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Migrants On Greek Islands Ignored by EU as Moria Camp Burns Down

On September 9th, the Moria Refugee Camp on the Greek Island of Lesbos was set ablaze by unknown actors, consequently displacing more than 12,000 asylum claimants who lived within its borders. Since then, all residents of Camp Moria have been rendered homeless with no secure sources of food and water and with a few dozen COVID-19 cases having been discovered among them.

The Takeaway: Thousands of asylum claimants have been rendered homeless by the blaze in Moria, with little to no prospects of long-term humane solutions.

  • Of the 12,000 homeless migrants on the island, the Greek Government plans to bring 3,000 refugees off the island and onto the mainland in the upcoming weeks.

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Origins of a crisis

The European migration crisis started in 2013 when the Islamic State began its ascent in Iraq and Syria, causing a sharp increase in the influx of asylum seekers arriving in Europe.

  • Europe was the destination of choice for many asylum seekers, due to its economic opportunities, its supposed guarantee of refugee rights, and its geographical closeness with North Africa and the Middle East.

Although the Schengen zone guarantees free movement between most European countries, asylum seekers are mostly concentrated on Greek islands such as Lesbos. This is a direct consequence of the Dublin Regulation that obligates asylum seekers to have their asylum cases processed in the first European Union country they set foot upon.

  • Unfortunately, there are extensive delays in the processing of cases, consequently forcing asylum seekers to stay within the camps, which has led to severe overcrowding.
  • Other European countries have previously promised a fairer distribution between countries of asylum claims, but there has been little actual effort to implement extensive relocation programs.
  • Moreover, asylum claimants attempting to “illegally” cross to other countries, are physically unable to do so as neighbouring countries have closed their borders.

Camp Moria is but one of the numerous processing camps present on the Aegean Islands that are situated between the Greek mainland and Turkey’s western borders. The camp was originally built to hold 2,200 asylum seekers but six months ago it held more than 20,000 people, almost 10 times its original capacity.

  • Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, the camp was infamous for its gross lack of sanitation and for the lack of infrastructure necessary to host its residents.
  • Throughout the pandemic Moria residents were relocated out of the camp, reducing its number to around 12,000 asylum claimants, still nearly 6 times over its assumed capacity.

When the Coronavirus came to Moria

In early September at least 35 asylum seekers within Moria tested positive for COVID-19, the Greek government consequently decided to quarantine the entire camp. This policy was put in place despite the fact that medical and aid groups warned that such a decision would put thousands at risk by crowding them together with no possibility of social distancing or consequential sanitary measures.

  • No special measures were taken for at-risk individuals, such as the immunocompromised or elderly.

The lack of implementation of effective COVID-19 safety measures for asylum seekers in Greece can be explained by local authorities’ unwillingness to improve living conditions for migrants in fear that it would act as an incentive for future migrants to come to Greece. Squalid camp conditions have long been perceived as a repellant for irregular migration, although there is no statistical evidence for such claims.

Another tragedy

On the evening of September 8th, fires were started on the outskirts of Moria and by the morning of the 9th, they had burnt through most of the camp, leaving more than 12,000 migrants homeless.

On September 15th the Greek police arrested 5 young migrants in connection to the blaze, and by September 29th, 6 former residents were in pre-trial detention facing prosecution for arson. They are believed to have started the fires in protest of the inhumane conditions within the camp as well as discontent towards the newly imposed camp-wide quarantine.

Some asylum claimants protested, demanding to leave Lesbos but were met with tear gas from Greek riot police.

Since then, most migrants have been sleeping by the side of the road on the island with little access to food and water. Although aid groups and the Greek military have been distributing food it’s been insufficient to meet the needs of the migrants.

  • In a positive step towards reducing crowding on Lesbos, the Greek government has announced that it would move about 3,000 refugees to the mainland in the next 2 weeks. It is important to note that this only includes individuals who had their asylum claims accepted and have been granted refugee status.

No solution in sight

The Greek government quickly erected a new camp, Kara Tepe, and encouraged migrants to relocate to it, but numerous migrants objected, fearing that the conditions would be worse than in Moria or that their movement would be further restricted.

  • Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) an international medical aid group, was barred access to the camp for a few hours during the operation to move migrants into the new camp but have since then been allowed into their clinic. A move they described as “highly concerning.”
  • The Greek government claimed that medical tents were to be set up and that 2 quarantine zones were planned for the dozens of people who have tested positive at the Kara Tepe camp.

European nations have been relatively muted in their response to the blaze.

  • 10 European Union countries have said they would take in 400 unaccompanied minors who fled the camp.
  • The German government has agreed to host 1,553 migrants from the camp.
  • No other country has shown willingness to partake in relocation plans for the 12,000 homeless migrants, even though numerous migration experts argue that it is the only humane, long-term solution.

On September 23rd, the European Union released its New Pact on Migration and Asylum, which aims to fix some of the EU lacunas in migration policy. The New Pact seems to primarily focus on sharing frontier’ states migrant burdens with other European countries and less on migrant and refugee rights. The New Pact has yet to successfully go through the complex approval process, and thus is not currently in place.

  • One of the most notable changes is the proposed withdrawal of the Dublin Regulation and the implementation of a new system that would promote solidarity between the Member States when a country faces migratory pressures.
  • The New Pact also proposes increased processing speed of asylum claims for individuals who come from countries whose migrants win asylum claims less than 20 percent of the time.

The Bottom Line: After the blaze, Moria residents are once again stuck in a precarious state of limbo with no clear solution in sight, with both the Greek and European government unwilling to implement real long-term solutions.

Even though the European Commission has released its New Pact on Migration and Asylum, it will still face many obstacles before it can be implemented. Many challenges to its implementation are expected, as numerous European countries that have previously resisted migration solutions are likely to continue doing so.

Europe’s inability to properly implement solutions for migrants comes at an increasingly high price for Moria’s displaced population, as 243 migrants test positive in the newly erected Kara Tepe camp, where access to food and sanitation remain insufficient.