In September 2020, Moria refugee camp on the island of Lesvos, Greece, made a brief return to the forefront of the international stage when it was almost completely destroyed in a series of fires. While the event highlighted the desperate situation in which more than five years of encampment policies had left the camp’s inhabitants, it also raised hopes and expectations among migrant populations and part of civil society, as expressed by the slogan “bye bye, Moria” that emerged from the flames.
To retrace the months before and after the fire, Humanitarian Alternatives partnered up with the photographers and citizen journalists of ReFOCUS Media Labs, an initiative launched by activists working with asylum seekers. Since 2017, the training they provide has certified hundreds of asylum seekers in Lesvos who have been able to acquire professional skills in photography, audio and video production and journalism, and to develop their portfolios as well as the confidence needed to secure employment. The collective is dedicated to reporting on the structural violence faced by asylum seekers in Europe and its work has been highlighted in international media including Al Jazeera and BBC News, and recently at the Human Rights Film Festival Berlin where it presented its first feature-length documentary film Even After Death. In this article, members of the collective look back on a challenging year 2020 for the large refugee community of this island at the gates of Europe and for the majority of its Greek residents. In words and pictures, they retrace the circumstances of a fire with unclear origins and its dramatic consequences for thousands of people resettled in a “Moria 2” camp which does not say its name.
Text • Douglas F. Herman, co-founder, ReFOCUS Media Labs
Photographs • Yaser Akbari, Milad Ebrahimi, Mustafa Nadri and Douglas F. Herman
On social media: @refocusmedialabs
Well beyond the brink
Over 25,000 asylum seekers stranded on an island. Tear-gassing of peaceful protestors decrying inhumane conditions inside a refugee camp. General strikes led by islanders in resistance to their new government’s plan to build closed reception centres. Groups of locals physically fighting their own riot police. National rhetoric painting all non-governmental organisations (NGOs) as corrupt “bloodsuckers” and asylum seekers as illegal migrants. A historic rival threatening to “open the gates” and flood the continent with refugees. Unilateral suspension of international rights to asylum in defence of the nation. Neo-Nazi and far-right groups flocking in to “defend their brothers.” Illegal push-backs at sea and land borders. Fascists attacks on journalists and new sea arrivals. Multiple acts of arson aiming to destroy humanitarian support centres. Police harassment, growing indifference to mob violence and strangulation of the free press. Welcome to Lesvos, Greece, in the weeks just before the Covid-19 pandemic hit Europe.
To understand the volatile, complex and toxic climate on Lesvos in early 2020, it is important to untangle three major threads of conflict. The first sets part of the local Greek population against refugees and NGOs; the second, islanders against the central Greek government; the third, asylum seekers against European and Greek containment policies. Add pandemic lockdowns, segregated restrictions on freedom of movement, human rights violations, and you have got a powder keg of tension that was ready to blow well before Moria camp, a few hundred metres away from the village it was named after, burnt down. 2020 was a horrific year on Lesvos. Long gone are the days of international respect for solidarity in the face of “the largest movement of refugees since World War II”. Five years of mismanagement of asylum procedures, polarising politics and inaction by central European bodies left five small Greek islands bordering Turkey shouldering the crisis alone.
And then, Covid-19 spread like wildfire across Europe.
The pandemic is the least of our concerns
The pandemic provided the conservative administration of recently elected Greek prime minister Kyriákos Mitsotákis with a perfect cover to pre-emptively quarantine camps like Moria. With all “non-essential” services suspended, most NGOs barred from working inside and a near-blackout on media access, Moria became an experiment for how to manage closed Reception and Identification Centres (RIC) for asylum seekers entering the European Union via its sea borders. From late March 2020 onward, Moria was essentially closed off to the outside world, yet the overcrowded reality of life in the camp made Covid-19 preventive measures impossible to practice for its residents. Asylum processes were suspended, access to doctors, lawyers or mental health professionals was non-existent, and the fragile economy inside the camp was strangled by the cutting-off of access to the financial support provided each month to asylum seekers by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. Unsurprisingly, organised crime and violence spiked, with threats of extreme violence terrorising residents.
By late May, Greece put an end to its general lockdown and reopened its borders, just in time for the tourist season. Hundreds of cases were soon confirmed in the capital city of Mytilene, a few kilometres south of the camp. Moria, on the other hand, remained under strict quarantine without a single case officially confirmed among its residents. A “two worlds, one island” apartheid system was unfolding, while a false assumption that refugees were carriers of the virus permeated. Among Moria residents, a prevalent attitude was that the Covid-19 pandemic was being used as cover to maintain the conditions of a closed camp.
During this time, the long-simmering anger on the island started bubbling up. In late August, locals in the village next to the camp protested the creation of a new health clinic set up just adjacent to it. Further actions flared up in response to reports that contracts had been signed with the public authorities to expand Moria into a “super camp” via forced purchases of privately-owned olive groves bordering it. Within days, the first case of coronavirus was identified inside the camp, which went under strict lockdown.
Less than a week later, in the early hours of 9 September, Moria was engulfed in flames.
Moria in flames
On the night of 8 September into 9 September, some asylum seekers gathered to protest against the opacity of contact-tracing practices suddenly put in place that were resulting in the quarantine of untested residents. In the midst of these protests, contained fires were set in response to police use of tear gas. Yet, shortly after, much larger fires sprung up on the fringes of the camp, far away from the demonstrations. More and more fires rapidly appeared, engulfing the majority of the central area as well as the wild sprawls known as “the jungle”.
In the early hours of 9 September 2020, several fires start on the outskirts of Moria Reception and Identification Centre, on the island of Lesvos, Greece. Within a few hours, the fires spread and destroy the heart of the camp. (© Mustafa Nadri, ReFOCUS Media Labs)
After a first night of fires, the camp’s residents return to assess the damage and try to access water and hygiene facilities. Many settle in the few areas that have been saved from the flames. (© Douglas F. Herman, ReFOCUS Media Labs)
Destructive fires have always been an object of fear for residents in Moria, with many lives lost over the years. Yet, with nearly 80% of the camp destroyed within moments, it was hard for asylum seekers to accept that random fires had suddenly overwhelmed the whole site. The following day, rumours started spreading that those responsible for the fires were “coming back to finish the job”, prompting them to pack up and flee. Nearly on cue, around 7pm, another series of fires erupted, destroying the remaining areas and leaving nearly 13,000 people homeless on the streets. As people fled, the Greek police blockaded the roads out of the camp and met those walking toward town with tear gas.
As a second series of fires breaks out in the early evening, asylum seekers hurriedly pack up the few things they have left and leave Moria for good. (© Douglas F. Herman, ReFOCUS Media Labs)
Residents of Moria, which is burning for the second night in a row, are forced to spend the night on the road linking the camp to the town of Mytilene, surrounded by a series of police roadblocks. (© Douglas F. Herman, ReFOCUS Media Labs)
For almost two weeks, asylum seekers live on the road between Moria and the town of Mytilene without access to water, food or services. (© Douglas F. Herman, ReFOCUS Media Labs)
Despite global attention to this new humanitarian crisis, the response of the Greek State was all but swift. Instead of transporting victims to safe housing, the government sent riot police to create a series of blockades, trapping everyone on the streets. For nearly two weeks, asylum seekers were left without adequate access to food, water or shelter, while the army hastily built a new camp on a recently active military shooting range. During these gruelling days and nights, humanitarian aid was continuously restricted, free press was suppressed, and peaceful protests broke out. Greek police forces responded to them by repeatedly firing tear gas on a vulnerable population that had nowhere to go. They utilised siege tactics to push everyone to enter the new camp branded as “temporary”. Fearing a closed centre, many refused to comply with the injunction, before massive police forces ushered everyone that resisted into it.
Six months of lockdown having exacerbated standing tensions between refugee communities, African asylum seekers, in a severe minority, have set up camp closest to the police in the hope of extra protection. Far from the location where humanitarian aid distributions are permitted, they suffer acutely from the lack of food and water. (© Mustafa Nadri, ReFOCUS Media Labs)
The fear of being imprisoned in a closed centre leads women and children to fill the streets in protest. Although the lack of food and water is an immediate concern, most signs display calls for freedom of movement and international solidarity. (© Yaser Akbari, ReFOCUS Media Labs)
In response to the protests, the police forces respond aggressively by spraying tear gas on the road where thousands of people now live, including families with young children. Medical NGOs active on the island are not allowed to enter the area. (© Mustafa Nadri, ReFOCUS Media Labs)
New camp, same indignity
In late September, European Commissioner for Home Affairs Ylva Johansson declared “No More Morias!” as the Commission unveiled its new Migration Pact, which included financing for the construction of closed RICs in the Greek hotspots. Yet, on 8 October, the first rain of the winter season proved in shocking fashion how ill-prepared the new camp on Lesvos truly was for the elements, with the entire site flooded within thirty minutes.
The new camp is built on the waterfront, on a shooting range next to the road where the asylum seekers sleep. Soil samples long requested by NGOs will later reveal high levels of lead contamination in some areas. (© Mustafa Nadri, ReFOCUS Media Labs)
Asylum seekers wait at the entrance to the new camp, two weeks after the fires. Many of them move in voluntarily, hoping to find basic shelter and continue their asylum procedures. Covid tests are carried out at the entrance and 214 people are tested positive and parked in makeshift shelters by the sea, behind barbed wire. (© Douglas F. Herman, ReFOCUS Media Labs)
Asylum seekers stock up on water in the new camp, which lacks a running water system. Water trucks come once a day, causing long queues, and residents regularly report empty taps within hours of delivery. (© Milad Ebrahimi, ReFOCUS Media Labs)
Since the fires, the international media has moved on from Lesvos and freedom of press has been consistently strangled under the pretence of Covid-19 protection measures and active military operations. Short of highly orchestrated tours, journalists are not permitted into the new camp. During these critical times, the only witnesses of living conditions inside the camp are the residents themselves, including the citizen journalists trained by ReFOCUS Media Labs. Through collaborative engagement with mainstream media partners, they continued to report throughout 2020 while international media could not.
Faced with a complete lack of a shower system on arrival, inhabitants of the new camp use the sea for personal hygiene. Eight weeks pass before a rudimentary “bucket shower” protocol is implemented. Each asylum seeker is now allocated a weekly 7-and-a-half-minute time slot for washing. (© Douglas F. Herman, ReFOCUS Media Labs)
A young girl plays inside the new camp shortly after the first winter rains on Lesvos, known for its extremely cold, windy and wet winters. (© Mustafa Nadri, ReFOCUS Media Labs)
Without a functioning drainage system, the trough-shaped ground on which the camp has been set up is flooded every time it rains, and asylum seekers are forced to create their own runoffs to redirect the water away from the tents. (© Mustafa Nadri, ReFOCUS Media Labs)
Six months have passed since all were forced into a “temporary” camp ill-equipped to handle the harsh winters Lesvos is known for. Slowly but surely, independent and affiliated journalists have been intimidated, harassed, detained, arrested and removed from the island in an effort to shut down the flow of information related to migration management and human rights violations. The Greek government even recently passed a new law further restricting NGOs, their volunteers and employees working inside the camp from sharing the reality on the ground. Now more than ever, it falls to the residents and the citizen journalists in the camp to bring attention to the harsh reality they endure.
With electricity available for only a few hours a day, a resident of the new camp cooks his food on a small fire inside his tent. (© Mustafa Nadri, ReFOCUS Media Labs)
A woman is waiting inside the new camp. Since November 2020, a second lockdown set up in Lesvos to curb the spread of the Covid-19 pandemic has seen a rotation system put in place for asylum seekers: they are only allowed to leave the camp for a maximum of three hours a week. (© Mustafa Nadri, ReFOCUS Media Labs)
On 19 February 2021, another fire erupted in a section of the new camp housing families. Residents were quick to extinguish it before it spread. Will the same happen to their indignation and their hopes?
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