No more Morias? Notes from the field and the EU responses


The burning of Moria camp seemed like an exceptional tragedy. But this event and the EU response to it reflect a decades-long policy approach. As long as securitization remains the guiding principle of EU migration policy, the calls of Moria will remain unanswered.

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Image: Fotomovimiento, published under a CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 licence.

On the 2nd of September, the first COVID-19 case was detected at Moria refugee camp on Lesvos island in Greece. The days that followed created hopes for structural changes in the management of migration in Europe, hopes that remained unfulfilled.

The facility went on lock-down the next day and the government proposed new, closed refugee facilities to prevent the spread of the virus to the permanent residents of the island. On day three, the count of COVID-19 cases was at 17 and by the next day, it had doubled. Only then were the residents who tested positive removed from the camp and taken to protected facilities.

The remaining 13.000 inhabitants of the camp remained living under the same inhumane and degrading conditions in which many of them had already been living for years, and which have been well-documented. The overcrowded camp built for 3.000 people left few options for social distancing and produced unacceptable hygiene conditions. The tensions in the camp were high and the inhabitants had reached breaking point. On day five, several fires broke out around the camp. Within hours, Greece’s largest refugee camp had gone down in flames.

The COVID-19 count kept rising, having exceeded 350 by the end of the month. The 13.000 people formerly hosted at the camp were sleeping rough and in deplorable conditions pending their transfer to an alternative facility.

The burning of the Moria camp: unprecedented, but far from an isolated incident

Germany offered to relocate 1.000 refugees from the camp. The Netherlands followed, offering to host 100 unaccompanied minors and children under 14 years with their family members. Many felt that this could be the turning point that would oblige the European Commission and the member states to rethink the Dublin system and the priorities of Common European Asylum System as a whole.

The incident put the spotlight at Europe’s external border once again. But public opinion was soon distracted by the next media-featured crisis. Despite being unprecedented, the burning of the Moria camp is far from an isolated incident. In fact, it is a reflection of the state of migration and asylum law and policy in Europe as it has developed in the last decades, especially following the political crisis around refugees in the summer of 2015.

Even though it was not a crisis in terms of numbers at the EU level, the arrival of a large number of migrants in 2015 – many of whom had international protection claims – has put considerable strains on the asylum and reception systems of the countries at the EU’s external borders. This has had considerable human rights consequences for migrants, especially those in Greece and Italy who find themselves trapped in a long-lasting limbo.

For those who manage to reach European shores, the possibilities to move further to Europe’s west and settle in other EU member states are limited. First of all, further movement is prohibited via the Dublin system. The Dublin Regulation determines that the member state responsible for dealing with an asylum application is the country of first arrival of the refugee to the EU. The exemptions to this, which have to do mainly with family ties, vulnerability and the human rights circumstances in the country of first arrival, are limited and not properly implemented. Thus, the Dublin system essentially prevents secondary movements of persons who were not supposed to partake in the free movement ideal meant to be enjoyed by EU citizens. The Regulation has been criticized since its inception both in terms of the lack of self-determination and autonomy for refugees, and due to the disproportionate pressure it puts upon the frontline states.

Acts of solidarity and protest on the Greek islands and beyond

Second, the supplementary solution of relocation has proven greatly ineffective. As a political exchange for the creation of hotspots and the increased EU presence there, Italy and Greece were promised a relocation package. According to the EU Council Decision of September 2015, EU member states committed to relocating 160.000 asylum seekers, including 106.000 from Greece and Italy, within two years. One day before the deadline expired, the agreement had not been met. Only 47,905 places had been formally pledged by member states, while less than 30,000 beneficiaries had been relocated. Member states had on average fulfilled less than 1/3 of their obligations, with Malta, Finland, Ireland, Norway and Lichtenstein being the bright exceptions. Despite the pleas of UNHCR and other international organisations, the relocation scheme was not renewed after 2017.

When the pandemic reached Europe in the first months of 2020, local civil society on the Greek islands, national and international organisations called for the immediate decongestion of the camps and the emergency relocation of the most vulnerable.

With such calls being ignored, we find numerous examples of acts of solidarity and protest on the Greek islands and beyond. In light of the pandemic, with the responsible authorities failing the refugees and the local population of Lesvos, inhabitants of the camp and volunteers set up makeshift hand-washing stations, distributed masks, and delivered the message in a way that resembles the cultural management of the Ebola crisis.

The fire: an act of resistance to many, but investigations are ongoing

Permanent residents and migrants have held several protests in the last five years on Sappho Square on Lesvos condemning the inhumane reception and living conditions. Further such protests were held after the burning down of the Moria camp, calling for freedom and opposing the construction of a new camp. The fires in Moria are also seen by many as an act of resistance. Though investigations as to the perpetrators are still ongoing, five persons have been arrested.

While the issues related to those in the camps awaiting the determination of their status are more often discussed, protests are not uncommon amongst recognized refugees. Anwar Nillufary is a Kurdish Iranian national who has received asylum in Greece. This was, however, not the end of the route for him. Since 2017 he has gone on several hunger strikes asking for safe passage and resettlement in another European country. This exceptionally limited possibility is restricted to those with extreme vulnerabilities, such as survivors of torture or persons unable to integrate in the country. Anwar’s story is representative of the situation of a great number of recognized refugees in a country ravaged by unemployment, still experiencing the effects of the economic crisis, which are now only exacerbated by the lockdown measures. As a marginalized group, refugees often experience exploitative labour, as well as insecure accommodation and homelessness. They are, however, unable to move legally to another EU country, where they could have better chances of integration.

The new 'Pact on Migration and Asylum': emphasis on preventing arrivals, outsourcing migration control, and deportations

As a response to the developments in Moria, the European Commission presented a new Pact on Migration and Asylum in September 2020. Despite the rhetoric of a wakeup call, these 500 pages of proposed legislation do not confirm the hopes for change of direction. The emphasis in the Commission’s plans still lies on preventing arrivals and outsourcing of migration control to non-EU countries, but it especially focuses on intensifying returns.

In the legislative proposals, the Dublin system is abolished by name. However, the main rules of allocation of responsibility and the hierarchy of criteria that Dublin III has set have been mostly preserved. Additional solidarity measures introduced are highly voluntary and complex and mainly revolve around assisting a member state to deport irregularly staying migrants.

Amongst the basic building blocks of the Pact are accelerated procedures so that asylum claims can be tackled fast and rejections can lead to automatic returns. The fast-track procedure that is now optional for member states and rarely used will, upon adoption of the proposal, become mandatory for nationals of (or stateless residents in) countries with low recognition rate. This creates a parallel system of processing of asylum claims depending on the country of origin, which can undermine the principles of individual examination of each claim and compromise the safeguards that are necessary for proper asylum processing.

Furthermore, the Pact calls for extending and strengthening partnerships with non-EU countries in order to achieve their cooperation in returns and readmission, as well as in border management in order to prevent migration to Europe.

Already since 2019, the European Commission had called for further efficiency and the
intensification of returns. The mandate of Frontex, the European Border and Coast Guard Agency, was then extended significantly with respect to organizing and carrying out return operations, along with a considerable budgetary increase in this area. The stated goal is that the agency carries out the removal of 50.000 people every year.

Moreover, negotiations are resumed now for the amendment of the Returns Directive, which puts on the table further restrictions upon the existing safeguards for deportations. Finally, further expansion and interconnection of EU databases and information systems increases the ability of EU institutions and member states to process increased amounts of personal data that can facilitate the return of third country nationals.

EU policies on migration: reactive and crisis-driven

EU policies on migration tend to be reactive and crisis-driven. Incidents like that of Moria or the Lampedusa shipwreck in 2013, where over 360 migrants failed to be saved and lost their lives in the Mediterranean, work as catalysts.

However, there are certain core priorities that find their way into each set of policy measures, which are determined by systemic EU and member states interests, the current political circumstances, and pragmatic considerations on how to reach consensus.

Such core priorities of securitization and further closing of the border are also present in the new EU Pact on Migration and Asylum. The proposed measures raise numerous human rights and refugee protection concerns, while they are not matched with sufficient democratic and legal accountability safeguards.

Nonetheless, the Pact attempts to address issues of overcrowded facilities and overburdened asylum systems through fast-track processing and accelerated returns, while calls to improve the regular asylum procedure and address gaps and failures in reception, registration, and decision-making are ignored.

Ignoring globally recognised durable solutions for refugees

The EU legislative initiatives, and most recently, the Pact on Migration and Asylum, move further away from the globally identified durable solutions for refugees: local integration (protection in the region), resettlement, and voluntary repatriation.

Local integration mainly entails funding for global refugee protection and development. The second step is the resettlement of refugees from the camps in Asia and Africa to developed countries so that they can find protection there. Finally, when the situation stabilizes, they should be supported in getting back to their home countries should they choose to do so (voluntary repatriation).

So long as the EU ignores the context of international mobility, its potential to become a leading actor in global migration governance and Commissioner Johansson’s promise for no more Morias will remain unfulfilled.

Mariana Gkliati

This article was first published by CRISIS, in Issue 2: 'Border Solidarity'.

Mariana Gkliati is a researcher at Leiden University. She specialises in human rights protection in Europe, forced migration, refugee law, and European migration law. In her PhD research, she has studied the legal responsibility and accountability of Frontex, the European Border and Coast Guard Agency, for human rights violations. She teaches on the MA in Refugee Protection and Forced Migration Studies at the Refugee Law Initiative (University of London) and at the Migration Law Clinic at Roma Tre University. In a consultancy capacity, she has advised, trained and undertaken research for several national and international NGOs. She tweets at @MarianaGkliati.

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