Moria’s blaze chronicles and the next day for the refugees of Europe

“Tomorrow will be just a year”, said Hamid, a 14-year-old boy from Afghanistan when asked for how long he was calling that place home. Hamid walks around the charred remains of Moria, where only iron skeletons of tents and dead rats are left to remind how the biggest refugee camp in Europe looked like. 

Before the fires that started Tuesday evening, September 8, and lasted till Thursday, burning down the whole facility, approximately 13 000 people like Hamid, had found a shelter in Moria, while waiting  – some for a very long time – to reach the European mainland.

Hamid shows the charred fruits inside what was once his family’s tent. Moria, 15/09/20

Since 2013, the village of Moria in Lesbos, a Greek island in the north-east Aegean Sea, has been a place tied to the fate of thousands who arrived in the Greek shores in inflatable boats, running from war-zones and life-threatening conditions. Initially built to host 3000 people, the Registration and Identification Centre (RIC) in Moria reached from time to time a population of over 20 000 people. 

Anchored around the main, fenced part of Moria’s RIC, thousands of tents formed, especially after 2015, a small shanty town that drew the attention of international media for the squalid living conditions and peril that asylum seekers were forced to experience. 

Many births and several deaths took place in the RIC and the so-called “jungle” – the olive grove –  that surrounds the camp. During the first days after the blaze, hundreds of people still camped there, expressing reluctance to move to a new camp that started to be built, in fear that the new structure would be a closed one.

But most of the former residents of Moria carried their belongings using any means available, from trash bins to crates and walked the roads of Lesbos in anguish. Some felt displaced again. They were later scattered along the street not far from the new camp, in makeshift booths made by reeds and carton pieces. 

Police forces, including riot police platoons that arrived at Lesbos from Athens, blocked the streets and formed checkpoints to restrain the puzzled population. Some run into the “jungle” of olive trees in an attempt to escape. Several remain unfound. 

The days that followed the fires of Moria had it all: from wretchedness and lack of water and food to peaceful demonstrations that were met with teargas. While most of the population of Moria is now hosted in the new camp, said to be a temporary one, thousands of lives remain in limbo.

“Moria has fallen”

A week after the blaze started, the Greek Minister of Citizen Protection, Michalis Chrisochoidis, responsible for Greece’s public security services, announced that police had arrested six asylum seekers for arson. They were all Afghan nationals, two of which were underaged and had already been transferred to camps in the mainland with the rest of the unaccompanied minors of Moria. 

The motives remain unclear, although there have been plenty of media reports that show a correlation between the fire and the restrictions that had been imposed due to COVID-19. Back then there were 35 confirmed coronavirus cases in the camp. 

Samiullah Mohammadi, 1.5 years old, sits in her tent with her siblings. Her hand was burnt in the fire in Moria, in April 2020

However, the blaze of September 2020 was not the first to hit Moria. Several others had occurred in the past, i.e. in March and April 2020, but also September and December 2019, when two young Afghan women and a baby lost their lives. 

The fires that “finished Moria”, as the asylum seekers were characteristically saying, divided the camps’ community. Some people saw them as an opportunity to flee far from the island and continue their journey to central Europe, which has always been their initial goal.

Indeed, some are still missing. To this day, 9 400 people, according to UNHCR’s data, have been transferred to the new RIC of Lesbos, but the population of Moria before the fire reached 13 000. Around 400 unaccompanied minors were transferred to the Greek mainland right after the fires when Germany and France, among a few European countries, agreed on receiving Moria’s underaged. Some 400 people, considered vulnerable, were relocated by UNHCR to other refugee structures in Lesbos. For the rest, police patrols are said to be in search using thermal cameras. 

The banner reads “Moria has fallen”, with a Greek question mark in the end. Spotted on the streets to the village of Moria, Lesbos, September 2020

However, the vast majority of Moria’s population appeared devastated after the calamity. Like Hamid, who was wandering at his old hideout with a feeling of melancholy. He showed us the remains of his school: a burnt ground where nothing resembled a place that young migrants had once found a moment of serenity. 

Linda Shirzad from Afghanistan was an Art teacher at this school. Tears come to her eyes when she speaks about the camp and the life she was used to, and now she had to farewell again. After the blaze, she found a temporary shelter near the old camp, where she had access to food and care provided by the NGO Team Humanity. She spent most of the time on the street of Moria, drawing with her husband Shukran, who is also a painter. Their drawings captivated the moment that would once again change their lives and the lives of thousands, while provoking, perhaps again just temporarily, Europeans’ resentment for all that asylum seekers have to undergo on European territory.

Temporary shelter and the new (temporary?) camp

Thousands that were once stranded in Moria had now to carry their belongings and move towards the municipal camp of Lesbos, in Kara Tepe. The camp of Kara Tepe, in contrast with Moria, is considered by the NGOs as a “five-stars” facility, hosting only vulnerable groups and families. 

The municipal camp cannot host any of Moria’s displaced and the latter had no option than to camp along the main street of Kara Tepe. Meanwhile, a nearby shooting range of the army was used to host the new RIC, which construction began a few days after the destruction of Moria.

The now homeless came from different places: from sub-Saharan Africa to Afghanistan and Syria. They brought with them anything they managed to save from the fire. They used reeds, found in empty fields around, and laid blankets on the pavement to sleep at night. The luckiest reserved the shady sheds in LIDL’s and other businesses’ parking lots, which remained shut to the discomfort of the local community of Lesbos. 

Despite the lack of water, food and the physical and mental exhaustion, refugees and asylum seekers organised peaceful demonstrations inside their limited area that was guarded by police. On Saturday, September 12, a group of people, including children, marched on the streets of Kara Tepe, asking Europe for help. They shouted “Germany help us” and “Azadi.” It means “freedom” in Iranian languages. 

Unexpectedly, the march was answered with the police’s violent intervention. Panic prevailed. A flash grenade hit a woman on her head; the chemicals suffocated children. Soon the crowd dissolved but had nowhere else to go. When the situation got calmer, a furious Afghan father confronted the riot police: “Do you know this baby?”, he shouted, showing his child on his mother’s arms being affected by the teargas. The exhausted crowd of migrants, having no other means to show their indignation, burst into applause. 

Amena, from Afghanistan with her 4 years-old, daughter: “We stay in the jungle, it is me my sister, my husband, my babies. We went to the Lidl store nearby Kara Tepe but the police spread with teargas and we came back here.”

While these were taking place on the street of the makeshift camp, just a few meters away from the construction activities in the new RIC continued uninterrupted with the coordination of UNHCR, that donated thousands of tents, along with IOM and Red Cross. 

The new camp will be supposedly better in terms of living conditions than Moria. However, some migrants already say it is even worse, denouncing food and water scarcity and grim sanitary conditions. The new Lesbos RIC is built right by the sea and on the muddy ground, which raises doubts for its suitability, especially during winter. 

A few chemical toilets for thousands of people. Pictures sent by a refugee staying in the new RIC of Lesbos.

According to the Ministry of Migration and Asylum, all the residents over the age of 10 went through a rapid COVID-19 test upon their arrival and registration to the new camp, and 214 were found positive. Those are kept in a designated quarantine area inside the RIC. Due to the pandemic, several camps in Greece have been placed under medical quarantine, while residents in the new RIC in Lesbos are not allowed to enter or exit from 8 pm to 08 am. 

Kids play in the sea near the new RIC of Lesbos

The Greek Minister Notis Mitarachi said that the new camp would be a temporary structure. At the same time, he announced the closure of other, smaller and more decent refugee centres on the island before the end of the year. It seems that a new location in Lesbos for a permanent hosting facility is under negotiations with local authorities. Additionally, new camps are planned to be built in other Greek islands. 

On August 3, the European Commission approved the disbursement of 130 million euros for the construction of three closed reception centres in the Greek islands of Samos, Leros and Kos, supported by the Asylum, Migration and Integration Fund (AMIF). The Greek government had declared from the beginning its intention for closed or controlled camps. Still, European officials, such as EU commissioner for Home Affairs, Ylva Johanson, had announced last April “the construction of five new multi-purpose reception and identification centres on the Greek islands (…), to provide far more adequate, up to standard accommodation”, which don’t resemble detention centres. Detention is generally forbidden by law for people requesting international protection, regardless of any irregularities in reaching European territory.

However, under the EU’s new migration and asylum pact that was presented last week, member states “may apply detention” during the asylum border procedure, effectively denying entry to their territory while they examine asylum claims. In that sense, many more Morias could now possibly rise if the EU ends up implementing its new policies.

Europe’s new take on migration and asylum

The new pact for migration and asylum is not yet in effect, and it seems rather unlikely to be implemented in its current form if Visegrad countries continue to reject it. 

The plan was presented as an attempt to somehow compromise the opposite poles in the bloc: the European south, especially Greece and Italy who bear the responsibility of dealing with EU’s incomers and Austria, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia who wouldn’t accept any. 

The pact suggests a mandatory yet flexible solidarity mechanism. When a country denies receiving asylum seekers or recognised refugees, it can instead provide other countries that examine asylum applications with operational support or sponsor the return of migrants who have been rejected to their home countries. “It’s like asking the school bully to walk a kid home” tweeted Judith Sunderland, deputy director of Human Right Watch, Europe and Central Asia division, commenting on the pact’s specific provisions. 

Despite announcements that the Dublin regulation is obsolete and needs to be replaced by a strategy that deals with the specific features of the current influxes, the border states are still mainly responsible for examining newcomer’s applications, only with a few exceptions. 

Human rights organisations have strongly criticised the whole pact for not making a decisive step towards a more humanitarian approach on migration and maintaining Europe’s deterrent policies. 

In the meantime, Hamid, 14, from Afghanistan, who spent the last year of his life in Moria and now lives in the new RIC of Lesbos has the first appointment for an interview for his and his family’s asylum claim in February 2021. He still wants to be a “building engineer” someday, but he has already stayed too long out of formal education. At the fringes of Europe, a generation of people grows up amid the most dehumanising conditions, being taught how to survive but not how to heal the trauma.

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The European Union, associated with the policy of open borders, is currently surrounded by over 2,000 kilometers of border fences.