The Moria detention centre on the island of Lesvos was quite deliberately made unfit for human life by the EU and by Greek governments to deter immigration to Europe. On the night of 8 September, a fire engulfed the camp. Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis described the fire as an ‘opportunity’ to create a new permanent ‘reception and identification centre’ on Lesvos.
Taisie Tsikas and Gareth Dale interviewed Chloe Haralambous, who co-founded the Mosaik support centre on Lesvos and works with Sea Watch, and Michalis Poulimas, PhD sociologist and member of the Antiracist Observatory of the University of the Aegean, to find out about the situation on the ground and its significance for the European border regime.
What has been happening on the island since the fire?
Michalis: When the fire broke out, the Moria camp, which has a capacity of 2,500 people, held 13,000 asylum seekers. A few months earlier that number had been 20,000. The refugees themselves set the camp on fire, putting their own lives as well as the lives of their compatriots in danger as an extreme response to the inhumane conditions of their detention.
The camp system is a cornerstone of European Union (EU) migration policy. Its purpose is to enable EU authorities such as the European Asylum Support Office, Frontex, Eurojust and Europol to control the EU’s external borders in cooperation with the national authorities, and to record incoming migrants and take their fingerprints. As a result of the fire, refugees were forced to sleep on the main road that connects Mytilene [the capital city of Lesvos] with the north-eastern part of the island for almost two weeks in miserable conditions. The government’s response was to strengthen the police forces operating on the island, to increase repression and to involve the army in the construction of a new camp at the nearby Kara Tepe site.
Chloe: Several things have been happening on the ground. As Michalis says, after the fire, people fled to the nearby hills or tried to go to Mytilene. The government sent in squads of riot police from the mainland, as is their standard repressive approach both to the refugees and to the belligerent local population. With the people spread out everywhere, the police focused on attacking protesters and cordoning off the city to ‘protect’ it from the refugees. The army was supposed to feed people, but many migrants still reported receiving no food, water or medical attention. This put the police in a bind with regards to the NGOs trying to distribute aid: they were trying to prevent the NGOs from accessing the people, while needing them to step in and fill the gaps to take care of them.
Activists, migrants and locals have been campaigning to shut down Moria at least since the 2016 EU-Turkey agreement (many of the activists involved were radicalised through a campaign to shut down Pagani, a detention centre in use on the island before Moria). Because so little else seems to be working, periodic instances of destruction by fire or weather, or overcrowding, or protesting at levels that threaten to overwhelm the camp strategy of containment, often spark some hope that things will just have to change. When Moria burnt down, the immediate consequences for the people living there were devastating, but it’s also ridiculous to grieve for Moria. The very infrastructure of the camp – shoddily improvised in response to changing policies and patterns of arrival – was an archive of years of abuse. So of course the tragedy is not that it burnt down, but that it was permitted to exist in the first place. Because the scale of the fire’s destruction was so vast it seemed impossible that the government could address it with a quick patch-up, and people briefly allowed themselves to hope this was an opportunity for something new and more humane to replace Moria. Even the EU’s Commissioner for Home Affairs, Ylva Johannssen, won points by promising ‘no more Morias’ on the eve of the EU’s new Migration Pact.
Of course, that momentary hope in a different reception system proved painfully naïve. The new camp, on a former shooting range near Kara Tepe, is a Moria 2.0, even worse than the original. The UNHCR supported the government in setting it up. Many people, hungry and with no access to legal aid, resisted going there. The government improvised, luring them to the new camp by telling them they would not be able to file asylum claims unless they went. It signed a five-year lease on the site of the new camp, signalling that the fire will not be treated as an opportunity to rethink the conditions for asylum seekers. The government is also shutting down Pikpa, a communally-run camp organised by Lesvos Solidarity, and has pledged to shut down a municipality-run camp that was focused on families and vulnerable people by the end of the year. Alternative structures based on solidarity or simple decency are being dismantled to impose a unified approach that concentrates people in one place and standardises their treatment. It’s Moria 2.0 or nothing.
Riot police have used teargas and stun grenades against refugees, and refugees have demonstrated and demanded to be able to leave Lesvos. How are refugees and solidarity activists organising on the ground?
M: The anti-fascist movement reacted immediately and on 13 September they organised a march in support of refugees. That peaceful demonstration was violently dispersed by riot police who used tear gas and stun grenades. The protesters tried to escape but nine arrests were made with the help of diehard right-wing residents who prevented the demonstrators from getting away. However, there is hope, as several residents opened their homes to offer refuge to the protesters. In a nutshell, the level of repression is such that any reaction by the anti-fascist front is nipped in the bud.
Of course, the repression of refugees is even more severe. NGOs have been denied access to the temporary accommodation camp and therefore we have no testimonies of cases of undue coercion or even racist assaults. In fact, the Ministry of Citizen Protection made an announcement advising refugees not to trust NGOs.
C: After the fire, journalists flocked to the island and refugees harnessed the increased attention by protesting publicly. Right now, the authorities have tried to cordon off the camp to prevent journalists and NGO workers from accessing it, which means there isn’t much information coming out. Some organisations are trying to enable communication with the camp by encouraging people to take videos and to pass information.
Meanwhile, NGOs, too, have been protesting and called a strike, and around Europe many people have organised protests, asking for a redistribution of refugees to their countries. Some of these demonstrations, such as the ones in Berlin, have been massive.
But I think we also need to be honest with ourselves and admit that this is a moment of deep pessimism. This is not the period of heightened border struggles, such as during the tenure of Syriza or even of Salvini, when opposition to the Dublin regulations and EU migration policy sustained a perpetual challenge to the border regime. There was a sense of instability then which, allied with the 2015 summer of migration that radicalised many migrants and European activists, kept politics in the air. What we now see is a return of the establishment and an entrenchment of their policies. The new EU migration pact already points to a sort of normalisation of the most barbaric elements of the management of migration in Europe – many of them honed under the tenure or influence of the far right.
How has the pandemic affected the political dynamics on Lesvos, both in the run-up to the fire and in its aftermath?
C: The pandemic has heightened the sense of conflict. Lesvos is one of the few islands where there’s a hospital, but its ICU is very small. The camps obviously offer the virus the ideal conditions to spread, and many residents are already immunocompromised as a result of having lived in them for months. There is also a very large elderly population in the island’s villages. A big outbreak of coronavirus among such a susceptible population would see the refugees and the local population fighting over the same resources. After the fire, when refugees were trying to come into Mytilene, a general racist attitude of not wanting refugees in the city was overlayered with a fear of the virus, as cases had by then been reported in the camp.
M: As a result of the fire, Covid-19 tests were performed for the first time across the refugee population. Clearly there’s a disaster, and the institutions were intervening ad hoc only with no pro-active capacity.
The pandemic initially resulted in anti-fascist activity becoming more subdued. A demonstration in April which followed social distancing rules triggered a fierce reaction in the local community. After the fire, various leftist groups collected food staples. Organisations based in Athens also came and helped respond to refugees’ needs, while individual citizens, primarily from Germany, sent money to supporters in Mytilene to help out. In any case, the situation showed that social distancing is often a privilege.
NGOs and human rights groups have called for ‘collective European action’ to settle people. On 23 September, the European Commission released proposals for a new migration pact between EU Member States. Did Moria represent a ‘failure’ of EU border policy, and if not, how should it be understood?
M: Before discussing the EU’s current policy, it’s worth giving a historical overview of European border policy, to identify when migration started being treated as a ‘security problem’. Refugees and migrants have been a ‘problem,’ in the view of European states, since the 1970s, when during the transition to a neoliberal economic regime, northern Europe’s labour markets capacity to absorb migratory flows diminished. Gradually, migration policy began to disengage from the field of labour market policies, and was addressed in terms of security. It is in this period that the border became an area of intensified political interest and a tool for the implementation of restrictive migration and refugee policies. The aim now was to drastically reduce immigration and the tool to achieve that was to strengthen border security.
Then came the Schengen area and the Dublin Regulation, on which the current mechanisms of migration policy are based. These mechanisms aim to strengthen the external borders, delegate the sole responsibility for asylum and integration to the host country, and create digital databases to locate migrants both at Europe’s borders and inside Europe.
The Dublin system does not provide a quota system for the distribution of asylum applications, but instead entrusts responsibility for processing asylum applications to the Member States at the EU’s external borders. Greece and Italy, countries whose economies are in deep recession, are under immense pressure and their efforts to promote a revision of the EU agreements have been fruitless. The Visegrad Group (Poland, the Czech Republic, Hungary and Slovakia) are diametrically opposed to a quota system, while the UK always rejected relocation proposals and has favoured a zero-immigration policy. David Cameron supported the policy of financing countries outside the EU to receive refugees and prevent people from reaching Europe. The rigid stance of these countries resulted in the management of refugees falling exclusively to countries such as Greece, which was clearly unable to cope due to the fiscal problems of the last decade. The recently proposed pact does not signal a significant change of policy that could improve the living conditions of refugees and increase the opportunities available to them.
C: Far from representing a failure of EU border policy, Moria is in keeping with it. Its purpose is to intimidate people and do everything possible to deter them. If they wanted to, Moria could be fixed overnight. There is no longer a ‘migration crisis’; many fewer people are arriving. If they are not fixing it, it’s because it’s working for them.
The proposed Pact on Migration and Asylum indicates only a tweak of European policy on migration: each Member State will have the option of either accepting some relocation of migrants or they can fund deportations. The effect will be to bolster Frontex. It will suspend the right to seek asylum for four weeks. That’s something you can do now in the EU. The right to seek asylum, which had been inalienable, can now be suspended for four weeks. The new pact is also committed to speeding up asylum procedures, which inevitably means that people won’t have access to the same kind of process. This new order reflects the overriding commitment to keeping people out, and their living conditions do not matter because they will be deported quickly.
The right-wing New Democracy formed a government after the 2019 elections, replacing Syriza. How have the policies of the Greek state in relation to refugees developed since then? Will the fire catalyse any further changes?
M: The Syriza government kept the hot spot policy which had been established by the previous government, and the results were anything but positive. Although laws were passed with a view to integrating asylum seekers into the labour market and some basic conditions were secured so that children could enter the education system, the authorities delayed the implementation of the necessary legislative framework or refused to proceed altogether. Under Syriza, detention centres continued to be overcrowded and thousands of refugees were living packed in dreadful hygiene conditions.
New Democracy has made detaining people for 18 months into common practice. This is used as a deterrent for those considering entering the EU, while border surveillance has also been intensified. In order to avoid being detained, refugees are forced to try even more dangerous routes and methods.
C: New Democracy is unlike Syriza. Although we should not romanticise Syriza (the EU-Turkey agreement, and Moria itself, both happened on its watch), it did oppose the Dublin regulations and it argued that Greece had become an outpost for experimentation in economic policy and migration policy. There was antagonism toward the EU. New Democracy’s election, by contrast, meant the entrenchment of a Europhile establishment. Mitsotakis is the EU’s golden boy; he has broken ranks with Italy and Spain in more or less accepting Greece’s role as the EU’s buffer. Meanwhile, internally, the management of migration has been passed to the police and treated as a criminal issue. The aim is to detain and deter, and this is with the complete assent of the EU.
Under New Democracy, Greece has been performing totally illegal pushbacks on the EU border with impunity. Only recently, the wife of an acquaintance of mine arrived by sea at a lighthouse next to my village. She was put straight on a police truck and taken to Mytilene port. Her passport and phone were taken away, she was put on a life-raft and towed out to the border, where she then drifted to Turkish shores. That afternoon, the Turkish coastguard tweeted a picture of her boat. It’s an efficient system: you arrive in the morning and in the afternoon you’re already back in Turkey. And there is no record of the fact that you ever reached Europe. It’s like it never happened. Meanwhile, two weeks ago we discovered that multiple law enforcement agencies had launched criminal investigations against NGOs operating on the Aegean border (those who had witnessed and exposed these pushbacks), similar to the ones launched against Sea Rescue organisations in the Central Mediterranean. The accusations against 33 NGO workers include human trafficking and espionage.
It is important to trace the convergences and conflicts between the local, national and EU-wide scales. EU policy always takes on new forms depending on the government in power. In order for the EU border regime to function, someone must break the law. Typically, the EU has outsourced the human rights violations necessary for the upkeep of Fortress Europe to non-Member States such as Libya and Turkey. Now that Turkey is less cooperative, the EU has become increasingly reliant on Greece, one of its own. The EU knows that pushbacks are being performed in violation of the Geneva Convention; it knows that people in Greece are being detained in inhumane conditions; it has seen that Greece suspended the inalienable right to seek asylum. If the EU has not sanctioned Greece for these actions but, on the contrary, lauded her as ‘Europe’s shield’, it is because Europe has come increasingly to depend on Greece to do its dirty work.
How have the views of the local population changed over time?
C: Locals in Lesvos have been protesting the detention of the asylum seekers on the island for a long time. Lesvos was once an island of solidarity and many people’s grandparents were Asia Minor refugees. For a time, NGOs, migrants and locals were all united in opposing the government and the policy of containing people on the island. In 2015, organising against the camps was also a way for local people to assert themselves against the central government and the EU under austerity.
In the past year or so, many local people have turned against the NGOs and migrants. It is hardly surprising; the Moria camp was holding 20,000 people next to a village of 300 with which it shared a sewage system. It is not the number of people that’s the issue, but the conditions under which refugees interact with the local population. The refugees are cold and hungry, living under inhumane conditions. Refugees have sometimes cut down olive trees to use for heating – what else could they do? For the farmer on Lesvos, your olive tree is the most sacred thing you have and it takes two decades to grow back. If you create the material conditions for a coronavirus outbreak or a fire, then you can hardly be surprised if it happens. The same applies to the rightward turn of the population.
The people of the island already had a sense of having been abandoned by the state, and now they feel that their land and livelihoods have been compromised in a political game between the EU, Greece and Turkey. In March, when Mitsotakis made it clear that New Democracy planned to set up another closed camp, the locals protested. A shipload of riot police were sent in from Athens to suppress them and were met by the locals like an invading army. The riot police chanted ‘Turkospore’ (meaning Turkish seed) as the local population are themselves Asia Minor refugees. This speaks to the old antagonism between the central state apparatus and these already marginalised people on the border region, and the more recent opposition to both the central government and the EU in matters of austerity. In other words, these confrontations are expressing contradictions that exceed and precede the migration issue, even as they speak through it. In March, things came to a head when locals set fire to a camp in the north, harassed and intimidated NGO workers and migrants, and started setting up roadblocks.
Lesvos has also become a centre of solidarity, with pro-refugee demonstrations and volunteers coming from around the world. Huge numbers have mobilised in solidarity with refugees in Germany and in Athens. What kinds of coalitions and forms of solidarity are necessary in building the movement against Fortress Europe?
M: Many volunteers come from all over the world to help the refugees and their contribution is crucial. The solidarity of peoples and a strong anti-fascist movement are indispensable preconditions for the prevalence of a humanitarian policy in the management of the refugee phenomenon. However, the dimensions of the refugee phenomenon are such that the solution must involve a change in policy by the Member States of the European Union. For their part, labour parties and leftist parties in general must take the lead in creating coalitions that highlight the common interests shared between refugees and the working class in order to stand up against policies that seek to turn Europe into a fortress.
C: One thing that we desperately need, as leftists organising around migration, is to find a way to articulate how migration and borders relate to our own lives, and to our social justice projects at home. At a certain point in 2015, austerity opened a space for coalitions; there was a solidarity between Greeks and migrants that otherwise might not have arisen. The material conditions we were living under in 2015 meant that an ‘asylum scrounger’ or an economic migrant and a precaritised Greek, a kind of ‘benefit scrounger’ if you like, were on a shared terrain. They ended up protesting in the same streets and the same squares, against the EU.
Although Covid is not a leveller, it is certainly a moment in which everything is going to change, dramatically and rapidly. The challenge for the left is to think about our response in a way that takes in the possibility of austerity in the future, and migration now. Migration and organising in solidarity with refugees must not become an alibi for a lack of imagination in other areas.
- ‘But we will stand upright’ – migrant hunger strike in Athens by Ida Picard and Will Jarsve
- Making live and letting die: ‘refugees’, ‘migrants’ and Fortress Europe by Chloe Haralambous
- Marooned at Moria: Europe’s suppressed migration crisis by Gareth Dale