“The time-bomb exploded” at Greece’s largest refugee camp
Massive fires burned through Moria – repeated warnings had been made, and ignored, for years.
The images flooding social media and live TV-reports in the middle of the night, on September 8, 2020 were shocking.
As the fire spread, and the sound of consecutive explosions could be heard − children, women and men were once again forced to flee, with any possessions that they managed to grab, before the fire at the notorious Moria camp − Greece’s largest refugee camp and for years, a facility synonymous with shocking living conditions − turned almost everything into ashes.
Despite the sentiment created by the images, few if any of the people following the updates at the camp − originally built to host 2,880 people but had a population of over 12,500 on the night of the fire − were surprised.
That’s because repeated warnings had been made. And because, for as many as four years, there were concrete indications of what was about to happen.
It was March 16, 2020, and the COVID-19 pandemic had just broken out in Greece when a fire erupted at the Moria camp, where almost 20,000 people had been left to face the pandemic in densely-packed, extremely unhygienic living conditions.
The fire had erupted in a container within the Reception and Identification Center (RIC) in Moria, where the fires on September 9, 2020 reportedly also began. A 6-year-old child was later found dead in the ashes that the fire left behind.
Just six months before that, on September 29, 2019 a woman had also lost her life in another fire at the camp. The 49-year-old woman, who was later identified as Feride Tayik, had escaped war in Afghanistan along with her 16-year-old daughter. They had been living in a container at the camp since their arrival on Lesvos, when the fire broke out due to a short circuit at a utility pole, leading to the woman’s death.
As electricity is not provided in most parts of the initial structure and the “jungle”, created by makeshift tents around the RIC, camp residents have been coming up with their own ways of ensuring access to electricity, so as to fulfill the needs of their everyday life (e.g, charge their mobile phones, use fans for the heat, etc).
This has mainly been happening by “stealing” electricity from the few utility poles within the facility. On any given day before the fire, hundreds of power strips, one connected to another, could be found running across the narrow alleys that the containers and tents create, or at the infamous “market” which operates both inside and outside of the facility.
This technique of necessity has managed to offer some sense of satisfaction for basic needs, but it has also resulted in multiple electricity failures, or fires erupting after short circuits.
Lack of access to electricity, however, also means that the camp’s residents have had to come up with their own ways to cook their meals. The widespread use of gas canisters, both within the initial facility and the hundreds of tents that had been set up around the initial structure, has also resulted in explosions and fires.
On November 24, 2016 a fire broke out, caused by a gas canister used for cooking, leaving a 66-year-old woman and her 6-year-old grandson dead, and at least eight people wounded, two with severe injuries. Fires at Moria camp have been a frequent phenomenon throughout the year, however asylum-seekers have been forced to live with such incidents since the very beginning, when the camp was established.
Take for example the most recent case of fire, before the one that finally destroyed Moria camp. When did that incident happen? Just a month ago, on August 1, 2020 when a fire broke out close to the area around the “jungle”, surrounding the olive grove and the entrance to the camp, with refugees then attributing the fire to acts of arson by local far-right groups.
And when was the first time that the camp, just like yesterday, had to be evacuated? This brings us back to four years ago: on September 19, 2016 when a fire broke out at Moria camp and 4,000 people had to be evacuated.
“For five years now the cruel policies of Greece and the EU have kept people stuck on the islands in horrible conditions,” Epaminondas Farmakis, co-founder of Human Rights 360 told Solomon.
“This time-bomb exploded last night and most of the Moria camp was destroyed by fire including thousands of records of asylum requests,” he added. The containers of the European Asylum Support Office (EASO) were also destroyed during the fire, multiple sources who were present at the fire confirmed to Solomon.
During a press conference the day after the fire, Alternate Minister for Migration and Asylum Policy, Giorgos Koumoutsakos, said that most buildings offering services to asylum seekers had been destroyed, and that an effort to recover files and data would be made.
Referring to the cause of the fires, Koumoutsakos attributed them to “dissatisfaction of some Moria residents due to the lockdown,” which was imposed after 35 positive cases were reported in the camp earlier this week.
A lockdown at the camp had been imposed, in practice, since as early as March 23,2020, however social distancing is, in fact, impossible to follow in a place where people have to wait in all sorts of long lines: from food distribution to doctor’s appointments, from waiting to use the toilets to their appointments for their asylum application.
“The threat of a COVID-19 pandemic could have finally been an opportunity to transfer people to mainland Greece and elsewhere in Europe, but the government instead placed a severe lockdown on more than 12,000 persons, including 4,000 children, threatening their lives. People found themselves abandoned with no basic sanitation and hygiene conditions, medical, mental health or legal aid,” Farmakis said.
By national law, all facilities, buildings, and even vehicles, in Greece are obliged to have their own fire safety measures and equipment.
However, this is also something that, in practice, couldn’t be ensured at Moria camp. In addition, mountains of plastic packaging and rubbish pile up each day, creating a combustible hazard, along with the pallets and the gas canisters which are widely-used at the camp.
More fires broke out on the northern end of the camp on Wednesday evening, less than 24 hours after the fires that burnt down a significant part of the facility.
Greek Minister of Migration and Asylum Policy, Panagiotis Mitarachis said that the fire left just 3,500 people, a quarter of the total number of camp residents, homeless.
Four hundred unaccompanied minors are expected to be transferred to the mainland, while 1,000 vulnerable asylum seekers spent Wednesday night in a passenger ferry provided by a private company, and thousands more wandered onto nearby streets and areas, reportedly without shelter, food and water.
“The fact that the European Union took the responsibility for the transport and accomodation of Moria’s unaccompanied minors constitutes a positive step. Support and protection to all minors needs to be provided within a consistent and coherent strategic plan and by ensuring all necessary child protection services, focused on the proper medical and psychological care especially after recent events,” Sofia Kouvelaki, CEO of the Home Project, a non-profit offering shelter and child protection services to unaccompanied minors said.
“It’s of vital importance for all unaccompanied minors that are currently outside of protection across the country to be moved to proper child protection facilities or other European countries that can provide all necessary services,” she added. “We shouldn’t have to wait for a fire for the minors to be transferred. We have been emphasizing the need to move all children out of Moria since 2015.”
Today two more ships are expected to be provided by the Greek Navy to shelter the victims of the fire.
While European Commissioner Ylva Johansson said she hopes Greece will activate the civil protection mechanism to mobilize immediate assistance to Lesbos island, other EU countries are stepping in, but the support they offer is limited.
Responding to the urgency created by the fire, Norway announced it will take… 50 asylum seekers from Moria camp, and Germany’s most-populous state of North Rhine-Westphalia announced its intention to take in up to 1,000 of the asylum seekers affected by the fire.
Christos Lazaridis, communication officer for the Greek Forum of Refugees said such acts in fact reveal the lack of a central strategy.
“These initiatives make clear that there is no central political will by the EU for the distribution of responsibilities in place. No other solution can be given besides a central one, that only the EU can provide. We think that a holistic approach needs to be formed, and that Greece needs to have a concrete and realistic migration policy, always, based on the respect for human rights,” he added.
At the same time, the Greek government is believed to expedite the process for the establishment of closed centers, using emergencies such as the pandemic and the fire at Moria, as a means to highlight their necessity.
“Camps must only be a temporary solution. No one should live there forever. People should be able to keep up with their lives. Closed camps can’t be the solution. Asylum seekers are not criminals. Their cases must be fairly examined and, in the meanwhile, they have the right to live in human conditions. Europe must understand that we cannot have another Moria,” Lazaridis said.
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