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  • Writer's pictureRory O'Keeffe, Koraki

Moria - fire and response

The following is a collection of updates we offered in the immediate wake of the fire which burned Moria to the ground on Wednesday 9 September.

It also contains some short analyses of statements made by politicians in the wake of the devastation, and ends with a short statement about what should happen next.

Some of you will have read parts of this, but we hope it is useful and informative, and helps you frame a response as far as that is necessary/appropriate as an individual or organisation. You may also be interested to watch this episode of Al Jazeera’s Inside Story in which Koraki’s Rory O’Keeffe discusses the situation at Moria, and the laws surrounding it.

We should note one major point, however: Moria was an illegal installation designed to help the EU sidestep international law.

We still do not know what caused the fire there, as no investigation has yet been carried out, and would also remind anyone interested that there is, of course, a great deal of difference between fires being deliberately set during a ‘riot’ (as Greek Prime Minister Kiriakos Mitsotakis claimed, without any hard evidence, within hours of the fire being doused – see below) and cooking equipment being knocked over during a demonstration, or when no demonstration was taking place. It is also possible that the site’s notoriously inadequate and unreliable electricity network malfunctioned.

Whatever the reason the fire began, we must not lose sight of the central, and we believe most important, fact that on Wednesday morning, Europe’s biggest refugee camp – in fact an illegal detention/holding centre for innocent men, women and children – burned to the ground.

Whatever the reason the fire started, the reason it managed to wipe out the entire site was simple: the safe capacity of Moria was 2,757 people. On Monday (7 September) its population was 12,589. Moria’s population was 4.5 times higher than its safe capacity.

This is, as we and many others have been saying for several years now, the meaning of ‘safe capacity’: the number above which a site becomes dangerous for everyone in it. Not ‘people don’t have as much space as they’d like’ but ‘if something bad happens, everyone will be at real and serious risk’.

Nor is Moria alone: four other Aegean Islands have similar ‘camps’/detention/holding centres. On Samos, one of those, Vathy, has a capacity of 648. Its population is more than 4,700 people.

The main surprise is not that Moria burned to the ground, but that it didn’t happen three years ago.

1. Wednesday morning: 10am. Koraki note

‘We have been talking for YEARS about how over-capacity this camp (in fact, detention centre in all but name) was. As of 7 September 12,589 people were crammed into a space with a safe capacity of just 2,757.

‘We have continually pointed out that there was insufficient water to meet people's needs, and also too little electricity for all - something which in itself raised greater risk of a fire like this happening and being as devastating as it has been.

‘But at heart, the reason (ignoring the disgusting claims - with absolutely no evidence - already being made by some Greek sources that it was arson by refugees themselves) for this blaze being as bad as it has been is exactly the point that Moria's safe capacity was 2,757. It had more than FOUR TIMES as many people as that crammed into it.

‘This is an EU member state. In the third decade of the 21st century.

‘It's really time to step up.’

(The ‘people’ we wish to step up include, but are not limited to, the Greek government, the EU and the governments of all its member states, the Greek and EU populations to demand better from their governments.)

2. Wednesday, 12.59pm, Update, in light of a proposed inter-agency note about the disaster

A press statement is being prepared demanding that all people affected by the fire must be moved to the mainland of Greece immediately.

Koraki appreciates the sentiment, and agrees that people must be moved, immediately, to places of safety.

However, we must note that if every one of the 12,589 people in Moria camp were moved to the mainland today, this would cause even greater overcrowding in the mainland camps, significantly increasing the hardship experienced by the men, women and children already in those camps.

We must also remind all actors on the islands and Greek mainland (including the Greek government itself) that the most recent calls for significant numbers of people to move from the Aegean islands to mainland camps has led to men, women and children being evicted from their places of shelter, making them homeless and vulnerable to attack from the police as well as other groups.

Instead, we recommend and indeed implore the Greek government to ensure that the men, women and children impacted by the fire at Moria are NOT transferred to the mainland, but to other EU member states, unless - and under NO other circumstance - they will be moved to buildings in towns and cities in Greece.

If this does not take place, these men, women and children should not be moved to mainland Greece, but to other EU states.

Once again, Koraki agrees with the need for immediate action: these people need safe, decent places to stay, and they need them now.

But we must remember that when acting swiftly, we must also act correctly. Greece is a member of the world's wealthiest political bloc, and it is time for that bloc to step in and help the people whose lives have - again - been cast into turmoil.

3. Wednesday, 5pm. Response and update following Greek Prime Minister Kiriakos Mitsotakis’ statement about the fire

In response to last night's fire at Moria, which destroyed much of the camp/detention centre, and has left thousands of men, women and children homeless, Greek PM Kiriakos Mitsotakis said:

'nothing can become an alibi for violent reactions to health checks. And, much more, for riots of this magnitude.'

We must stress that no statement from any reliable source has suggested the fire was started during a riot (and we must also state that by definition, demonstrations are not riots). Nor has there been any credible suggestion the fire was in any way connected to 'violent reactions to health checks'.

Such a claim would be disappointing from a person with little or no interest or information about the situation. From the Greek Prime Minister - elected to a position of power and responsibility - it is extraordinarily disappointing and impossible to ignore or excuse.

He added:

'I remind you that more than 13,000 people have been transferred from Moria since the beginning of the year and things would have been, of course, much worse if the state had not blocked new migration flows in the meantime.'

It is far from clear that 13,000 people have been moved from Moria. But let's say they have.

In that case, those men, women and children have been moved to already extraordinarily-overcrowded camps on the Greek mainland, significantly reducing the quality of life of those already there.

Simultaneously, Mitsotakis' government has removed thousands of people from the mainland camps and other shelter to 'make way' for those new arrivals. Those people have been forced onto the streets, where many have been beaten by the police for sleeping in public spaces, including parks.

Greece - absolutely and utterly illegally - 'block(ing) new migration flows' has been at the direct expense of innocent men, women and children seeking safety, and has in many cases - particularly in those of the pushbacks widely reported in recent weeks (and which have been taking place for several months) risked the deaths of those innocents.

Simultaneously, there is very little doubt that the fire would have been nowhere near as damaging and wide-reaching had the camp not been at more than four times its safe capacity.

That is, in this statement, Mitsotakis the Greek Prime Minister is attempting to present his government breaking the law, making people homeless and still failing to address a problem we have been raising for four years, as a positive achievement.

It is - we feel forced to say - nothing of the sort. Far closer, in fact, to a failure by the government, even as the EU is failing Greece and the people of the whole continent.

4. A note on, and analysis of, plans to open prisons on the islands

‘In the dawn light as firefighters struggled to douse the flames, authorities threw a six-mile cordon around the camp to prevent its former residents from attempting to reach Mytilene, the island’s port town and home to most of its 85,000 population. Riot police units were flown in for reinforcement from Athens as Mitsotakis convened an emergency meeting of top ministers in his centre-right government.’

It is alarming to note that the first acts of the residents and mayor of Mytilene in the wake of a fire which burned the shelters of 12,598 men, women and children to ashes, and destroyed almost all of the few possessions they had, was to rush to prevent them finding safe places to rest, and sending riot police in from the national capital to help, not with finding them new shelter, but stop them leaving the roadsides onto which they had been forced.

Alarming, but not surprising. Since 2015 – and in the direct contradiction of every single piece of available evidence – Nea Dimokratia has been stating and repeating, in every broadcast, online, and print medium it can access that refugees are a threat to: Greek livelihoods (they will take your jobs and your money); Greek lifestyles (refugees will change Greek traditions and threaten its religion); and Greek lives (Nea Dimokratia continually claims refugees are ‘invading’, ‘attacking’, and a security risk to Greece).

It is inexcusable that the Lesvos public reacted like this. But when the only voice people ever hear says refugees are a threat, it is not surprising that people come to see them as such.

We can, and must, offer the alternative, which also happens to be true: that far from being a threat, refugees are an asset. That given the opportunity they create jobs and money, and contribute a huge amount to culture, literature, sport and the society in which they live and work.

“It’s an atomic bomb,” said Michalis Frantzeskos, the island’s deputy mayor in charge of citizens’ protection, referring to infection rates possibly increasing in the wake of the devastating blaze. “People have headed to the mountains, they’re [scattered] everywhere.”

This is a remarkable statement not for what it says – it is certainly true that people scattering chaotically into unknown and varied locations in the middle of a global pandemic is a potential disaster – but for who said it: Frantzeskos, in refusing to allow these innocent and desperate men, women and children to find comfortable places even to wait to find out what would happen next, gave them just two options. Stay on a roadside in 34° heat, or find somewhere else.

As in so many cases, panic and spite – the immediate response so often in this response from the Greek government but also the EU as a whole – has led to far worse outcomes for everyone than just a small amount of empathy and commonsense. In this, this incident was a microcosm of the fire itself, which was in turn a microcosm of the whole response from 2015 to today.

‘By nightfall it was announced that around a thousand of the most vulnerable refugees with disabilities and health problems would be hosted in a ferry boat as emergency workers sought frantically to gather enough tents.’

We should note that the last time people were put on board boats off the Lesvos coast, they were told they were to be taken to be tested for Corona, and in direct contravention of international law, never again set foot in Greece.

‘Two naval ships will also be dispatched to the island by Thursday with around 3,500 tents providing temporary shelter, the Greek migration minister Notis Mitarachi told a press conference.’

It is hard to imagine that this number would be enough for the men, women and children to socially-distance, raising the question of whether the Greek government takes seriously the needs and rights of all the people in its care, or just those able to vote in 2023.

It is equally disappointing that fully-equipped riot police can be transported by helicopter to Lesvos within hours, in order to prevent innocent and desperate men, women and children from reaching a place they may wait in relative comfort, but cannot – even after five solid years’ experience of a refugee response – source some tents in less than 36 hours.

‘“Moria as we have known it cannot continue,” he said, pledging that Athens would press ahead with the creation of “closed” detention camps in which the movement of people will be monitored more closely.’

Now. This is an important point.

First of all, Moria certainly ‘cannot continue (as we have known it)’. Not, as those of us who have been calling for it to be closed for four years but ignored entirely by both the Greek government(s – SYRIZA opened and ran it before Nea Dimokratia enthusiastically took over its legacy of inhumane treatment of innocent people) because it is illegal and a horrific reversal of all the advances in international law and human rights since the 1940s. But because it has been absolutely destroyed by fire.

Second, the ‘closed camps’ will not be camps: they will be jails. The ‘closure’ referred to is a statement (more openly admitted on several occasions by Nea Dimokratia government ministers) that the people placed inside them will not be able to leave until their asylum applications have been processed.

For the last 12 months, new arrivals to Greece have been told they must wait five years before their applications are processed.

These two facts mean that the Greek government’s plan – if not supported, then certainly not opposed in any meaningful way by the EU – is to take innocent men, women and children and lock them in jails on Lesvos, Chios, Samos, Leros and Kos, for five years. A jail sentence of more time than many of the children will yet have lived, for committing absolutely no crime.

It is hard to state strongly enough how abhorrent this policy is, but we must note that this is not taking place in a failed state, or a far-Eastern, Latin American or sub-Saharan dictatorship, but the EU. The world’s richest ever political bloc. An entity which demands people regard it as a promoter and protector of international law. In the 21st century.

5. Thursday 10 September: some ‘developments’

Earlier today, the last of 406 unaccompanied minors arrived from Lesvos to Thessaloniki. It remains unclear what will happen to them, but it is expected that they will be found places in other EU member states, or at least in ‘hospitality centres’ on the Greek mainland.

The latter are far from perfect, but are at least better than standard refugee camps in Greece, and with dedicated childcare staff. They are also, certainly, better than sleeping on the roadside, in the open, though we should note that this is an extraordinarily-low bar to set.

The rest of the ‘news’ so far is even less encouraging. It is now expected that 11,000 people will stay on Lesvos. Talks have opened regarding two military camps on the island, which can ‘host’ 1,000 people in total. There are 300 places in Kara Tepe (the camp on Lesvos which yesterday worked to relocate and host some of the children and young people caught in the Moria fire).

Jerry cans, sleeping mats and hygiene kits for 12,000 people were also scheduled to be distributed today. It remains to be seen how long it will take for representatives of the Greek government and European Union to describe this as a ‘significant achievement’.

6. Some points to consider while responding and ‘moving forward’

There are a couple of points to remember: one, Moria (and the other island ‘camps’) should never have existed to begin with: they are a direct contradiction of people’s freedom to move.

Two, the entire basis on which they were opened was an impossibility: there was never the capacity or even truly the will at either Greek or EU level to make the ‘system’ work properly – for the detention/holding centres to be temporary stopping-points where people could be registered before travelling further. This was not even the way they were described when they were opened, but that was the only way they could have been operated if they were to be anything other than they swiftly became and in all but one case (the destroyed Moria site) remain: overcrowded, life-threatening, hell-holes.

The fire at Moria – or at the very least the reason it spread so quickly – was a direct result of the site being so over-filled (which was the direct result of the policy being set as it was): to more than 4.5 times its safe capacity. That is literally what a safe capacity is: the amount of people up to which the site can be safe for those in it.

The surprise is not that Moria burned to the ground, it is that it did not happen much, much sooner. The Greek government, and undeniably the EU as a whole, has been consistently breaking the law, and gambling with the lives of thousands of innocent men, women and children.

And that brings us to the third point: many aid organisations are now demanding that the people who now have nowhere to sleep must be ‘brought to the Greek mainland.’ But this is a poorly thought-through approach.

Many of the mainland camps are already full beyond their safe capacity. Many others have had their capacity ‘increased’ but without any meaningful alterations to either space, safety or the provision of necessities such as electricity and clean water.

Moving people to the mainland will make the people already there suffer even more greatly.

Simultaneously, we must remember that some advocacy employees of humanitarian organisations working in Greece have asked for people to be moved from the Aegean islands to the Greek mainland before. The government ‘obliged’, but insisted on removing people from their homes or shelters on the mainland to ‘make room’ for the arrivals from the Aegean: that is, the government made those people homeless.

Instead, we must demand the EU steps up and fulfils its duty as the world’s wealthiest political bloc.

There are 28 (soon to be 27) EU member states, and 12,589 people yesterday lost their shelter and need somewhere to stay, as a matter of urgency.

In (the) one heart-warming moment of yesterday’s response (sadly more than counter-balanced by the crowds of far-Right protestors and police forcing thousands of shellshocked, innocent people to stand on roadsides for the entire day), the German state of North Rhine-Westphalia announced it was prepared to shelter 1,000 of the people whose tents or containers at Moria had burned to ashes.

This is one state of one country within the European Union, the richest political bloc the planet has ever seen. The EU has 28 member states. Even if no other German region took as many refugees, there are 27 more countries who, if they made the same offer, could not only shelter every single person affected by Wednesday morning’s fire, but also 15,000 more people – effectively emptying the awful, unsafe and unacceptable Aegean island ‘detention centres’.

It is beyond time for the EU to live up to its own view of itself – and the one it expects others to accept – as a safe legal organisation; a protector and promoter of international law.

It is time it lives up to its potential, as the organisation best placed in all of human history to run a safe, legal and humane response to a refugee situation.

And it is time for the European Union to begin by taking the men, women and children whose lives have been devastated for at least the second time in the last nine years, and giving them safe, decent places to live and thrive.

This is why we do not agree with the idea that these people should be ‘moved to the Greek mainland’ unless they are moved not into refugee camps, but into houses and apartments, but instead are moved to other EU member states where they can restart and build new, successful, lives.


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