Since September 8, the Moria refugee camp — once Europe’s largest — is no more; the camp, where thousands of people lived in catastrophic conditions, was engulfed by flames and burnt to the ground.
Six of its residents, four adults and two unaccompanied minors from Afghanistan, are in pre-trial detention, facing prosecution for arson.
At the time of its destruction, Moria had nearly 13,000 residents, who found themselves suddenly in limbo on the coastal road between Moria and Mytilene, Lesbos’ capital city. They were neither allowed to go back to Moria when the fire died down nor were they allowed to reach Mytilene.
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While the Greek government quickly moved to set up another camp, EU leaders expressed their solidarity and showed signs of willingness to find a viable solution.
On Wednesday, European Commission announced it is to set up a migrant reception center in Lesbos to be run together with Greece.
“Moria is a stark reminder,” EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said. “We need to find sustainable solutions on migration and we all have to step up.”
There are few amenities in the new camp, hygiene is a major issue
Built in a what initially looks like an idyllic setting and surrounded by the Aegean Sea, the new camp, referred to as “RIC Lesvos” by the Greek authorities, has hidden dangers.
“I think that because the new camp is near the sea, it will be dangerous for children,” says Firuzeh* who moved in a week ago.
Medicins Sans Frontieres (MSF) describe the place as worse than Moria.
“In the sun it looks like a nice place where kids can go for a swim. But it is extremely exposed to [inclement] weather and once the weather turns and it starts raining and the wind starts blowing people will have their feet in the water,” says Caroline Willemen, Field Coordinator for the MSF’s COVID-19 Response team in Lesbos.
Read more: Opinion: There must not be a second Moria camp
The initial hope for change that the destruction of Moria created turned into an endless fear for those inside the new camp. They fear that they have ended up in a new Moria that is far worse, while the global coronavirus pandemic adds to their insecurity. Many feel that they will never be able to get out of what seems like an endless ordeal.
Although RIC Lesvos is seen as the new approach to the EU’s hot spots, its residents describe the conditions there as abysmal. From poor hygiene to leftover bullets from the shooting range, refugees have plenty of reasons to be scared of being left there.
Fire broke out in a number of spots around the Moria refugee camp on the Greek island of Lesbos late on the night of Tuesday, September 8. That has led authorities to suspect arson. Some in the camp have suggested locals set the fires but there are other reports that point to migrants themselves.
All of the inhabitants of the hopelessly overcrowded camp managed to get to safety. According to media reports, many migrants fled into the hills and forests nearby. Some are said to have begun walking to Mytilene, the island’s capital. There have been no reports of death or injury.
Moria was originally designed to hold up to 2,800 people. At the time the fires broke out it held some 12,600. Living conditions in the camp were catastrophic before the fire. Looking at this photo taken in its aftermath, it is glaringly apparent that no one will be able to live there again any time soon — at least not under humane conditions.
Anyone hoping to see satellite images on Google Maps of the camp, located on the eastern shore of Lesbos, just 15 kilometers from the Turkish coast, is out of luck. The site has been pixilated. “Google itself does not pixelate satellite images,” the company told DW, referring to third-party entities that supply the satellite imagery. It is unknown why the camp has been digitally altered.
This aerial view of the same area shows that the camp has been greatly expanded. In the earlier Google Maps image, the house with the red roof stands alone but in the more recent photo it seems to have been swallowed up by the camp.
The camp is not pixelated on Google Street View. Whereas the pixilated satellite images on Google Maps are from 2020, those on Street View are from December 2011 — before there was even a camp. At the time, the only thing there was an old military barracks. It was not until October 2015 that Greece began registering asylum-seekers at the site before taking them to the mainland.
When this photo was taken in October 2015, refugees only stayed at the camp for a short time. That changed drastically in March 2016, when the EU signed its so-called refugee deal with Turkey. Since then, refugees have had to endure long stays before being sent to other EU countries or being deported.
As a result of the EU-Turkey deal, refugees are no longer allowed to travel to the Greek mainland because Turkey would then no longer be obliged to take them. But as EU states disagree over who should take how many refugees, people remain in the camp for longer and longer periods of time. The overcrowded camp is populated by many people from a wide range of nations — no wonder there are tensions.
Those tensions first erupted in September 2016, in the form of violent conflicts during which fires were set and much of the camp was destroyed. At the time, there were only 3,000 migrants in the camp. A few months later, several hundred migrants set fire to EU asylum agency containers in the camp in protest to the slow pace of asylum application processing.
There was another major fire at Moria in September 2019. What started as a blaze in an adjacent olive orchard quickly spread to the camp itself. Less than half an hour later, another fire broke out in the camp, killing a mother and her infant child. At the time, Moria housed some 12,000 people.
In August, North Rhine-Westphalia State Premiere Armin Laschet visited the camp. His state is the most populous in Germany and the politician expressed a desire to see the so-called wild section of the camp located outside its enclosed boundaries. However, that part of the visit was quickly cancelled for safety reasons as the overall mood was again tense, with many migrants chanting “Free Moria.”
A overcrowded camp with appalling sanitation and medical conditions as well as ethnic tensions — and then the first coronavirus infections — life at the Moria refugee camp was dire before this week’s blaze. But what will happen now? Is this the end of Moria, or perhaps the moment to create new, more humane living conditions? It is devastating that no one can answer this question.
Aliyah*, a 13-year-old girl from Afghanistan has been sending pictures of the camp through WhatsApp which show the extent of the poor conditions.
DW witnessed pictures of babies with skin conditions, small injuries to children who were hit by tear gas canisters, all left untreated or with minimal provisions such as creams that do not work. Children, who have fled war and post-conflict areas holding bullets they found on the ground.
At the same time the lines for food are endless and food provisions are minimal.
“This camp is worse than Moria,” both Firuzeh and Aliyah told DW.
Many refugees are scared of being infected with COVID-19, 240 people have tested positive so far
“In Moria we had more facilities that we don’t have here. For example we don’t have baths or clean toilets,” Firuzeh said.
“The environment of the camp is so dirty. Coronavirus is here,” she continues, referring to the 240 positive cases inside the camp. “We must be clean, but we don’t even have water to wash with, how can we avoid this sickness?” she says, clearly frustrated.
In the days following that statement the Greek military was transforming a shooting range into a new camp set to host Moria’s homeless. The long-term plans for the camp are not yet clear.
Read more: Thousands march in Berlin to demand Germany take in more Moria refugees
While the Greek government insists on their commitment to the camp’s temporary nature, local Lesbos newspaper Sto Nisi reported that the rental contract runs until 2025.
At the same time, the government announced the closure of Kara Tepe, the island’s second refugee camp managed by the municipality of Lesbos, and PIKPA, a self-organized camp run by volunteers. Those who live in either of those facilities will likely be moved to the new camp, although no decision has been made.
Weeks after the camp was set up, there is still no running water or washing facilities
In an attempt to convince people to move into the new camp without forcing them, the Migration and Asylum Ministry stated that only those who do so will be able to leave the island.
“When we were out of the camp, they told us that if you come in, we can sort out your papers but now we see that there is no office for our office,” Aliyah said.
Most people DW spoke to are worried about their asylum applications not being processed.
“They have started their work about people who have asylum and have their paper but there is a ‘bad point’ for those who have not had an interview yet, like me,” Firuzeh tells DW. She missed her interview due to the destruction of Moria.
Read more: Lesbos and refugees: Europe descends into self-made chaos
Caroline Willemen describes the camp as an inhumane place for people to live in, and she is afraid that the new camp will have all the same issues refugees faced in Moria. Tents designed for one family have to be shared by several, while single men have been put inside large tents with a capacity of 200.
“My main concern is dignity and mental health,” she told DW. “We have a clinic where we treat victims of torture, most of whom are single men, who will end up living inside this enormous tent with 195 strangers. This is not a place where they can live,” she continued.
Despite the Greek government insisting that the new camp is temporary it seems that Moria 2.0 is likely to stay; the harsh reality of life in the new camp may be even more devastating than before.
*Some names have been changed in order to protect people’s identities.
Some quotes have been edited for more clarity.