Flames, Floods and Misery – The Human Catastrophe at the Moria Refugee Camp

Motley Staff Writer John Hunter discusses Europe’s lethargic response to the on-going crisis at the Moria Refugee Camp in Lesbos, Greece.

During the evening of the 8th September, a fire began at the Moria Registration and Identification Centre (commonly known as the Moria Refugee Camp), a former military-base located on the Greek island of Lesbos, which destroyed the vast majority of the camp. The following night, another fire began, destroying the last section of the camp that the previous night’s blaze left untouched. While the fires did not cause fatalities, it left over 12,000 refugees, most of whom had fled from Afghanistan and Syria, displaced on the roadside of the now infamous camp.

It’s still unclear how the fires began, though there’s speculation that they may have been started within the camp as a protest against the COVID-19 lockdown, while others have suggested that far-right Greeks are culpable. The week following the fires, four unnamed Afghan-men were charged with arson, while two others – both minors – alleged to have been involved in starting the fire, were being held by Greek police.

The fires may have alerted the general public to the Moria Refugee Camp, but internationally, the camp has been on the radar of NGOs for several years. The camp, founded in 2015, was notorious for overcrowding, with over 12,000 residents (at the time of the fire) in a camp designed to house under 3,000 people. The sheer volume of people meant that the camp began to spill over into local olive groves. In February 2020, the UNHCR called for “Greece to intensify efforts to address alarming overcrowding and precarious conditions for asylum seekers and migrants staying on the five Greek Aegean islands”. Along with this, Human Rights Watch described the camp as “an open-air prison” in November 2018, and said that “Women and girls face relentless insecurity in Greece’s overcrowded Moria “hotspot” for asylum seekers and migrants” in December 2019.

As well as these serious issues within the camp, beyond its boundaries tensions were rising. On the 22nd January, more than 9000 locals took part in a demonstration in Mytilene, the capital of Lesbos, expressing anger over the perceived burden refugee camps placed on Lesbos and other Greek islands. A large placard was hung over the town hall with the slogan “We want our lives back. We want our islands back”.

Following the fires, nearly 8000 Moria refugees were moved to temporary accommodation built along the coastline by the Kara Tepe Refugee Camp. But barely four weeks later the refugees were dealt another blow. Heavy rainfall caused flooding in the camp, destroying tents and personal belongings, and leaving many without shelter for the second time in only a few weeks. As well as this and the difficulties caused by COVID-19, the camp’s seaside placement leaves it exposed to the ever-worsening elements, which spells trouble for the ill-prepared camp as winter approaches.

Photo by Ian Turnell from Pexels

The fires and the subsequent humanitarian crisis have caused many to criticise the European Union, linking the devastating failure at Moria to the EU’s inadequate policy decisions that fail to address the ongoing refugee crisis. Many have also called on European governments to step up its efforts to take in refugees. Shortly after the fires, an Irish campaign group called ‘400 Welcomes’ called on the government to take in at least 400 people from the Moria Refugee Camp. On 1st October, Minister for Justice Helen McEntee announced in a video on Twitter that 50 men, women and children “within family units” would be brought from Greece to Ireland.

European societies have long prided themselves on being open, welcoming and charitable, but these attitudes seem at odds with the grim realities of the largely forgotten refugee camps, which only make headlines when something catastrophic happens – ironic considering the ongoing crisis that produced the camps can only be described as a human catastrophe. With resources stretched, winter approaching, and the COVID-19 crisis worsening, the most vulnerable communities will be hardest hit, so we, the European community, need to act to prevent further suffering and properly address this crisis.