Reactions to and speculation about the causes of a fire which has destroyed large parts of the migrant camp Moria on the Greek island of Lesbos are coming thick and fast. Now that almost 13,000 people are without shelter, what will politicians and the EU do? Some say the fire has sent current European migration policy up in flames too.
Non-governmental organizations and UN Agencies have been warning for months that the overcrowded conditions in migrant camps like Moria on the Greek island of Lesbos were ready to explode.
The restrictions placed on inhabitants by the COVID-19 pandemic as well as the recent positive tests within the camp seem like the straw that broke the camel’s back, or, to quote one of the co-founders of Mission Lifeline, an NGO working to support migrants in the Mediterranean area, Axel Seier, "the locking down of the Moria camp [in the light of positive COVID tests] was the drop which caused the barrel to spill over."
There were at least 35 coronavirus cases at Moria this week after a first person tested positive on Wednesday, September 2. Since then, the camp has been under a lockdown.
The barrel Seier is referring to spilled over spectacularly during the night between September
8 and 9. Some of the pictures from the agencies show hellish scenes
of tents and people silhouetted black against angry red and yellow
flames. The morning after has brought singed ground, and just the
metal frames sticking up at angles to testify that this area was once
home to almost 13,000 people. The Greek migration ministry's latest
figures confirm that 12,600 migrants and refugees were resident in
and around the camp.
Lifeline tweeted on Wednesday morning that along with the Moria camp,
also "the European idea has gone up in flames."
"#ShameOnYouEU" they tweeted, saying that "European values of a
community of solidarity standing for peace and human rights and meant
to fight against national egotism, racism and hatred of others" had
not worked in the field of European migration policy. Their
implication that Moria was a clear example where those European
values were not being enacted.
Scenes of devastation
On Wednesday morning, Mission Lifeline also tweeted a video of the
scenes of devastation. Dusty ground, smoke still visible and people
standing around filming. "What this means for those who lived
inside," they tweeted, "is still totally unclear. Their lives
before were awful, now they are living in hell. #Savethem."
The organization is busy collecting funds to help the people and other NGOs working in Lesbos at the moment. Axel Steier accuses the authorities of not treating the inhabitants of Moria as people and he added: "We warned people about this possibility again and again and that it was escalating. We asked the German government again and again to evacuate the people in the Greek camps and now this has happened."
The German state of Lower Saxony's Interior Minister, Boris Pistorius, from the social democratic party SPD, appears to agree with Steier. According to the German press agency dpa, Pistorius called on the German government and fellow European states to evacuate people from the camps and share them out across the EU.
Pistorius called the fire a "tragedy" and said it demonstrated "the failure of European migration* policy. They basically shut these people in a prison." He challenged the EU Commission's President Ursula von der Leyen and all EU states to "do everything possible to help those people [in the camps]."
He added that both times he had visited Moria, the situation was already "inacceptable" and that following this fire, with winter around the corner the EU needed to "put an end to this unworthy, dangerous farce."
Emergency meeting in Athens
In Athens, an emergency meeting was quickly established by Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis. The Greek government's spokesperson told Greek national broadcaster ERT that the government "suspects organized arson," as a cause for the fires. According to dpa, Petsas added that some migrants had tried to hinder firefighters from putting out the flames.
According to Greek media, there are so far no reports of injured or dead following Tuesday night's events. The Greek government has sent police reinforcements to the island in the meantime. On Tuesday, after 35 people tested positive for the novel coronavirus, it was announced that the camp was to be locked and quarantined until September 15.
EU Commission response
EU's Home Affairs Commissioner Ylva Johansson tweeted her own "thoughts and sympathies" with the people of Lesbos "and in
particular the migrants and staff working in Moria," on Wednesday
She said she was "in contact with the Greek Minister and local authorities about the fire." In a second tweet, she said that she had "already agreed to finance the immediate transfer and accomodation on the mainland of the reamining 400 unaccompanied children and teenagers. The safety and shelter of all people in Moria is the priority."
No casualties reported
The UNHCR issued a press release regarding Moria on Wednesday morning. They called upon all those who "were previously staying at the asylum center in Moria to restrict their movements while a temporary solution is found to shelter them." They said they had been "informed about reports of tensions between people in neighboring villages and asylum seekers trying to reach the town of Mytilene. We urge all to exercise restraint." They also confirmed that "no casualties" have so far been reported. They said they were "offering assistance to the Greek authorities," by deploying staff on the ground in order to help the more than 4,000 children "as well as other vulnerable groups."
The German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas on Twitter has called what happened in Moria a "humanitarian catastrophe". He too said that Greece needed EU help fast and that "migrants should be shared out between willing EU states."'Stop closing your eyes'
The German Bishop's Conference also issued a statement regarding Moria. The Catholic news agency KNA said that Archbishop Stefan Heße called the situation "a catastrophe waiting to happen." He criticized the "policy of deterrence" being used in the EU by allowing for the existence of camps like Moria and said that this "policy of deterrence was at the cost of our humanity," and that those looking for protection should be protected and looked after.
The Archbishop said that although some initiatives had been bringing small groups of migrants and asylum seekers to other European states, what had gone on up to now was "pathetically inadequate" and said the initiatives were just a drop in the ocean of what was actually needed, like putting "a drop of water on a hot stone."
He said EU politicians had failed to address the real problems which were that hotspots like Moria were not working. He said that the tendency had been to try and push the migration problem to the EU’s outermost borders and that was why such a situation in Moria had developed. He said it was now time to really address the problem or risk more humanitarian crisis in the future. He called upon the "European spirit of solidarity" to rally to help those in need at this time and for the EU states to protect "those who sought protection." He called upon a "coalition of the willing to come together and stop closing their eyes [to the problem]."
German, Pistorius used the word "Flüchtlingpolitik" which means
refugee policy, yet InfoMigrants interpreted his statement as referring to the whole policy on
migration rather than just the policy towards refugees.