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  • Writer's pictureRory O'Keeffe, Koraki

Riot Police instead of Shelters – a deeper look at the response to Moria

Updated: Sep 28, 2020

Last week (Wednesday 9 September), fires devastated Moria camp on the Greek island of Lesvos. Moria had become infamous over the past years for its constant overcrowdedness and inhumane living conditions. The fires that started on Tuesday night and raged through to Wednesday morning left the 12,598 men, women and children who had been living in the camp, in shock and stranded on the streets. An interview by Mimi Hapig with Rory O’Keeffe, founder of Koraki for contextual and political analysis and communication for humanitarian responders, Thessaloniki, Greece

One part of Moria, after the fires. Picture by Annelise Mecca, 2020

Rory, with Koraki you have been observing and reporting about the developments in Greece for several years now. What were your first thoughts when you learned about the fires destroying Moria camp?

Within hours of the fire which destroyed the shelters, and almost all of the few remaining possessions, of 12,589 men, women and children at the Moria ‘camp’, it was disappointing but predictable to see people rush to allocate ‘blame’ for the disaster.

Even as fire crews battled in vain to douse the flames before they devastated the site, early editions of Lesvos’ and soon after Greek mainland newspapers, carried claims by the island’s deputy mayor in charge of citizens’ protection, Michalis Frantzeskos, that the fire had been caused by ‘arson’ carried out by Moria’s residents.

Hours later – and despite no investigation having been carried out – Greece’s Prime Minister Kiriakos Mitsotakis, speaking even as thousands of people remained in shock having lost everything for at least the second time in the past nine years, announced to Greek and international media that ‘nothing can become an alibi for violent reactions to health checks. And, much more, for riots of this magnitude‘ – a clear statement that not only were the men, women and children at Moria holding centre responsible for the fire, they had caused it because they objected to being tested for Corona virus.

This was far from the measured and considered response one might desire from an elected head of government.

Six days after the fire, when a preliminary investigation had been carried out, Greek police arrested six people – all of whom are believed to have been trapped at Moria for more than a year – in relation to the blaze. None have yet been tried, so it would, even now, be too soon to say they are responsible for the fire starting.

In part because of these interventions from leading regional and national politicians, many people decided before any proof or evidence have been offered that ‘rioters’ caused the fires, and that they were deliberately set by those rioters. We should note that a ‘demonstration’ is not the same as a ‘riot’.

It is also unreasonable to say that because one person – or a small group of people – set a fire, more than 12,500 people should be punished.

Frantzeskos’ and Mitsotakis’ claims were made too soon, too publicly, and were an alarming indication of the ‘narrative’ the government would seek to follow regarding the disaster. This matters, because at least as important as ‘how did the fire start?’ is ‘how could any fire started by one or a few individuals destroy all of the EU’s largest refugee holding centre?’

Sadly, the answer is that Moria’s safe capacity was 2.757 people, and on Monday 9 September, its population was 12,598.

And of course there is a reason any space has a safe capacity: it is the maximum number of people who can be in a place before it becomes dangerous for all within it. Since it – and four similar holding/detention centres on Chios, Samos, Leros and Kos – opened, it has almost always been well over that safe capacity. In the last 12 months it has regularly had 20,000 or more people crammed inside it.

Nor is it alone in that. On Samos, Vathy holding/detention centre, which has a safe capacity of 648 people, has a population of more than 4,700.

The fact that the holding/detention centres even exist is in direct contravention of international law, while the practice of holding people there for up to four years, in intensely overcrowded and demonstrably unsafe conditions, is unacceptable not just legally, but also morally.

In the European Union, the world’s richest ever political bloc, in the 21st Century, this is unacceptable. And the surprise/mystery is not that Moria was wiped out by fire on Wednesday morning, but that this had not happened three or more years before.

The fires started in the night of Tuesday, 10 September. Picture by Annelise Mecca, 2020

“The surprise/mystery is not that Moria was wiped out by fire on Wednesday morning, but that this had not happened three or more years before.”

What is the political reaction you observe in Greece right now?

a) Public response

Much has been made of the local public – most notably the residents of Mytilene – forming road-blocks around the camp to prevent the newly-shelterless men, women and children from travelling towards the island’s capital, or any other location.

This is an inexcusable act, but not one without wider context.

Because since 2015, when the current refugee response began in Greece, Nea Dimokratia – then in opposition and since July 2019 the national government – has worked hard to ‘weaponise’ refugees. Their messaging has focused on three major points: that refugees are a danger to Greek livelihoods (jobs and incomes), to Greek lifestyles (traditions, religion, and culture) and to Greek lives (literally, that refugees endanger the security of Greece as a state, and its citizens as individuals).

None of these three claims has any justification in fact (refugees have not attacked Greek people, they have made no effort at all to ‘change’ Greece culturally, and in fact Greece has received billions of Euros it would not have had, literally because men, women and children have arrived seeking security and a chance to begin again: it is in fact very likely that Greece would not yet have left EU-imposed special-measures if these people had not arrived).

Nor do they address the demonstrable facts that in every state where new arrivals have been offered the opportunity to contribute, they have brought economic growth, as well as achievements in arts, sports, literature – even food – and in Greece the majority have simply not been allowed to do so. How is it reasonable to simultaneously demand people live in tents and be denied access to work, and the criticize them for ‘relying on handouts’?

In any case, to a very great extent, these are the messages the Greek public hear, almost every day, about the newest arrivals in Greece. They hear almost no alternative ‘voices’ on the topic. And they have become considerably less wealthy – albeit for reasons completely unrelated to refugee arrivals. It is not surprising some people have become extremely negative about refugees. This does not excuse their behaviour, but it is one reason for it.

b) The use of COVID-19

And of course, COVID-19 plays a part. In the immediate aftermath of the fire, in the same statement as he claimed (without evidence) that ‘refugees’ had started the fire, Michalis Frantzeskos also noted with ‘concern’ that 35 people at Moria had tested positive for the virus in the previous few days.

Once again, context is important. In common with the national and regional politicians in Italy, those of Greece have spent several months claiming – against all evidence – that refugees ‘will bring’ Corona virus to Greece, and that refugee camps are ‘infection hotspots’, meaning both that the government is ‘justified’ in closing the borders and locking-down camps and preventing the people within them from leaving.

The truth is that Lesvos is under ‘extraordinary measures’ because of high levels of infections on the island, and that the first cases in Moria came far later than those outside the holding/detention centre. There is absolutely no truth in the idea that the ‘direction of infection’ is from refugees to Greek natives: if anything, the experience across the country is directly the opposite.

But again, people do believe what they are told. When you tell people here you work with refugees, because of the deliberate, consistent and false claims of government ministers and other politicians throughout the country, people who have no negative opinions about new arrivals tell you to ‘be careful’: in fact, we are, but because we might carry the virus into camps, rather than the opposite.

So when the deputy mayor of Lesvos with responsibility for citizens’ protection, expresses ‘concern’ about the ‘risk of spread’ of Corona from people searching for shelter after the Moria disaster, once again, it is not surprising that the island’s residents respond.

The problem with this approach is not only that it relies on a false narrative (and therefore cannot possibly deliver an appropriate and workable response). It is also that Mytilene could easily have found space for 35 people with a virus, meaning that not only would those people have received proper (and indoor) care, but also that the municipal authorities could have been aware at all times of exactly where those people were, and thus ‘protected the citizens’ of Lesvos. What has happened so far has been far from that.

c) Local and national government

Nor is this just a public response, driven by calculated political campaigning. Because alongside the public in a six-mile cordon around Moria were Greek riot police, also ensuring that 12,589 desperate, shocked, men, women and children could not move from where they were, and had to spend more than two days on the roadside, in 34° heat.

And these were not just local police. In a deeply concerning indication of government priorities, riot police from Athens were helicoptered to join the road-block less than seven hours after the fire broke out.

Yet it was not until Thursday evening, more than 36 hours after the fire, that the first tents (200, despite Greek Migration Minister Notis Mitarachis claiming it would be 3,500) were sent – by ship – to provide a small number (2,000) of the exposed, street-sleeping, devastated, shocked and innocent men, women and children who had lost the little they had.

It is hard to imagine a more stark demonstration of the political priorities of the Greek government than that a state which has been at the centre of a refugee response for five solid years decided it could transport riot police from its capital by helicopter within hours to prevent desperate people from finding temporary shelter, but waited 36 hours to send too few tents, by ship, to actually offer far too few of them somewhere to sleep.

And those police have been active. In the days that have followed the fire, they have used teargas against the people displaced from Moria, even as those people have begun collpasing due to lack of water.

We are now in a position where as of Sunday night, the Greek government has sent police and arms to Lesvos faster and in greater number than it has sent tents, and men, women and children are still sleeping on the streets. Literally, innocent people are being attacked by a government which has chosen to leave them sleeping rough, because its priority is armed response.

Nor is the approach even ‘working‘ – regardless of whether the aim is to protect and assist the people whose shelters and few possessions have been destroyed (it is clearly not) or to ‘protect‘ Greek civilians from COVID-19. By Thursday afternoon, the Greek government was forced to admit it had no idea where 27 of the men, women and children who had tested positive for Corona virus even were, as – faced with the choice of remaining on the street in high temperatures or disappearing, possibly into the mountains, they had unsurprisingly chosen the latter.

‘It’s an atomic bomb,’ said Frantzeskos. ‘People have headed to the mountains, they’re [scattered] everywhere.’

A simple response designed to shelter and help people in the short-term while working on long-term solutions could have benefitted Greek and non-Greek people alike on Lesvos.

Instead, we have seen fact-free rhetoric – from Frantzeskos among others – and the use of the police as a militia against an unarmed, innocent and desperate group of people. The result, entirely predictably, is chaos and far greater risk to refugees and Greek nationals alike.

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.

The fires left 12.589 men, women and children are without shelter. Picture by Annelise Mecca, 2020

“we have seen fact-free rhetoric – from the Greek Prime Minister as well as Frantzeskos – and the use of the police as a militia against an unarmed, innocent and desperate group of people. The result, entirely predictably, is chaos and far greater risk to refugees and Greek nationals alike.”

d) The EU's response

The EU has not quite said nothing at all. But it has also not said anything very much, far less acted decisively or in a meaningful way.The German state of North Rhine-Westphalia offered on Wednesday to take 1,000 of the people whose shelters were destoyed in the fire. Other German states followed suit. By Tuesday 15 September, the German government had ‘indicated’ (though not confirmed) that it ‘may’ take up to 1,650 men, women and children.

Were this to be replicated by every other EU member state then not only the 12,589 people from Moria, but every single man, woman and child currently held in one of the hellish, massively- and dangerously overcrowded Greek holding/detention centres on the five Aegean islands could be removed to a safe place where they could re-start and rebuild their lives.

Even if between them, the German regions took a total of 1,000 people, if that were replicated by every other EU member state, not only the 12,589 people from Moria, but absolutely every man, woman and child currently in one of the hellish, massively- and dangerously-overcrowded Greek holding/detention centres on tyhe five Aegean islands, could be removed to a safe place where they could re-start and rebuild their lives.

But before accepting the pledges of its own regions, the German government requested that other EU states should also offer places to the 12,589 population of the former Moria camp.

So far, France has offered to take 100-150 children, while eight other countries have offered to accept 100-150 between them depending on whether the combined German and French offers to relocate children who have been trapped in Moria without parents or official guardians in fact amount to 250 or 300 children.

In the silence that has followed, the argument in Greece has once again altered its position to the suggestion that because the Moria detainees ‘set fire to’ the holding/detention centre they do not ‘deserve’ to be moved elsewhere in the EU. This is an astonishing position, amounting to the idea that even if all six of those arrested on suspicion of having started the Moria fire are found guilty, some 12,583 men, women and children entirely innocent of any crime must also be punished for it: this is not ‘justice’ in any sense of the word.

The holding/detention centres themselves are a distortion and perversion of international law, created and run by successive Greek governments with the backing of the EU. Now, the argument suggests, the people illegally detained within them should be denied their human rights for not ‘respecting’ the illegal practices imposed on them – even though there is no evidence at all that they have not done so.

Of the other 12,189 men, women and children, some are already in tents in a ‘closed camp’ (effectively, a prison) in a former army base on Lesvos, while many more are being attacked by riot police by day, and sleeping on the streets by night.

Aside from ‘expressions of sympathy’ (and not every state has made those) most of the EU has so far done almost nothing.

Former residents of the Moria camp are stranded on the streets, without access to water, food, sanitary facilities or shelter. Picture by Annelise Mecca, 2020

e) What Greece and the EU should do

In short, the EU must act now to move every single one of the 12,589 men, women and children to other EU member states, where they can restart and rebuild their lives.

A slightly longer answer would demand that every one of the holding/detention centres be shut down, immediately, and everyone within them moved to safe, decent accommodation while their asylum applications are processed. Simultaneously, the EU must immediately prevent the Greek government from building and forcing new arrivals into ‘closed camps’ – in fact jails – on the Aegean islands.

The simplest possible statement on this at present is that while the situation on the Greek islands is unimaginably terrible, that on the mainland is better only because it is imaginably terrible.

Though levels of overcrowding are not as high as those in the island holding/detention centres, the mainland camps are over, at, or very near capacity. Many of those which are officially below their safe capacity have in recent months had that capacity increased arbitrarily by the Greek government – usually by the public spaces within them being converted to ‘shelter’.

In many cases, the electricity and water supplies in these camps are far below the necessary levels even for the people already staying within them, let alone any increase in population.

The organisations working at these camps warn that they are already stretched beyond capacity: to move people there would be to cause even greater suffering for every arrival and every person already there.

Added to the issues existent in the Greek mainland refugee camps, the Greek government has been moving people from the islands to the mainland for much of the last 12 months. But to ‘make way’ for the new arrivals, this has seen thousands of people forced out of their shelter on the mainland, and many of them have been forced to sleep on the streets in Greece’s major cities. In a number of incidents, armed police have been sent to remove them, violently, even from these poor places to stay.

So calls simply to ‘move the Moria 13,000 to the mainland’ are fraught with difficulties, and fundamentally unworkable.

There are 500,000 empty buildings in Greece, and should these be used to house asylum seekers and every homeless person in Greece – that is, if every individual man, woman and child were given their own building – there would be more than 120,000 buildings ‘left over’ – still unused.

This option could make moving people to the mainland both possible and even desirable, but this is absolutely nowhere near the agenda of any political organization in Greece right now.

The sole sensible option – far better than people remaining on the streets of Lesvos, in tents in ‘closed camps’, or crammed into already over-capacity camps on the mainland, leading to increased suffering and likely homelessness – is for the 12,589 people whose lives have been devastated again to be moved to the other 27 EU member states.

This should not be beyond what is, after all, the richest political bloc ever to have existed in all of human history.

The OECD in 2011 listed 829 cities of 50,000 inhabitants or more in the EU. If every one of those were to take an equal number of men, women and children who had been trapped in Moria before Wednesday’s fire, that would mean on average, just 15.5 people: an increase of population in even the smallest of these cities of just 0.031 percent.

The reality is that leaving these people in Greece will lead to yet more suffering, hardship and avoidable misery not just for the 12,589 people whose lives have been ruined again by fire, but also to other innocents across Greece.

The EU must step up now and offer these people safe and decent places to stay.

Equally, Wednesday’s fire proves conclusively that not only are the holding/detention centres on the Aegean islands insanely cruel punishments for people who have committed no crime, they are also – as we have continually warned – fundamentally unsafe.

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.

There is also no way the sites can be justified under international law: no provision exists for holding people offshore and denying them access to the states they wish to enter and claim asylum within – even though similar schemes have been undertaken by Australia (at Manus and Nauru islands) and the USA (at Guantanamo Bay): schemes on which the RU deliberately based its Aegean holding/detention centres.

They must close, immediately, and those people within them allowed to continue their journeys to the states in which they intend to claim asylum live, and contribute to society.

Finally – and equally urgently – the EU must address and put an end to the Greek government’s plans to replace the holding/detention centres with so-called ‘closed camps’.

On Thursday, Nikos Mitarachis announced: ‘Moria as we have known it cannot continue,‘ adding that Greece would ‚press ahead‘ with ‚closed‘ detention camps.

Ignoring the fact that of course Moria cannot continue as we have known it because, as a result of deliberate neglect by the Greek government and EU, it has burned to the ground, we must note that the ‘closed camps‘, as the Greek government chooses to call them, will not be ‘camps’: they will be jails.

The ‘closure‘ referred to is a statement more openly admitted by the Greek government on several occasions, that the people placed inside these centres will not be allowed to leave until their asylum applications have been processed.

The current waiting time for new applicants to have their asylum applications processed is five years. These two facts mean that the Greek government’s plan is to take innocent men, women and children and lock them in jails on Lesvos, Chios, Samos, Leros and Kos, for five years. A sentence longer than many of the children locked up will yet have lived, for committing absolutely no crime.

It is hard to state strongly enough how abhorrent this policy is, particularly as it would be enacted in 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.

In an encouraging – but not entirely reassuring – development on Thursday (10 September), the European Commissioner for Home Affairs, Ylva Johansson, told the EU Committee on Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs that the EU 'will not fund closed camps '.

Unfortunately, at present the statement is largely meaningless, and unworkable. As any purely 'financial' act - let alone merely words - would prove.

Because if the EU simply says 'we will not fund closed camps' and takes no other action, Greece will still receive the same level of EU funding it always has, and can simply state that it spent 'its own' money on the jails, not money provided to it by the EU.

So, the EU would need to cut funding in order to prevent the camps being built.

But should the EU cut funding from the enormous amount it has spent (and should be spending - it should be doing far more) on the refugee response in Greece, there is absolutely nothing to stop Nea Dimokratia publicly criticising the EU for failing to provide cash to help refugees, building the jails anyway and stripping back yet further the services and necessities provided to refugees in Greece. In fact, this is exactly what Nea Dimokratia is most likely to do under such circumstances.

It might alternatively state that because of EU failures, it must build the jails using its own money, which will be stripped from services which would otherwise have been provided to Greek citizens – meaning that not only would the prisons be built, but unhappiness and anger from Greek citizens towards new arrivals in Greece would be increased

As a result, simply saying 'the EU will not fund (jails)'- and indeed even the EU cutting funding - will have at best no effect on the jailing of innocent men, women and children. At worst, it will not only see those innocent people locked up for five years but also see thousands more innocent people forced to suffer even greater hardship than they do at present.

The only way for the EU to prevent the Greek government taking this deplorable, immoral, illegal and to be blunt disgusting step is if it refuses to allow Greece - as a member state - to take it.

That is, the EU must make clear that should Greece do this - and as soon as the 'first brick is laid' - it will take action under EU and international law to prevent it. Including, as soon as it is necessary, requesting the UN to take legal action against the jails, alongside its own.

For the welfare and safety of Greek citizens, as well as new arrivals to Greece and the wider EU, the Greek government must stop pretending those arrivals pose a threat to Greece and its people, and immediately begin to adhere to international law.

We have already seen Greece and UNHCR create a 'new' (and worse, as it is 'closed') Moria - exactly what the EU stated it would not allow. It must not let Greece jail innocent men, women and children.

It is also 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.

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.

It is also vital it takes the appropriate action to prevent the Greek government jailing innocent men, women and children for five years.

The EU needs to act in order to close and prevent other places like Moria. Picture by Annelise Mecca, 2020

“The EU must act now to move every single one of the men, women and children to other EU member states, where they can restart and rebuild their lives.”


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