Updated: Oct 18, 2020
Recent fires in the Moria camp in Lesvos have destroyed more than 80% of the camp, leaving 13,000 refugees without shelter. The UNHCR is “shocked” (UNHCR, 2020). They shouldn’t be. Lesvos and the neighbouring island of Samos are the entrance point to Europe for tens of thousands of refugees fleeing conflict and political persecution in Syria, Iran, Afghanistan and other countries. Lying, at points, less than a mile from the coast of Turkey, these small Greek islands relying heavily on tourism for their income have, since 2015, been overcome by the number of people arriving and not being moved on to the mainland by Greek authorities. On Samos, a camp built for 648 people has, until recently, held more than 8000. Moria in Lesvos has quickly become Greece’s largest refugee camp; with capacity for just 3,000 people it has quickly grown to hold more than 13,000. Conditions are cramped, with the majority of asylum seekers living in the ‘jungle’; the unofficial areas surrounding the camp, without proper access to sanitation areas or water, and frequently insufficient access to food. Even without COVID-19, the situation on Lesvos has been growing increasingly volatile since January, with a heightened far right presence surrounding the camp and locals attacking refugees, humanitarian workers and doctors at a rapidly increasing rate between February and March 2020. Some NGOs had to cease operations in Lesvos due to the volatile situation on the ground even prior to the COVID-19 lockdown across Europe. With the economy in Lesvos relying heavily on tourism, many locals have lost their source of income along with the growth of the camp, and tensions have reached an all time high. At the same time, refugees are growing increasingly frustrated by the overcrowded and inhumane conditions and lack of transferrals to the mainland compounding this. In protest, fires have been set at an increasing rate in both the Lesvos and Samos camps over the past year, causing massive damage to both camps. And then entered COVID-19.
Last week the first confirmed case of coronavirus was reported in Moria, and the camp promptly went into lockdown. Unlike the lockdown we’ve experienced in the UK, which individuals living in Moria had already been enduring for the past six months, no one was allowed in or out of the camp for any reason, even to buy produce or water. This led to protests in the camp about the insufficient amount and quality of food. Further angst undoubtedly stemmed from the double standards that refugees living in the camp have endured for months. The nearby town of Mytilene has been open and actively encouraging tourism; cafes, shops and restaurants have all been open, and masks were not always required, with over a hundred confirmed coronavirus cases in the town. Nevertheless, the restrictive lockdown that refugees in the camp were already experiencing was tightened; effectively locking thousands of people into an overcrowded space where coronavirus would spread rapidly, without providing anything to help counter it.
In the months leading up to the lockdown, it was left to NGOs such as Refugee4Refugees and Movement on the Ground to convert recreational areas into quarantine shelters and set up hand sanitiser stations around the camps on Lesvos and the neighbouring island of Samos. The Greek government has been extremely slow and unwilling to do anything to prepare the camp for the inevitable. Under these conditions, this final lockdown was the last spark needed to ignite the blaze; and last week, that is exactly what we have witnessed. Fires, set by asylum seekers, have torn through the camp on an unprecedented scale, leaving 13,000 people without shelter and sleeping on the street. The events are tragic; but they are not unprecedented, and they are not ‘shocking’. The situation that authorities and NGOs are now scrambling to respond to is the result of an anti-migrant discourse, originating with and fuelled by the EU’s reluctance to take in its fair share of asylum seekers, which has directly resulted in a bottleneck of people remaining on small Greek islands that are already struggling to support their own economies. Those seeking asylum do not want to be there, locals living on the islands do not want asylum seekers there, and a melting pot of inequality and anger has finally bubbled over on a massive scale. Too long have we normalised the idea of refugee camps existing at all; individuals and families have not always had to spend years of their lives in makeshift camps and detention centres akin to prisons, for the crime of fleeing war and persecution. Refugees were once welcomed in Europe, for all they can bring and add to society. An unprecedented alliance of 219 organisations from across Europe are now calling upon the EU to evacuate Moria camp, decongest the islands and relocate refugees across Europe. Furthermore, they call for an abandonment of any approach that would normalise trapping people in inhumane conditions at Europe’s borders again; countries across Europe must accept their equal responsibility for what has happened at Moria camp and the human rights abuses that occur everyday at our borders. Fundamentally, we must do better. You can sign the petition here: www.change.org/firemoriacamp You can donate to relief efforts on Lesvos here: https://www.gofundme.com/f/63vdt-support-r4r039s-emergency-relief-on-lesvos-and-samos?utm_source=whatsapp-visit&utm_medium=chat&utm_campaign=p_cp+share-sheet You can learn more about the situation on Samos and Lesvos here: Refugee4Refugees: Instagram: @refugee4refugees Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/Refugee4Refugees Aegean Boat Report: Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/AegeanBoatReport Movement on the Ground: Instagram: @movementontheground Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/movementontheground Help Refugees: Instagram: @chooselove Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/chooselove Refocus Media Labs: Instagram: @refocusmedialabs Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/refocusmedialabs
Colette Batten-Turner is an activist, photographer and Founder of Conversation Over Borders, an organisation building connections and encouraging communication over borders through online one-on-one English conversation classes between volunteers and asylum seekers. She holds a Masters in Media Practice for Development and Social Change and believes in platforming underrepresented voices to challenge the anti-migration stance in the mainstream media. She has spent time volunteering on the Greek islands and remains well-connected with a number of NGOs operating on the ground.