Updated on Sept. 11, 2020
On the night of Sept. 8, the Moria Reception and Identification Centre on the Greek island of Lesvos caught on fire. More fires erupted there during the following two days, leaving more than 10,000 asylum seekers and refugees without shelter.
The Moria Reception and Identification Centre, or RIC, is Europe’s largest refugee camp. It was designed to host just over 2,000 asylum seekers for limited periods of time. At the time of the first fire, however, Moria hosted more than 12,500 individuals, some of whom have now lived there for three years. Even before the fires, it had earned the nicknamed “hell on Earth.”
When the fires started burning on Tuesday night, Moria residents tried to escape and move toward Mytilene, the capital city of Lesvos, less than four miles away. They were blocked, sometimes violently, by riot police. When new fires erupted the next night, again forcing residents to flee, police fired tear gas at the refugees and blocked them from leaving the area. Thousands of people are now without shelter and sleeping in the open along roadways near the ruins of the camp.
“Sadly, it’s not a surprise that we’ve reached such a tragic moment," said Rachel Levitan, HIAS' vice president for international programs. "HIAS and other organizations have been warning authorities for years that conditions were not just dangerous but inhumane."
The Greek government and other EU nations have now begun to respond to the crisis. A group of 10 European countries said it would take in 400 unaccompanied children who were living in Moria, and Greek authorities are setting up temporary shelter for thousands of camp residents who are now homeless.
But long-term plans are still unclear, and many people — including the refugees and asylum seekers themselves — say the situation cannot continue as it did before the fire. “Moria, a chronicle of European asylum policy failures in the last five years, is coming to an end, said Vassilis Kerasiotis, HIAS Greece’s country director who called for “sustainable solutions” for refugees.
Kerasiotis said Greece must move Moria residents out of the area and into suitable accommodations rather than rebuilding the camp or providing only short-term relief. “Temporary relief measures should not refrain from the main issue which is safe evacuation,” he said.
At a protest in Lesvos on Friday, refugees and asylum seekers had similar demands. “People don’t want to go back to a hell like Moria or a closed camp,” said one refugee to the Guardian. Many local residents also oppose plans to keep Moria’s residents on the island.
While there is no evidence yet of how the fires started, some have blamed the refugees themselves. Adonis Georgiadis, Greece’s development minister, demanded that any refugees who participated in supposed “unrest” that led to the fires be immediately deported.
The fires are only the latest dire problem for refugees at Moria. The camp’s residents have been quarantined since March 22, when the Greek government imposed a countrywide lockdown to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Though the lockdown was lifted in May — and despite the lack of any COVID-19 cases in Moria at the time — it remained in place only for the RIC. Instead of taking measures to protect refugees and their local neighbors from the virus, the Greek government left Moria residents without access to proper shelter, medical care, or social distancing for more than six months.
Prior to the fires, the number of people living in makeshift shelters and camps in nearby olive groves had skyrocketed. Living conditions inside and outside the camp were abhorrent, with an extremely small number of doctors and nurses, hours-long queues to access food, showers, toilets, or water taps, and little physical security for residents. These problems, and many others reported by humanitarian workers, have continued for years.
"This is a stark reminder that the Greek government, with the support of the EU, must immediately invest in the protection of refugees where their rights can be upheld and they can live in dignity," said Levitan. "Without that, events like these fires are doomed to repeat themselves with great human cost.”
Since 2016, HIAS Greece has provided free legal assistance to individuals seeking asylum as well as advocating for their rights, pursuing strategic litigation, and helping others whose human rights are threatened in Greece. In the wake of this tragedy, HIAS Greece will continue to support those seeking refuge in Lesvos and throughout the country. HIAS work in Greece is supported by Islamic Relief USA and Jones Day.
(Byron Smith/Getty Images)