From file: The aftermath of the devastating fires at the Moria refugee camp in Lesbos in September 2020 | Photo: UNHCR/ACHILLEAS ZAVALLIS
From file: The aftermath of the devastating fires at the Moria refugee camp in Lesbos in September 2020 | Photo: UNHCR/ACHILLEAS ZAVALLIS

Greece's government still faces stern criticism from human rights groups that took to social media last week to lament the ongoing situation for asylum seekers one year after the Moria fire.

Greece's government still faces stern criticism from human rights groups a year on from the fateful night of September 9, 2020, when the notorious refugee and migrant camp at Moria on the Greek island of Lesbos was burned to the ground in a series of devastating fires. The fires were started by several migrants and left over 12,000 people homeless overnight.

Although conditions in the temporary site have improved since then, many families are still living in tents. A number of human rights organizations took to social media on Thursday last week (September 9) to lament the ongoing situation for asylum seekers, especially with the new so-called "closed and controlled" camps, which do not allow migrants to leave while their asylum applications are being processed.

Government offers confident narrative amidst outcry

"One year ago, the biggest fear of people fleeing burning Moria was to be isolated again," tweeted Lesbos-based freelance journalist Franziska Grillmeier. "Now, one year later, 3,500 asylum seekers on Lesbos are staying in a semi-closed, high-security facility with people waking up to barbed wire and the sound of police cars and construction trucks."

Mirilene Girard, the UNHCR representative for Greece, said the temporary "tent city" site at Kara Tepe "is not a lasting solution." "No one should have to spend the winter in tents," she tweeted on the UNHCR Twitter account. "Tents after a fire, yes, but a year later?"

UNHCR also posted another message to mark the bleak anniversary. "It's been one year since the fire in Moria. We can't forget the thousands that were left without shelter," said UNHCR.

Kara Tepe is expected to be shut down when work is completed on the new Lesbos detention center within the first half of 2022. While Greece continues to grapple with fears of a new influx of refugees and migrants following developments in Afghanistan, the Greek government has presented an alternative narrative around Moria.

Greek Migration Minister Notis Mitarakis, who came under fire this week for pressing ahead with tough new legislation aimed at accelerating deportations of illegal migrants, released an impassioned press statement on Thursday, focusing on Greece's handling of the catastrophe.

"Moria, like the crisis in Evros, has proven that we can respond even under the most extreme conditions, and thus manage emergencies in a successful way," he said.

While residents at the emergency "tent city" created after the fire experienced a miserable winter in 2020 due to multiple floodings, loss of power and lockdowns due to the pandemic, Mitarakis said that the site "did not turn into a 'bomb' for public health as some predicted."

New Greek legislation 'would hinder life-saving work'

Europe's human rights watchdog, the Council of Europe, heavily criticised a Greek bill that aims to regulate deportations and migrant returns, and said it poses serious restrictions on NGO activities in the Aegean.

"The Greek parliament should reconsider a legislative proposal currently being discussed, which would seriously hinder the life-saving work carried out at sea by NGOs, and their human rights monitoring capacities in the Aegean," said Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights Dunja Mijatovic in a statement recently.

Her comments focused specifically on Article 40 of the bill, which would introduce restrictions and conditions on the activities of civil society organizations in areas that overlap with the Greek Coast Guard, while non-compliance would result in heavy sanctions and fines.

Mijatovic said this provision may "further jeopardize" NGOs' rescue operations and "severely undermine the necessary scrutiny of the compliance of the operations of the Greek Coast Guard with human rights standards."

Meanwhile, Mitarakis' tone remained confident. "We managed to regain control. We reduced the flows of people, we reduced residents, we minimized the impact on local communities. With the implementation of the National Migration Strategy, we turned an uncontrollable crisis into a manageable situation."

 

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