Moria is the tragedy of Europe. How did this happen?


Picture: Illustration by Ottavia Mossetto


by Tim Schirmer


"Fire! Moria is burning!" echoes through the night of September 8th, 2020. The fire department of the Greek island of Lesbos tried to fight the fire, but the camp had to be evacuated. 12,000 people became homeless that night. Videos of people wandering around frightened and looking for their relatives are shared on the internet that night. Others show protesting refugees who try to hinder the fire department in extinguishing the fire. There are reports of angry islanders who oppose refugees as they seek shelter in the surrounding villages. The next morning there is not much left of Moria. Charred containers and tents, burnt earth and grey ashes. Fortunately, there are no dead. Still, it is a tragedy.


To understand the emotions of that night, one has to look in the past. To the point where it all started.


The refugee camp Moria in Greece is the symbol of a failed migration policy of the European Union. It is overcrowded and the people are forced to dwell in inhumane conditions, while there is not much done against that. For years the topic of migration is heavily debated amongst Europeans. This overview helps to clarify the different standpoints in that debate and understand why there is no solution for it yet.


In 2015, 550,000 refugees came to the Greek islands


Since 2011, a civil war has been raging in Syria. Therefore, many Syrians flee the country. Also people from Afghanistan or Iraq flee from persecution or poverty in their home countries. Many of them want to go to Europe to live in peace and security. The escape of an Afghan family was portrayed in the article "Smuggled to Europe: From the Middle East to Greece" by Ottavia Mossetto and Enno Schöningh in 2018 in the Catcher on the Rhein student magazine. According to the International Organization for Migration more than 550,000 refugees came in 2015 from Turkey to the Greek islands, the external border of the EU. When people flee across the sea, there are many risks. Four thousand people lost their lives crossing the mediterranean sea in 2015, a report by the UNHCR shows.

Local and international aid organizations try to care for the refugees. They provide living and sanitary containers, as well as doctors for the sick and psychologists for the traumatized. On the island of Lesbos, 100,000 refugees arrived in October 2015. Near the district of Moria, the Greek government built a camp for refugees: Moria. After registration, the refugees will be transferred to the mainland from where they want to travel to the central EU states. But there is criticism of Greece's handling of the situation. Other EU members repeatedly accuse their EU partner, Greece, of not registering all refugees on arrival, before they move on to other EU member states. In the so-called Dublin procedure, which is part of the common European asylum system, it is regulated that the EU member state, where the refugee first enters the EU, is responsible for the asylum procedure of that person. Thereby the EU wants to keep oversight of everybody who enters the EU and organize migration. But if Greece does not register the people and instead lets them pass unidentified to other EU member states, then the common European asylum system does no longer work. In addition, it is criticized that the construction of ‘hot spots’ in which refugees are to be registered on the Greek islands is progressing too slowly.

The EU-Turkey agreement is intended to reduce refugees


The EU is looking for solutions to deal with the unusually high number of refugees. With the support of the European Stability Initiative e. V., the governments of some EU countries are working on an agreement with Turkey. The EU-Turkey agreement of March 2016, is intended to reduce the number of refugees arriving in Europe. Therefore, Turkey should strengthen border protection and sea rescue at the European external border and prevent people from entering the EU. Instead, Turkey should take in and care for the people in its own country, for which it receives money from the EU. In addition, refugees who have entered the EU through the Greek border illegally and have no chance of getting asylum in the EU should be sent back to Turkey. However, this regulation only applies if the refugees have not yet entered the Greek mainland yet. That is why for many refugees, their hope to get asylum in Europe ends on the Greek islands. Like in Moria, where people wait for their asylum procedures as it is their only chance to enter the Greek mainland. According to European asylum law, each application must be examined individually. But because of the much too small administration on Lesbos, each procedure does not take a few days, but several months.

The situation in the camp Moria is getting continuously worse

The EU-Turkey agreement is fulfilling its objective. Whereas in the summer months of June to September 2015 an average of 2,900 refugees per day came from Turkey to Greece, in the same period in 2016 there were only 81 refugees per day on average, according to the ZEIT. However, the asylum administration on Lesbos only manages 350 applications per week. The refugees are forced to stay on the islands and only those whose asylum application has been granted or those who are in particular need of help are allowed to proceed to the Greek mainland. The situation in the camp Moria is getting continuously worse. Because the asylum administration does not keep up, Moria is becoming more and more crowded. There are tensions between security forces and refugees, but also between members of different ethnic groups. Aid organizations repeatedly criticize the lack of medical care, poor housing and inadequate protection for minors. The tents do not provide sufficient protection in winter and people fall ill because of the cold and poor sanitary facilities. There is violence and abuse against children, women and men. Because of the poor supply situation, the people only have the most basic necessities. Self-built stoves cause accidents in which people get hurt or even die. Several times, fires broke out in the camp and many people lost their dwellings.

Greece is criticized by the Council of Europe for inhumane treatment of refugees. Nevertheless, in March 2017, the European Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid Operations announced that they would no longer finance the work of aid organizations and that the Greek government should take care of the refugees on the islands alone. In 2018, a total of 65,000 asylum applications were made in Greece, of which only about 28,000 were processed, 12,500 were accepted and 15,500 were rejected, statistics by Laenderdaten.info show. The authorities are still overwhelmed with the situation. Over 45 percent of the asylum procedures lasted longer than six months in 2018. By 2019 12,000 people lived in Moria, a camp that was actually only designed for 3000 people. But why are the people in Moria not being helped?

"The refugees have to be brought to the mainland immediately!"

While the refugees have to wait in the camps, displeasure about the situation arises in some islanders. Lesbos used to be a popular vacation destination, but because of the media attention of boats with refugees and dead people, and because of the conditions in the camps, only few tourists come nowadays. Many inhabitants of Lesbos are desperate. At the same time, there are reports of attacks by right-wing extremists on aid workers and refugees. The mayor of Lesbos, Spyros Galinos, feels left alone. "For the last three years, we have been bearing an immense burden on behalf of Greece and Europe," Galinos said in an interview with DER SPIEGEL in 2017. His solution: “The refugees have to be brought to the mainland immediately!" On a few occasions, the Greek government in Athens has already taken refugees from the islands to the mainland to relieve the camps. But once they arrive on the mainland, Turkey does not take back the rejected asylum seekers anymore. This was part of the agreement between the EU and Turkey in 2016. Instead the Greek parliament decided to tighten the asylum law in order to speed up asylum procedures and deportations. Aid organizations then accused the Greek government of undermining the right of protection seekers to a comprehensive review of their asylum application. They believe that the Greek government intends to use the catastrophic conditions in Moria to deter people from fleeing to Europe. At the same time, the EU is also repeatedly criticized for leaving Greece alone with the challenge instead of distributing refugees among the community of states. The Greek government also demands that its European partners should distribute refugees more fairly.


The EU wants the refugees to stay on the Greek islands until it is decided whether they will be granted asylum. The EU has indeed created an agenda for the challenges of migration. According to a report by Deutsche Welle however, between 2015 and 2019 the EU states have taken in only 40,000 of the promised 160,000 asylum seekers and refugees from Greece and Italy. One reason for this is that the states cannot find a compromise on how to distribute the refugees within the EU. Some states refuse to take in refugees by principle, even though this violates existing EU law. Therefore instead of taking in refugees, the EU supports Greece with money. 643 million Euros were provided to Greece between 2016 and 2019 for the care of refugees and development of infrastructure. Often, however, the money has not arrived in the right place. There are reports by the Guardian of planning deficits and mismanagement.


EU Commission president thanks Greece for being the "European shield"

Nobody wants to take responsibility for the situation of the refugees and the blame for this is assigned to others. The refugees have to continue to live in inhumane conditions in Moria, and yet thousands of people dare to make the dangerous escape to Europe every year. More than 15,000 people have drowned in the Mediterranean since 2015. In autumn 2019 the number of arriving boats increased again. Meanwhile, there are around 3,600,000 refugees living in Turkey. Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, the Turkish head of state, accused the EU of not respecting the EU-Turkey agreement of 2016 and threatened to open the border to Greece for the refugees living in Turkey. Greece's Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis criticizes the action: “Turkey is trying to use migration as a lever to put pressure on Europe and to achieve concessions.” When Erdoğan made his threats come true in February 2020, 13,000 refugees arrived at the external border of the EU. But Greek security forces used violent means such as teargas to prevent people from crossing the border. In addition, the country suspended its right of asylum. People had no possibilities to apply for asylum for one month. In Moria, this means that newly arriving refugees are directly arrested and deported. Thus, Greece breaks EU law and does not adhere to the Geneva Convention on Refugees, which has regulated the rights of refugees worldwide since 1951. The EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen however, thanked Greece for being the "European shield" in these times.

European cities have declared willingness to take in refugees

But there are ways to help the people in Moria. When, in spring 2020, the coronavirus kept Europe occupied, aid organizations demanded to evacuate the 20,000 people from the camp. Throughout Europe, cities and municipalities have repeatedly declared their willingness to take in refugees from Greece. The German Safe Havens Alliance has signalled that it can accommodate 500 people directly. However, this requires the approval of the German Federal Minister of the Interior, Horst Seehofer. Seehofer, in turn, says he wants to first encourage his European partners to find a joint solution. After all, ten EU member states declared themselves willing to take in a total of 1600 refugees.

In comparison to the 450,000,000 EU-citizens, this compromise seems ludicrous. But while some accuse the EU of inaction and of pursuing a policy of deterrence, others criticize that by accepting refugees, the EU is signalling that anyone can come into the EU and they fear that more people will dare to flee to Europe. Which is correct? At least after the admission of the 1600 people, the topic is no longer the focus of media attention. And yet thousands of refugees continue to arrive every month to the Greek islands. Twenty thousand now live in Moria, a camp that was designed for only 3000.

The EU doesn’t have a long term solution


It is September 2020. The whole camp is quarantined because of rising Corona cases. On the night of September 8th to 9th Moria burns down and more than 12,000 people become homeless. Again, a debate erupts about helping the people. EU members from various standpoints argue about taking in 400 or 5000 refugees and whether the fire was set intentionally or by accident, instead of looking for a long-term solution. However, the Greek government already has one. A new camp on Lesbos is almost built already. It is designed for 5000 people.


It seems like our politicians can not, or do not want to solve the problem. Maybe they believe that the public interest in the refugees in camps like Moria is not important enough, or they purposely try to give this topic as little attention as possible. Maybe they believe that the next elected politician will handle this. But what about us citizens, do we also have to wait for the next elections and hope that somebody is going to help the people in Moria? No. We have to bring the attention of our governments to the inhumane situation and demand to solve it, like we did on 9th of September with the demonstration for the evacuation of the camp Moria in Kleve. We also have to watch very closely that our politicians act according to the laws of the EU, as well as our shared values that Europe is founded on. But most importantly we must remind our politicians that no country can solve a problem like this alone and we have to work together, also with non EU countries, to find compromises that help the people.


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