Refugee Camp Fire and EU Migration Shortfalls

Refugee Camp Fire and EU Migration Shortfalls

Safa Hameed

On Wednesday, September 9th, several fires broke out in the Moria Migrant Camp. It is the largest refugee in Europe, ravaging the refuge and displacing 12,000 migrants all amidst high tensions due to COVID-19, local-migrant relations, and the inhumane conditions. The recent events have highlighted the European Union’s (EU) longstanding shortfalls on migrant policy/action, which has prevailed since the Migration Crisis of 2015-2016, as well as the copious strain that COVID-19 has put on the system.

The myriad of fires, which left 11,000 on the streets, started on Wednesday in protest to a camp-wide lockdown order put in place after 35 families tested positive for COVID-19 and refused to isolate. The conditions of the camp are seen by some Non-Government Organizations as inhumane: spoiled or rotten food, water shortages, lack of plumbing, and prevalence of trash, urine, and feces. These camps were built more than five years ago; they were made to house 3,000 people. At the time of the fire, the camps housed 12,000 people– at its height, it housed 20,000 migrants. What furthered this is the uncertainty that the migrants were living in. For example, some migrants have been waiting for years in the camp while their application is processed, they await settlement, or await deportation. All these aspects contributed to rising tensions that placed copious amounts of psychological strain on the migrants that were eventually bound to snap.

The fires were put out by Thursday, thanks to groups of firemen.  However, 12,000 lost their meager homes and what little belongings they had. George Moutafis, a photographer, told CNN, “The Moria camp no longer exists. The camp has been completely destroyed. The containers and tents have been completely destroyed. The fires are now out. Many migrants and refugees are now back at the camp and looking for their belongings.” 

At first, Greece provided shelter for 1,000 refugees on a ferry and promised more temporary housing through two naval vessels that were settled to arrive, but that still leaves around 10,000 unaccommodated. Some countries have offered to take migrants, however, most are only interested in unaccompanied minors, but they make up a small majority (about 400 of 12,000). Germany, along with the unaccompanied minors, has also agreed to settle nearly 1,500 other migrant families.

During its scramble for temporary housing, Greece has announced that a new camp was being built quickly along the seaside in a former military firing range called Kara Tepe; however, many migrants aren’t hopeful that this new camp will be any better, like Mahbube Alzhani, who commented, “They’re building it again, and I don’t want to go — it will be a prison.” 

While some refugees joined the seaside camp, many indignant migrants took to the streets to protest against what they felt was “imprisonment”, resulting in clashes with Greek police. Situations escalated quickly, with police resorting to using tear gas as protesters shouted “Moira kills all lives” and “we need peace and freedom.” Eventually, after these protests were contained, more people began to trickle in to Kara Tepe, and at the last time it was checked, there were 5,000 people being resettled. The government has promised that Kara Tepe is just temporary, and a newer and more permanent settlement would be built as the Prime Minister, Kyriakos Mitsotakis, acknowledged the terrible handling of Moria, “The second opportunity out of this tragedy is to create on Lesbos a new permanent reception and identification center that will not carry the negative aspects and problems of Moria – which is identified, and rightly so, with the mismanagement of the refugee issue.” 

It is this very statement, on the other hand, that has caused the anger of migrants who wish to be transferred to mainland Greece and the EU rather than being stuck on the island. This is an issue that the Minister of Migration, Konstantinos Kostakos, has been very clear with and addressed, “The Greek government will not be blackmailed. What happened — this ‘burn and go’ tactic — will not be tolerated.” He goes on to emphasize that Greece cannot be bullied into giving into the migrant’s wishes of moving, saying in a sense that they won’t change how they run things.

However, things do need to change. 

It is clear that the system is not working when problems and tragedies as evident as these are taking place every couple of months in the news cycle. It is clear that there are long-standing shortfalls that aren’t meant to be contained but fixed. It is clear that it all starts at the heart of the problem: the Migrant Crisis of 2015.

The Migrant Crisis escalated over a short amount of time in 2015 as wars and political instability ravaged the Middle East, with a majority of the refugees being Syrians fleeing from the Syrian War. Europe saw a record of over a million migrants in the first year, and 856,723 of the 1,000,000 arrived and passed through Greece. At first, Greece was no more than an intermediary in the Migrant’s destination as most hoped to settle in places like Germany, which at that time accepted nearly 1.2 million refugees, and places like Moria were built to sift through the migrants quickly as they reached their final destinations. 

One of the most famous photos from the Migrant Crisis of 2015 was a graphic picture of three-year-old Alan Kurdi that illustrated the harrowing truth about the migrant journey, which many had heard of but never seen. Pictures like these drove many European citizens to advocate for refugees in the beginning months of the Migrant Crisis. However, devastating photos of migrants and their pathos-inducing effect began to wear off as European leaders and citizens started to understand that this wasn’t just a one time “welcome all” event, but a recurring influx of people that overwhelmed their resources, migration laws, and policies. The comprehension of the severity of the situation led to Europe closing its borders and pulling back on the steady roll of migrants. 

This led to policies being put into effect that state that all refugees and their subsequent asylum cases will be prosecuted by the country that they first arrive. Because they are the closest European bodies to migrants, Greece, Italy, and Turkey get nearly all the refugees who await entry into other parts of Europe, and thus they deal with a disproportionate amount of cases that have backed up and overwhelmed the system causing trouble for everyone. Although the EU pays big money ($1.9 billion over the past 5 years) to support Greece, Italy, and Turkey, the money means nothing when it doesn’t compensate for their lack of involvement: backed up and overwhelmed migration systems, like the one in Moria, and frustrated migrants and locals. What this means for the migrants is a painstakingly slow bureaucratic process, so some of them stay in these countries for years, awaiting either settlement or deportation, in the inhumane conditions of camps that were never meant to withstand settlement that long. This all feeds into the flames and the psychological stress patterns that are noticeable within the migrant camps and their corresponding violent outbursts and protest, like in Moria and years past.

Many European leaders, like Chancellor Merkel and President Macron,  have recognized how many of these problems would alleviate if everyone played a role, with them emphasizing “solidarity” and how this is a “burden” all of Europe needs to share if it is to help struggling countries like Greece. This help comes in the form of a new migration pact that is to be presented to the EU Commission, a branch of the EU that proposes laws, sometime in the next couple of weeks. New migration pacts and laws haven’t been amended since 2016 because of the severe split of countries for immigration and against, effectively blocking much-needed updating as the EU hasn’t been able to agree on anything to pass.

This new commission works on involving all European countries in the migration system, emphasizing the “solidarity” while working to appease anti-immigration countries like Hungary or Poland. It essentially does this by putting a new spin on what it means to be equally involved. Countries like Poland and Hungary, who don’t want refugees, will be in charge of bureaucratic processes, such as deportation and asylum case review, while countries like Germany will focus on the physical settlement of refugees. They also addressed the limbo-like state of migrants by proposing that they be moved to relocation centers all throughout Europe while they wait for asylum as opposed to keeping them on the islands. This will greatly lift the pressures on burdened countries, stress on migrants, and hasten the asylum process. These proposed smaller nuclear settlements can also help soothe the tensions and snaps that migrants have experienced, ensure a better quality of life, and help them transition to European life should they be accepted.

A lot rides on this commission, and even more so on understanding the status of these refugees. At the end of the day, migrants and their status as asylum seekers should not be premonitions for how they are thought of because, above all, they are humans who should be treated as such. Coming from war and poverty should not justify giving these human beings the bare minimum because they came “from worse”, and providing a basis for life that is inhumane won’t deter more migrants from coming because the conditions are like home but with no war. Treating them as humans would instead promote less anger and violence that we have seen in experiments like Moria. While it may be true that some of these migrants are the one’s inciting acts of crime and violence, we shouldn’t use that as a basis for how we treat the whole, the many women, men, and children whose only crime is seeking a sliver of peace.