The ashes of Moria refugee camp could poison European politics

View of the destroyed Moria camp following a fire, on the island of Lesbos, Greece on September 15, 2020 [Reuters/Vassilis Triandafyllou]

Even by the grim standards of Greece’s reception system, the September 8 fire at the Moria refugee camp is an unprecedented humanitarian catastrophe. It was not the first fire at the camp and it was entirely predictable.

Successive Greek governments have restricted the movements of newly arrived refugees and migrants in order to uphold the migration deal between the European Union and Turkey. As a result, island facilities have been severely overcrowded. Moria camp, designed to host fewer than 3,000 people, was hosting an estimated 13,000 when the fire broke out.

The local authorities have arrested six asylum seekers regarding the fire and claimed they started it on purpose. We may not know exactly how the fire started but we know why.

Moria was a squalid camp with more than four times the number of people it could safely host; the local population has been carrying the burden of a lethal and unsustainable EU migration policy for far too long; there have been legitimate fears about the spread of COVID-19 in the camp and on the island; and there has been a toxic cocktail of nationalism, conspiracy and fear-mongering. All that was needed was a match.

In the days following the disaster, the immediate priority was to find housing, food and water for more than 10,000 homeless refugees. The Greek government initially thought that it would be able to rehabilitate Moria by cleaning away the charred remains of existing structures and installing tents. It ruled out the transfer of refugees to the mainland due to fears this may spread COVID-19.

Residents on the island set up roadblocks to prevent reconstruction efforts. Their opposition is understandable; they have been sold “temporary solutions” before which have, in fact, lasted years.

After days of sleeping rough, most migrants left homeless by the fire are now in a temporary camp. Basic needs, including hygiene facilities that are so important during a pandemic, are still not being met. The camp’s already overcrowded tents have no floors, meaning the first autumn rain will make them completely uninhabitable. The government announced that these refugees will stay on Lesbos until as late as Easter.

Existing tensions between residents, migrants and NGOs on the island have worsened in recent months, and especially after COVID-19 cases were discovered at Moria. These tensions worsened after the fire, as the government allowed – or even amplified – toxic narratives in an attempt to deflect blame. As part of their campaign to vilify humanitarian and human rights groups, authorities even told refugees that NGOs were not acting in their interests.

Many have remarked on how fortunate it is that no one died in the fire. And yet Moria has been killing people for years. Self-harm and suicide have been rife, as are stabbings and beatings. Open sewage, inadequate healthcare and nutrition have allowed diseases to spread. Last year a baby died from dehydration and a mother and child lost their lives in a fire.

One wonders if there had been deaths caused by the September 8 fire would the political reaction be stronger? Would Europe cry “never again”, as it did after the body of three-year-old Alan Kurdi washed up on Turkey’s shore after he drowned attempting to reach Greece with his family five years ago? Is this the tragic price that has to be paid so action is taken?

If the current asylum system remains unchanged, we will continue to have catastrophes like this one. That is why immediate action is needed. To start, we must shut down these camps. The new EU migration pact is envisioning even more camps like Moria, despite all the evidence that they are the centrepiece of a failed policy.

When the first COVID-19 case emerged at Moria, the Greek minister for immigration and asylum, Notis Mitarakis, revived his proposal to turn the camps into open-air prisons. Not only do these camps fail to uphold our human rights standards, undermining the EU’s position in the world, but they also fail to deter people desperate to flee war and poverty.

Cities and regions across Europe have offered to settle refugees from these camps. The German state of North Rhine-Westphalia has said it is willing to take in 1,000 refugees displaced by the fire. There are others such as Brandenburg, Thuringia and Berlin.

This follows a long campaign by local authorities across Germany to receive refugees from Greek islands, a proposition which had been blocked by the federal interior ministry which has to greenlight any relocations.

More voices should join those calling on the German and other governments to allow for humanitarian action. Other European cities have also offered to take refugees and asylum seekers from Greece – notably some 119 Dutch municipalities. The desire and infrastructure for evacuation are there; we just need now to scale them up through a permanent relocation scheme in the EU’s upcoming migration pact.

Without appropriate EU action, I also fear what will happen to my own country, Greece. The political atmosphere is already deeply toxic. While the initial fire was still burning, the Ministry of Migration Policy officials accused “foreign NGOs” of being responsible for the discontent in the camp that led to the fire. The government spokesperson refused to rule out Turkish involvement.

I fear the opportunity for consensus and reasoned politics is slipping away. Some are now calling Greece “the Hungary of the Mediterranean”. If the EU cannot agree on an asylum policy, perhaps it can agree that one Hungary within its borders is quite enough.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.