On September 8th, the Moria reception and identification center in Lesvos, Greece, was destroyed by fire. It has been referred to as “Hell on Earth” and “the worst refugee camp in the world”. Recognizing that the poor conditions were at least partly responsible for the developments that led to the fire, European Commissioner (EC) Home Affairs Commissioner Ylva Johanson said there would be “no more Morias”. Since the new Moria is already rated as “worse than Moria,” such assurances are best viewed as empty.
In 2015 Moria was designated as a “hotspot” because the island of Lesbos was exposed to exceptional migratory pressure. The “hotspot approach” should have included additional support for registering arrivals, providing short-term dignified accommodation and swift decision-making on asylum applications. After failing to take into account the fact that the desperately understaffed Greek asylum service could not process asylum applications quickly enough, Moria became a bottleneck in the 2016 EU-Turkey Declaration that banned migrants from leaving Greece before their asylum application was processed. As a result, the camp with a capacity of around 3,000 people, which at times was far exceeded by up to 20,000 people, was constantly overcrowded. The residents were actually trapped in what appeared to be a short-term transit center for months, often years. Many residents “flooded” the official camp into the surrounding olive grove or fled the growing violence of the camp, borne by overcrowding, appalling conditions and mounting frustration.
Indeed, Moria became a long-term camp for migrants, without the facilities necessary for long-term residence. In fact, Moria’s facilities did not conform to UNHCR guidelines for transit centers. In order to avoid complicity with the poor camp conditions of the migrants, a large number of humanitarian actors stopped their humanitarian aid in the official Moria camp.
For the past 18 months, we have researched with the remaining humanitarian actors, all of whom said conditions in Moria were deplorable. Others have described it as “the worst refugee camp in the world” (BBC 2018: n.p.) and as a “living hell”. It has been described as a prison-like location and place of violence, deprivation, suffering and despair, where children harm themselves and some even commit suicide. The situation in the camp can be described as a “European failure” as basic needs were not addressed due to limited water and electricity supplies, poor sanitation, lack of food and the prevailing violence.
One of the reasons for this, according to our research, was a lack of general leadership and government responsibility. Humanitarian actors said that storage conditions have gradually deteriorated since 2015 and that attempts to improve them have been actively undermined by local and national authorities. Moria is administratively under the Ministry of Migration and Politics, and its work in Moria has been constantly criticized by international humanitarian organizations, while the Greek Ministry in turn accused and criticized NGOs for profiting from the crisis. While all of the humanitarian actors we spoke to, including many volunteers, have been shown to be motivated only on humanitarian grounds, some realized that there were some organizations that appeared to be motivated by profit and profile. In addition, it has been recognized by a number that there are broader areas where humanitarian organizations can improve their engagement and impact, not least through better coordination and coherence of efforts.
However, the camp is not just a static manifestation of violent frontier work. It is a complex, dynamic place of struggle where those who live and work in the camp are continuously shaping and redesigning the camp. This can be seen, for example, in the way in which humanitarian actors simultaneously fill the void resulting from the state’s violent inaction and at the same time contribute to the poor conditions in Moria as a result of poor coordination and the resulting inter-agency competition, criticism and the wider opportunities to participate which they potentially reinforce the violent control of migration, but also question them.
The unfortunate circumstances, partly due to poor management in the camp, seriously affected the safety and well-being of the people living in Moria. The humanitarian actors we spoke to stated that conditions were deliberately kept poor in order to deter both humanitarian actors and, as a result, migrants. The humanitarian actors who had worked in Moria saw efforts to deter them as intended to remove the perceived “pull factor” that they considered constitutive. MSF was one of the first humanitarian organizations to stop humanitarian aid within the official Moria camp, and instead opened a clinic just outside the official camp.
The EU and Greek authorities continue to deprive vulnerable people of their dignity and health, apparently to prevent others from coming. This policy is cruel, inhuman and cynical and must be stopped.
Many humanitarian actors we spoke to said they knew about many humanitarian actors who left Moria due to poor camp conditions, obstruction by local authorities, perceived police targets, local hostility and far-right attacks. However, others said that while these challenges made their jobs difficult, they increased their commitment and motivation to stay. They argued that they “would not be bullied for not helping people in need” because their work was “needed more than ever” and recognized that the fact that migrants kept coming “is very telling about where they are traveling from “. .
The poor conditions in Moria did not prevent migrants from coming to Lesbos or entering the EU. Rather than acting as a deterrent, it drastically affected the safety, health and well-being of its residents and made the work of humanitarian actors more difficult, resulting in tremendous suffering that could have been avoided. Home Affairs Commissioner Ylva Johanson’s appeal for “no more Morias” became a rallying cry among humanitarian actors and others. However, the conditions in the new Kara Tepe camp, which is home to thousands of asylum seekers and other migrants displaced from Moria, are generally considered to be “worse than Moria”. Until the push factors leading to people’s flight are resolved, poor camp conditions will only further undermine the safety of migrants and pave the way for another disaster: poor conditions will not prevent migrants from traveling to the EU, like Perhaps this is intentional yet still discourage humanitarian actors from helping those in need.
Further reading on E-International Relations