16 September 2020
With 13,000 refugees left without shelter following the fire that destroyed the Moria camp on the Greek island of Lesbos, there were immediate calls for people to be relocated to other EU member states. Notwithstanding the promised relocation of some 400 children and 1,500 other people, mainly by Germany, the member states have largely responded by sending tents, blankets and toiletries - suggesting that they are quite happy to leave people trapped on the island.
According to a European Commission press release published on Monday, Greece has requested assistance through the EU's Civil Protection Mechanism, which aims to "improve prevention, preparedness and response to disasters."
The Commission reported on Monday that "Denmark, Austria, Finland, Sweden and Germany have offered hundreds of tents, blankets, winterisation kits and sleeping bags." The willingness to provide humanitarian equipment contrasts sharply with the almost total failure to get people off the Greek islands, aside from the efforts of member states who agreed to relocate 400 unaccompanied children, and Germany which will relocate some 1,500 people, mainly families with children - although the latter will not be drawn from those currently living on Lesvos.*
The Greek government has now begun relocating people left without shelter to a new camp on the Kara Tepe site, although some are refusing to go back to being crowded into tents. According to DW, Greek Migration Minister Notis Mitarakis has said that "asylum procedures will only be processed for those who are in the camp."
The assistance announced on Monday by the Commission comes in addition to "assistance sent by Poland, Austria, Czechia, Denmark, Netherlands, and France since April" - that is, long before the fire on Moria - "which includes housing units, sleeping bags, mattresses, blankets, sheets, toiletries items, four medical containers, and one medical station."
The Commission goes on to say that following "a previous request for EU assistance in the beginning of March, 17 Member and participating states offered over 90,000 items to Greece through the Mechanism."
While the fresh provision of tents, blankets and other items provide some help in the immediate aftermath of the man-made disaster that was the Moria fire, it does not suggest any new thinking on the issue of migration and asylum in the EU.
Indeed, the response to the fire appears to suggest that the plan is to repeat the past - the provision of inadequate assistance to people trapped on Moria, rather than what has long been called for by human rights groups, NGOs on the ground, MEPs, local residents and others: abolishing the system that traps people on the Greek islands and forces them into abusive and unsanitary conditions.
17 member states may well have sent tens of thousands of items to Greece since March, but what did it achieve? The camp housed 13,000 people at the time it burnt down, with an official capacity of just 3,000.
As Der Spiegel pointed out in a damning editorial following the fire (emphasis added):
"Food is distributed in the camp three times a day, with residents standing in line for hours to receive one of the food packets, wrapped in plastic. Sometimes, there aren't enough packets for everyone.
Moria continued to grow, first to 10,000 and then, in March 2020, to almost 20,000 people. The camp's infrastructure essentially collapsed, with the water supply and pipes around Moria unable to handle so many people. Water would be unavailable in parts of the camp for hours at a time - every single day. The portable toilets became filthy.
The camp became so large that the power supply also began to fail, leading to some asylum-seekers to tap into the power lines. Psychologists reported children waking up at night screaming and running out of their tents in a panic or cutting themselves with knives. Or trying to commit suicide."
This commitment to a broken model is amply demonstrated by the Greek government's announcement that it will be rebuilding Moria - and the EU's announcement that "it is open to taking a major role in building and running a new site for migrants on the Greek island of Lesvos" suggests it is adopting the same approach.
Following a recent visit to Lesbos, Charles Michel, the President of the European Council, had little new to say, mainly emphasising border controls and cooperation with non-EU states:
"This is a common European challenge. By the end of the month, the European Commission intends to put new concrete proposals on the table. And we need to be more committed in order to be more efficient. I am convinced that, of course, we need to make more progress in order to improve our border controls.
We also need to have more partnerships with third countries. We need to make progress to have more convergence in the framework of our asylum policy. We will have difficult debates, but we need to be more efficient."
Adriana Tidona of Amnesty International said last week: "As the EU Pact on Migration and Asylum is finalised," the fire on Moria "is a timely indictment of the current policy of camps and containment." Nevertheless, it appears that there is little appetite to change that policy.
* This article was updated on 22 September 2020 to reflect the fact that while Germany has agreed to accept around 1,500 people, they will all be those who have already been granted asylum status - and thus will not be drawn from the people living on Lesvos.
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