Last week, fires devastated Moria camp on the Greek island of Lesvos. Moria had become infamous over the past years for its constant overcrowdedness and inhumane living conditions. The fires that started on Tuesday night and raged through to Wednesday morning left the 12,598 men, women and children who had been living in the camp, in shock and stranded on the streets. An interview by Mimi Hapig with Rory O’Keeffe, founder of Koraki for contextual and political analysis and communication for humanitarian responders, Thessaloniki, Greece
Rory, with Koraki you have been observing and reporting about the developments in Greece for several years now. What were your first thoughts when you learned about the fires destroying Moria camp?
Within hours of the fire which destroyed the shelters and almost all of the few remaining possessions of 12,589 men, women and children at the Moria ‘camp’, it was disappointing but predictable to see people rush to allocate blame for the disaster.
Both Michalis Frantzeskos, the vice deputy mayor for citizens’ protection on Lesvos, and the Greek Prime Minister Kiriakos Mitsotakis made statements that accused the residents of Moria of having caused the fires. Mitsotakis even implied the fires had been a violent reaction to health tests – a theory without any basis in fact or evidence. Six days after the fire, when a preliminary investigation had been carried out, Greek police arrested six people – all of whom are believed to have been trapped at Moria for more than a year – in relation to the blaze. None have yet been tried, so it would, even now, be too soon to say they are responsible for the fire starting.
Certainly, however, Frantzeskos’ and Mitsotakis’ claims were made too soon, too publicly, and were an alarming indication of the ‘narrative’ the government would seek to follow regarding the disaster. This matters, because at least as important as ‘how did the fire start?’ is ‘how could any fire started by one or a few individuals destroy all of the EU’s largest refugee holding centre?’
The simple answer is that Moria’s safe capacity – the maximum number of people who can be at the site before it is no longer safe for any of them to be there – was 2.757 people. On Monday 9 September, the day before the fire, its population was 12,598.
The holding/detention centres like Moria on Lesvos and other detention centres on Chios, Samos, Leros and Kos exist in direct contravention of international law, while the practice of holding people there for up to four years in intensely overcrowded and demonstrably unsafe conditions is unacceptable not just legally, but also morally. In the European Union, the world’s richest ever political bloc, in the 21st Century, this is unacceptable.
So the surprise/mystery is not that Moria was wiped out by fire on Wednesday morning, but that this had not happened three or more years before.
“The surprise/mystery is not that Moria was wiped out by fire on Wednesday morning, but that this had not happened three or more years before.”
What is the political reaction you observe in Greece right now?
It is hard to imagine a more stark demonstration of the political priorities of the Greek government than this: a state which has been at the centre of a refugee response for five solid years decided it could transport riot police from its capital by helicopter within hours after the fire broke out to prevent desperate people from finding temporary shelter, but waited 36 hours to send too few tents, by ship, to actually offer somewhere to sleep.
Nea Dimokratia, the former opposition party which now leads the national government as of July 2019, has worked hard to “weaponize” refugees. Their messaging has focused on three major points: that refugees are a danger to Greek livelihoods (jobs and incomes), to Greek lifestyles (traditions, religion, and culture) and to Greek lives (literally, that refugees endanger the security of Greece as a state, and its citizens as individuals).
None of these three claims has any justification in fact; refugees have not attacked Greek people or made any effort at all to ‘change’ Greece culturally. In fact, it is worth noting that Greece has received billions of Euros it would not have had, precisely because men, women and children have arrived seeking security and a chance to begin again. It is very likely that Greece would not yet have left EU-imposed “special measures” if these people had not arrived.
Still, because of narratives like these, created and fueled by Nea Dimokratia, it is not surprising that locals on Lesvos and the wider Greek public contribute or at least accept measures like the road blockage that prevents refugees stranded on the streets after the Moria fires from entering the nearby city.
And all of this in the middle of a pandemic…
Of course, COVID-19 also plays a part. In the immediate aftermath of the fire, in the same statement in which he claimed (without evidence) that ‘refugees’ had started the fire, Michalis Frantzeskos also noted with ‘concern’ that 35 people at Moria had tested positive for the virus in the previous few days. It is true that Lesvos is under ‘extraordinary measures’ because of high levels of infections on the island, but the first cases in Moria came far later than those outside the holding/detention centre. There is absolutely no truth in the idea that the ‘direction of infection’ is from refugees to Greek natives: if anything, the experience across the country is directly the opposite.
The nearby city Mytilene could easily have found space for 35 people with a virus, meaning that not only would those people have received proper (and indoor) care, but also that the municipal authorities could have kept tabs on exactly where those people were, and thus ‘protected the citizens’ of Lesvos. Instead, these men, women and children were not able to find alternate shelter.
By Thursday afternoon, the Greek government was forced to admit it had no idea where 27 of the men, women and children who had tested positive for coronavirus even were, as, faced with the choice of remaining on the street in high temperatures or heading for the cooler mountains – most likely into the mountains – they had unsurprisingly chosen the latter.
Meanwhile the police forces allocated to Lesvos have been active. In the days that have followed the fire, they have used teargas against the people displaced from Moria, even as those people have begun collapsing due to lack of water. The Greek government sent police and arms to Lesvos faster and in greater numbers than it sent tents, and men, women and children are still sleeping on the streets. Innocent people are being attacked by a government which has chosen to leave them sleeping rough, because its priority is armed response.
A simple response designed to shelter and help people in the short-term while working on long-term solutions could have benefitted Greek and non-Greek people alike on Lesvos.
Instead, we have seen fact-free rhetoric – from the Greek Prime Minister as well as Frantzeskos – and the use of the police as a militia against an unarmed, innocent and desperate group of people. The result, entirely predictably, is chaos and far greater risk to refugees and Greek nationals alike.
“we have seen fact-free rhetoric – from the Greek Prime Minister as well as Frantzeskos – and the use of the police as a militia against an unarmed, innocent and desperate group of people. The result, entirely predictably, is chaos and far greater risk to refugees and Greek nationals alike.”
What about the political reaction of the EU?
Well, the EU has not quite said nothing at all. But it has also not said very much, let alone acted decisively or in a meaningful way. The German state of North Rhine-Westphalia offered on Wednesday to take 1,000 of the people whose shelters were destroyed in the fire. Other German states followed suit. By yesterday (Tuesday 15 September) evening, the German government had ‘indicated’ (though not confirmed) that it ‘may’ take up to 1,650 men, women and children.
Were this to be replicated by every other EU member state then not only the 12,589 people from Moria, but every single man, woman and child currently held in one of the hellish, massively- and dangerously overcrowded Greek holding/detention centres on the five Aegean islands could be removed to a safe place where they could re-start and rebuild their lives.
But before accepting the pledges of its own regions, the German government requested that other EU states also offer places to the 12,589 population of the former Moria camp.
So far, France has offered to take 100-150 children, while eight other countries have offered to accept 100-150 between them depending on whether the combined German and French offers to relocate children who have been trapped in Moria without parents or official guardians in fact amount to 250 or 300 children.
In the silence that has followed, the argument in Greece has once again altered to the suggestion that because the Moria detainees ‘set fire to’ the holding/detention centre they do not ‘deserve’ to be moved elsewhere in the EU. This is an astonishing position, amounting to the idea that even if all six of those arrested on suspicion of having started the Moria fire are found guilty, some 12,583 men, women and children entirely innocent of any crime must also be punished for it: this is not ‘justice’ in any sense of the word.
Aside from ‘expressions of sympathy’ (and not every state has made those) most of the EU has so far done nothing.
As an expert for political analysis you have been on Al-Jazeera twice in the last couple of weeks. According to your opinion, what are the adequate reactions the European Union and the Greek state need to display right now?
Wednesday’s fire proves conclusively that not only are the holding/detention centres on the Aegean islands insanely cruel punishments for people who have committed no crime, they are also – as we have continually warned – fundamentally unsafe.
The entire basis on which they were opened was an impossibility: there was never the capacity or even truly the will at either Greek or EU level to make the ‘system’ work properly – that is, for the detention/holding centres to be temporary stopping-points where people could be registered before travelling further.
Transferring people from Lesvos and overcrowded camps/detention centers on other islands to the mainland would only create suffering and other challenges in the already overcrowded camps on the mainland. In order to ‘make space’ for arrivals from the islands in the last 12 months, people with a positive decision in their asylum claim have been forced out of the shelters and onto the streets, creating a new, highly problematic, situation of homelessness directly caused by government policy. This is sadly likely to be continued and increased should 12,583 people be moved in the wake of the Moria blaze.
Instead, the EU must act now to move every single one of the men, women and children to other EU member states, where they can restart and rebuild their lives.
In fact, every one of the holding/detention centres must be shut down, immediately, and everyone within them moved to safe, decent accommodation while their asylum applications are processed. Simultaneously, the EU must immediately prevent the Greek government from building and forcing new arrivals into ‘closed camps’ – in fact jails – on the Aegean islands.
“The EU must act now to move every single one of the men, women and children to other EU member states, where they can restart and rebuild their lives.”