The burning of the Moria refugee camp in Lesbos has exposed the EU’s short-sighted, inhumane, and ineffective approach to asylum.
Europe’s largest refugee camp, Moria, on the Greek island of Lesbos burned to the ground, leaving nearly 13,000 people frightened and homeless. But to call Moria a refugee camp is an insult to most well-run refugee camps around the world that do not burn down with such predictable regularity. That this incinerated ghetto was a cornerstone of EU migration policy should prompt an urgent and expansive rethink of how to humanely manage a phenomenon that will continue to grow as new conflicts rage and economies collapse.
Before its destruction, Moria had become the kind of hellhole that someone would want to claim asylum from, rather than a place to dump asylum seekers. A crumbling hilltop military base surrounded by olive groves was in 2015 given an Orwellian rebranding by the EU as a so-called hotspot that would act as a giant filter where hundreds of thousands of migrants arriving by boat would be screened, fingerprinted, and relocated around the bloc. A year later, the EU signed a Faustian pact with Turkey to prevent these sea crossings and agree to take back the rejects. Both these approaches had systemic deficiencies.
Though it became effectively suspended for a period during the time of peak refugee flows, the EU’s Dublin Regulations ensure that the first EU country of entry is generally responsible for the asylum seeker’s registration. It is an unjust arrangement that puts huge responsibility on the weaker shoulders of Europe’s Mediterranean states, while wealthier northern nations avoid responsibility for processing arrivals but are given the power to ping-pong people back to where the people first registered. This can result in the resentful frontline country deliberately maintaining a dysfunctional asylum system in the hope that migrants won’t come, or that the rest of Europe will not send anyone back.
For many years, Europe did not return migrants to Greece exactly due to the deplorable conditions for asylum seekers. Keeping Moria as a slum was just another flawed attempt at deterrence. The European Commission on Wednesday announced that the Dublin system would be replaced, with details on its asylum reform package to be announced next week. Seasoned migration experts are not optimistic, having seen a string of other dysfunctional policies over the years.
The so-called temporary emergency relocation scheme of 2015 was an attempt to take 160,000 refugees from the beleaguered frontline states of Greece and Italy and share them between member states. It was slow to start, managed to relocate less than a quarter of its target. It was also bitterly contested by hard-line governments in countries like Hungary and Poland who didn’t want to take any.
It was based on an irrational calculation: It applied only to nationalities with a 75 percent average recognition rate of international protection across the whole of the EU. This created the absurd situation whereby at one Syrian and Iraqi refugees were eligible for the scheme, but also people from countries like Costa Rica and the Bahamas—one or two of whom may have once been granted protection in Europe and thus scored a 100 percent recognition rate. Meanwhile, hundreds of thousands of Afghan refugees were never eligible for the scheme because some member states have classified the country as safe.
As legions of refugees continued to trudge through the Balkans into Europe throughout 2016, Brussels struck a bargain with Turkey. Offering 6 billion euros and promises of visa-free travel to the EU for Turkish citizens, Ankara would apprehend more migrant boats in the Aegean Sea, improve facilities for mainly Syrian refugees in Turkey, and agree to take back rejected asylum seekers from the island hotspots.
Four years later, the flow has slowed down but not stopped, the crucial deportation element of the deal was frozen by legal challenges and Ankara’s frequent refusals to readmit people, and President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has become an increasingly dubious partner. Relations with the EU soured so much that in March this year he ordered thousands of migrants to be bussed to the Greek land border, which resulted in days of mayhem and the deadly shooting of a young Syrian refugee. It’s a tried and tested formula. Libya’s Muammar al-Qaddafi used to regularly shake down Europe for billions by threatening to send migrants across the sea.
The Greek government has so far arrested six Afghans whom they accuse of setting the fires that razed Moria to the ground. Before the fire, Moria was home to nearly 13,000 in a facility barely designed for 3,000. As informal shanty towns sprouted up around it, the inmates became increasingly desperate and irate over the seemingly endless delays to their asylum procedures and the conditions in which they were forced to dwell while a carousel of Western humanitarian workers and journalists trooped in and out by day before returning to their comfortable hotels by night. Last week’s arson was a reprehensible act, and it is a mercy that nobody was killed, but forcing people in legal limbo to live in squalor tends to have adverse outcomes.
Beyond the spectacle of refugees, people tend to forget that Lesbos is a place where people live. While the United Kingdom goes apoplectic over a modest increase in refugee boat arrivals from France, the people of Lesbos continue to accept hundreds of thousands of those displaced by distant conflicts with remarkably good grace considering the precipitous decline in tourism that their migrant penal colony status has caused.
Most of the islanders descend from Greek refugees forced over the Aegean Sea by boat from Turkey in 1922 when both sides expelled their minorities. The few far-right vigilantes, including members of the fascist Golden Dawn party, that have lately attacked refugees, NGO workers, and journalists are not representative of the island, but locals do continue to resist any attempt to construct further migrant facilities, fearing they will be permanent. On this point, they are united with the refugees who fear the same.
As Moria lay smoldering, urgent meetings were held in municipal buildings over what to do with the refugees, what to do with the locals blocking nearby roads in protest and what will happen to the jobs of those who worked at Moria. Outside, I met an engineer from Lesbos working at the camp, who described the years of driving over the hills through dusty tracks to avoid sporadic outbreaks of violence by refugees and roadblocks erected by enraged local villagers. He sees them as prisoners of the same situation.
“People live next to Moria, they have children and old people and they are scared at night. But nobody ever writes about them. And Europe gives us money to build a prison here for the refugees but doesn’t solve their wars.”
In March, residents of Lesbos revolted against police officers drafted in to protect new camp sites, beating them up and forcing them to flee back to the mainland. In the last few days, ferries have been arriving from Athens full of riot police platoons equipped with water cannons, suggesting that Moria 2.0 will be implemented at the behest of Brussels even if Athens has to go to war with its own Aegean islanders.
The EU approach of exploiting frontier countries’ geography by using them as barrier to the wealthier north goes alongside a number of violent measures, including sending migrants adrift at sea and shooting at them in forests at night. These gross human rights abuses have been met with promises by the highest levels of EU leadership to establish a “monitoring mechanism,” but as I wrote in in November 2019, these mechanisms do not exist.
During her State of the Union Address on Wednesday, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen stressed that Europe would take a “human and humane” approach to migration and that “saving lives at sea is not optional.” As long as the EU provides training, equipment, and funding for Libyan militias to apprehend refugees fleeing to Europe and return them to face torture, rape, and bombings in an active war zone, it is difficult to take migration proposals seriously.