Moria – the EU’s biggest humanitarian disaster

by Lea Schiller

When the refugee camp Moria on the Greek island Lesbos was opened in 2015, it was intended to provide shelter for about 3,000 people. In January of this year, its population was estimated to be around 20,000. Overcrowding has put the people inside the camp in hazardous conditions for years – essentially, a bomb waiting to go off, with thousands of unaccompanied minors inside. During the early months of the pandemic, the fuse seemed to shorten considerably. About 5,000 people were allowed to relocate to the Greek mainland, but that still left the camp with five times as many people as it was originally supposed to have. And as COVID-19 started to spread in Europe around March, Greece imposed a lockdown for the whole country – including all refugee camps, among which was Moria. For the ordinary citizen, life slowly returned to normal in June – but the country’s thousands of asylum seekers were kept in lockdown for weeks longer, even though camps on the islands had not recorded any cases at that time. Inside Moria, social distancing and hygiene was virtually impossible to follow, with water and soap in short supply and notorious overcrowding still threatening the safety of all inhabitants. When the first case of COVID-19 was confirmed inside Moria, it was swiftly placed under a two-week quarantine while Greek authorities tried to trace the contacts of the patient. 

One week later, fires broke out and left more than ten thousand refugees and migrants without shelter. On the evening of the 8th of September, the first fire started, which would then go on to destroy large parts of the camp. The following night, a second fire burned most of what was left. The unsafe conditions in Moria have lead to fires before; that a bigger one would follow was only a question of time. Now, not only is the majority of Moria residents sleeping on the streets, but in the chaos following the blaze, authorities lost track of the more than 30 residents who had contracted COVID-19. The cause of the fire remains unknown – poor conditions in the camp provide a large enough fire hazards on their own, but rising far-right sentiments among the Greek population of Lesbos gave rise to the suspicion that it was started by one of the locals. On the other hand, protests and riots by asylum-seekers to be relocated to mainland Europe have also fuelled rumours of the fire having been started by the previous inhabitants of Moria themselves. 

Several EU member states including the Netherlands have agreed to take in unaccompanied minors, altogether resulting in several hundred children being relocated. This leaves more than ten thousand now homeless asylum-seekers on Lesbos. This week, the European Commission presented a long-awaited asylum pact. Once in action, it would require all member states to take part in managing migration. To balance the resistance against mandatory migrant quotas in the Union and the need to aid southern member states, the way member states participate is left up to them – whether that is by taking in asylum-seekers or taking care of sending back those who are refused asylum. It is a long awaited solution, but not without criticism coming from both governments in the EU and human rights groups. If and how this pact is going to be carried out remains to be seen – but for the people in Moria, help is already a long time coming.

Photo by Radek Homola on Unsplash


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