After years of the EU and Greece turning a blind eye, Moria refugee camp on Lesvos burned to the ground on the night of 8-9 September 2020. The underlying structures, however, remain in place and continue to reproduce the injustice elsewhere. The full extent of the devastating fire became visible a few days after the event: tents, containers and sanitary facilities were largely destroyed and some 13,000 refugees were made 'homeless', staying in catastrophic conditions on the road between Moria and Mytilene. Over the following days, there was not enough food or water, nor any kind of protection against the unbearable summer heat.
Instead of giving shelter, providing basic services or evacuating the island, the police used tear gas against the exhausted and traumatised people of Moria, including many children. Shortly after the fire, several riot police units from the mainland arrived on the island. The scale of the local repression by the police was enormous. Demonstrations by refugees against a 'new Moria' were repeatedly and violently put down. Fascists have meanwhile reasserted themselves on the streets and are again threatening refugees. NGOs and solidarity structures attempting to provide care for refugees were obstructed by privately organised roadblocks.
While the government holds NGOs responsible for political activities among the refugees, it should not be forgotten that the former inhabitants of Moria are themselves an active part of the ongoing political dispute. Refugees are not objects that can be arbitrarily deported, manipulated and pushed around. They are people, political subjects of our society, who resist oppression and fight for their own rights. Over recent years and even after the fire, people have consistently expressed their desire for freedom under extremely difficult and repressive conditions. The message is clear: no new camp, freedom of movement for all!
The sole reaction by the Greek government has been to hastily construct a new camp on a military site. It is a prison-like, closed camp, which according to the Greek authorities is intended as a temporary solution. Hundreds of tents are pitched close together and, as in 'old' Moria, there is a lack of everything: sanitary facilities, food and water supplies, medical care and the right to self-determination.
The period between the fires and construction of the new camp can be described as a fortnight of immense repression of refugees by the Greek authorities. Violence was ever-present, especially when refugees made political demands. Many people were left without water and food, sometimes for days. NGOs that tried to intervene were prevented from doing so through criminalisation (e.g. threatening fines for distributing food). It was clear from the beginning that this situation of deprivation was not an inevitable disaster, but politically intended. Misery was employed as a strategy to force people into the new camp. Most only entered the camp when the Greek authorities announced that if they refused, their asylum procedures would be discontinued. Those who did not follow the orders independently were forced to do so.
In their directives to relocate, the Greek Ministry of Migration & Asylum ordered refugees with the following words: "Register at the new camp, only there you are safe. Do not believe anyone who threatens you and keeps you on the road. They have no power, they only exploit. The Greek government ensures your life and the lives of your friends. Only the Ministry of Migration and the police are the reliable sources of information. No NGO, no one treating you wants your good.”
The final sentence in particular illustrates the moral decay of the Greek authorities, who declare NGOs as the enemy. Ironically, the government, which has been responsible for the ongoing misery of refugees on Lesvos since 2015, presents itself as the savior.
But what is offered as a solution? A new camp—a camp that will certainly fail. Not only because it is too small, too unsafe, too unhygienic or too poorly equipped. It will fail because it is another place of structural violence, dehumanisation and injustice. It is a place where literally anything can happen because it is a place outside the legal order. The camp seals the fate of so many refugees in Europe being held in a transient state of despotism. It is the camp itself that must therefore be abolished. A camp can and will never be a safe place. Declaring it a temporary construction means denying the lived reality of refugees in Greece for years. This exception has already become normality. Their exclusion is not temporary, it is politically motivated. Moria did not suddenly become 'hell' and the 13,000 refugees did not lose their homes overnight since they never had one. The fire is the consequence of a European migration policy based on isolation and deterrence. It is not the fire that is the real catastrophe, but the fact that this camp ever existed.
The structures that give rise to Moria still exist and reproduce the same problem: that is, that camps are seen as a 'normal' way of life. “I don’t know if it’s better or worse, it’s the same. It’s another camp,“says Fatima, a 15-year-old girl from Afghanistan. Her parents used to live in a camp close to the Iranian border when they were her age. Now, she and her relatives have shared a tent for more than a year. The few possessions she owned burned in the fire. They had a long journey before reaching Lesvos: Afghanistan, Iran, Turkey and Greece.
The story of Fatima and her family is no exception. Many people on Lesvos were already being displaced, oppressed and politically persecuted before coming to Greece. Only the camp stays as the dominating paradigm in their lives: the same materialisation of injustice. When Fatima talks about the camp, she expresses herself calmly. She does not appear devastated and describes a reality that she and her family have known for years.
The media meanwhile projects a similar acceptance of the situation. The fire has been and gone and so has the outcry of recent days. Yet although the camp is now located in a different site, it is no less threatening, no less humiliating to its inhabitants. Pictures of the burning camp were linked to a kind of hell on earth. But what does this mean? Maybe it is not a religious perception of hell that has unfolded on Lesvos. Rather, maybe the hell lies in an acceptance of the normality of the situation: accepting structural disenfranchisement of human beings, accepting deportation back to war zones, accepting life in a prison-like camp.
Ultimately, Moria was and is a politically organised human rights crime that continues to exist. Even after the destruction of the physical camp, it has been recreated in a new site. This broken model for harbouring asylum-seekers is doomed to fail, because we’ve seen it fail before. A life of dignity and self-determination is a human right that cannot be realised in camps. Therefore, a new camp on Lesvos, on the Greek mainland or elsewhere cannot be a viable solution.
Refugees on Lesvos need political will and solidarity, which can only be achieved through political action. There are countless Moria-equivalents all over Europe, all over the world, and they concern us all.