being members of a criminal gang (misdemeanor).

Despite their claims of being minors, only two of the six were identified as minors. The two minors were sentenced to five years’ incarceration and sent to Avlona prison. The four remaining defendants, who were identified as adults, were each sentenced with 10-year jail terms, with the court refusing to consider any mitigating factors.

On the day of the fire, according to official data, a total of 12,767 asylum seekers were registered at the Moria camp. But the case file, which Solomon has knowledge of, is based on the pre-trial testimony of a single witness.

The six defendants, members of the Hazara group, argue that they have been framed by their fellow countrymen from the Pashtun group – Hazaras (an ethnic Afghan minority group) have long been persecuted by the Pashtuns (the largest ethnic group of Afghanistan).

In view of the four defendant’s appeals hearing, due to take place on March 6, 2023 in a Mytilene court, Solomon has re-examined the case that led to the closure of Europe’s most notorious refugee camp. Our report presents the gaps in the judicial process, as well as the results of the interdisciplinary research by Forensic Architecture and Forensis, which cast doubt on the evidence on which the young men’s conviction was based.

© FA και Forensis

The timeline of the fire

On the evening of September 8, 2020, around 9pm, NGO workers at the Moria camp and the head of the police guard tried to locate eight asylum seekers who, according to reports, had tested positive for covid, in order to transfer them to another area, to isolate them from the rest of the residents.

At the same time, a group of asylum seekers gathered in Zone 8 to protest the transfer and the way camp authorities were managing the pandemic.

The restrictive measures in Moria were still in force even after they had been lifted in the rest of the country due to the upcoming tourist season. Residents of the camp were asked to observe social distancing measures in an unsafe environment (for example, the entire camp had only 24 showers), while water and food distribution within the camp had stopped. A strict curfew was in place, with asylum seekers often believing the pandemic was being used as an excuse to confine them.

They demanded the departure of the administrative authorities. Following the tension, NGO staff left and shortly afterwards the police arrived. The crowds threw stones at them, and the police responded with tear gas.

A crowd began to approach the special fenced-in area for people who had tested positive for covid, resulting in those people leaving the area and dispersing into the camp.

Shortly after 11:30pm, initial fires broke out near Zone 6, and soon spread throughout the camp, due to the direction and force of the wind, but also because of the flammable materials (gas canisters used for cooking, tarp and plastic coverings from the tents). The fire raged for three days, completely destroying Europe’s largest refugee camp.

The Moria camp days after the fire. Lesvos, 10 September, 2020. © Aggelos Barai

The testimony of the only witness

The witnesses who testified admitted that they did not see who started the fire. The decision, however, was based on the pre-investigation testimony of a single witness, whom the authorities have so far been unable to locate.

In Moria, representatives presented the requests of the various community groups to the administration. A few days after the fire, the representative of the Pashtun group went to the local police station and told the prosecuting authorities that he had seen young Afghans starting a fire in Zone 12.

He also claimed that he himself begged them to stop because they were putting the families of the camp in danger. According to the witness, the young teenagers ignored him and continued to set fire to flammable objects.

During the trial, the defense lawyers filed an objection asking the court to disregard this man’s testimony, as he did not describe the accused, but merely mentioned their first names.

The objection also states that all six of the accused belong to the Hazara group, while the witness belongs to the Pashtun group, and that as a representative of his ethnic group, the witness had intentionally created tensions due to the endless hostility between the two ethnic groups.

Finally, it was argued that the authorities should have ensured the presence of the only witness at the hearing, giving the defense the opportunity to question him as well, in order to conduct the trial on fair terms. The witness was not present at any trial.

Independent investigation by Forensic Architecture and Forensis

Forensic Architecture and Forensis collected and analyzed hundreds of videos from the night the fire broke out.

By checking the metadata of the collected material, the teams were able to classify the documents in the correct chronological order and then place them geographically, creating a 3D model of the Moria camp on the evening of September 8, 2020.

The analysis was further supported by witness statements, but also by expert findings to clarify the conditions under which the fire spread.

“The analysis we carried out […] proves that the young asylum seekers accused of arson were immediately arrested on the basis of weak and contradictory evidence, thus indicating that the inhumane management of the camp by the European Union and the Greek government needed a scapegoat for a disaster that was destined to happen,” stated Dimitra Andritsou, research coordinator of the Forensis team.

In his testimony, the witness had said that in the evening hours of September 8, as he left his tent, he saw fires in the “Dutch” area. He was referring to Zone 9, where the Dutch NGO ‘Movement on the Ground’ was based. However, analysis of satellite images by the two research teams shows that Zone 9 did not burn on that night, but on subsequent nights.

The witness claimed that minutes after he saw Zone 9 engulfed in flames, a group of young teenagers started fires in Zone 12, where he lived. He claimed to have identified five of the accused.

© FA and Forensis.

Because of the panoramic views of the camp in Zone 12, the investigation concluded that it would have been impossible for the witness not to have seen the fires throughout the center of the camp before Zone 12 started burning.

The investigation also seems to confirm the findings of the Mytilene Fire Service, which, in the official report states that the fire spread to the southern part of the camp due to the strong winds that prevailed that night.

It seems that the embers caused by the initial outbreaks which were carried through the air, combined with the wind direction and the flammable materials, created new, multiple point outbreaks, which caused Moria to burn to the ground.

Defense counsel’s objections

Assertions by three defendants who stated they were minors were not accepted by the court, even though they had already produced official documents from Afghanistan proving that they were minors at the time of the interrogation.

To establish minorhood, the court appointed an expert who issued a finding based on X-rays of the left hand. The defense attorneys contested the reliability of the procedure that was carried out. They argued that the first two stages of the trial (provided for by the relevant Joint Ministerial Decision) had not been exhausted, and in addition, that the expert’s document did not bear an official seal or evidence of his professional status.

Moreover, the suitability of the expert who undertook the procedure itself was questioned due to the fact that he is an anthropologist-criminologist, and not a pediatrician.

During the first stage of the trial, a letter from a professor of anthropology was presented, as well as a letter from the Greek Society for the Study of Crime and Social Control, from which it was concluded that neither of the two specialties has the authority to establish minorhood based on medical examinations.

The defense lawyers had also submitted an objection regarding all the documents in the indictment, which were served in a language that the accused could not understand, but this objection was not accepted.

They also alleged violations in the interpretation procedure, that defense witnesses were insulted, and violations in the defendants’ right to give testimony during hearing procedures in the first stage, questioning whether the defendants were even given a fair trial.

246 warning shots went unheard

Fires at the Moria camp were a frequent phenomenon, with the most recent one recorded about a month before the destruction of the camp, in the area that was called “the jungle”.

The fires sometimes started due to a short circuit in the utility poles, as camp residents had installed makeshift extension cords in them to cover their needs. Other times accidents with gas canisters (which the entire population used for cooking needs) started fires.

On March 16, 2020, a fire that broke out in a container caused the death of a 6-year-old child. In September 2019, another woman died in a camp fire.

During their joint investigation, Forensic Architecture and Forensis recorded at least 246 other fire-related incidents that occurred in Moria from its establishment to its destruction. Almost half of these (112) occurred from January to August 2020.

In November 2020, an investigation by Solomon in collaboration with Investigate Europe and Reporters United revealed that the risk of being electrocuted, due to the lack of infrastructure, was a daily issue for the staff of the International Organization for Migration (IOM) who were charged with the care of unaccompanied minors.

The investigation was based on the entries in a notebook kept by the IOM staffers, which was recovered from the ashes of Moria in days following the fire.

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