Vulcan Insight

Fire in Greek refugee camp reignites criticism of EU migration policy

11 September 2020

On Wednesday evening three fires broke out in a short space of time and engulfed Europe’s largest refugee camp, leaving almost 13,000 people without adequate shelter. The incident saw, among others, the German Minister for Europe call for an ‘urgent’ reform of the EU’s migrant policy.

Moria, located on the Greek island of Lesbos, is home to 13,000 migrants, with hundreds more living unofficially in the area surrounding the camp. The camp, infamous for its overcrowded and squalid environment, has seen attempts by Greek authorities to transfer migrants to other member states and to build closed detention sites to house migrants on various Greek islands. However, the camp has remained “acutely overcrowded” as governments across the EU27 have rejected different Greek proposals and authorities have faced violent backlashes in Lesbos during protests against the building of detention sites.

Greek Migration Minister, Notis Mitarachi, believes the “incidents in Moria began with the asylum seekers” because of the quarantine imposed on some refugee families after 35 coronavirus cases were detected. Although Mitarachi did not say the fires amounted to arson, other officials believe they were premeditated. Some migrants believe that arson was carried out by far-right residents of the island, opposed to the presence of the camp and its occupants. According to the local fire service chief, protesting migrants hindered firefighters from quashing the blaze. Other clashes with authorities, which almost entirely characterises the relationship between Lesbos’ migrants and police, occurred when some 4,000 people attempted to flee the camp for the port of Mytilini to board ships to the mainland.

The blaze, which destroyed an administration facility, a health centre and one accommodation zone has resulted in about 3,500 camp residents being left fully homeless. They will be temporarily accommodated in tents, a ferry and two navy ships. 406 unaccompanied minors are being flown to the mainland and placed in quarantine. Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis has recognised the difficulties of the migrants in Lesbos but says that “nothing can become an excuse for violent reactions to health checks”.

An immediate need for drastic changes to EU migration policy has been brought back to the fore following the events in Moria. The Council of Europe’s Commissioner for Human Rights, Dunja Mijatović, predicts that similar incidents could arise in overcrowded refugee camps on other Greek islands. She believes the fire underlined the “completely unsustainable” EU approach to migration and should accelerate a move towards a revamp of its current migration model. Amnesty International also described the EU’s policies as “reckless” and blamed them for Moria’s chronic congestion. The already amplified scrutiny around the migration policies that have resulted in jammed refugee camps is only augmented by the danger that an inability to physically distance presents during the Covid-19 pandemic. Years of successive Greek governments have called on fellow bloc members to help them shoulder the burden of the migration crisis. Anger was visible at this lack of collective action, echoing the Greek governments’ mainly unanswered calls. Thousands marched, particularly in Germany, whose Interior Minister recently refused the entry of migrants until an EU-wide solution to the migration policy was formulated.

In response to the Moria crisis, the German federal government have offered assistance to Athens and made finding a solution to the refugee crisis a priority of their EU Council presidency, while still stressing the importance of a pan-European policy. Prime Minister of the German state of North Rhine-Westphalia, Armin Laschet, later offered to take in 1,000 refugees. Other German states have made similar offers but it is unclear whether the federal government will grant them permission. Emmanuel Macron also announced that the French and German governments plan to consort in a project to help the Greek government. Their project will “include as many European countries as possible”. The EU has offered its assistance to Athens and European Commission President, Ursula von der Leyen, has said “the safety of those without shelter” is paramount. The Dutch government has pledged €1 million to assist Greece with the provision of emergency accommodation, while EU Home Affairs Commissioner Ylva Johansson has committed to provide for the cost of transferring and accommodating the 400 unaccompanied minors from Moria. European Commission Vice President Margaritis Schinas, who is responsible for migration matters, visited the island this Thursday to assess the situation.