Nobody familiar with the situation on Lesbos was surprised by the fire six months ago. The European Commission promised there would be “No more Morias” after the fire, but the Greek government has built a new, even worse, Moria, with EU funding.
When the camera teams left the island, all of the promises suddenly vanished with them and everything catastrophic remained: children cannot go to school, the food distributed in the camp is rotten, people live in unheated tents and have hardly any freedom of movement at all.
In a recent report, UNICEF spoke of unacceptable conditions for the approximately 2,200 children in the new Moria camp. I know many of the people who lived in Moria camp, as well as many of the aid workers, volunteers, and residents of the area. At the beginning, almost all the inhabitants of the island were in solidarity with the refugees. But the more the island was abandoned by Athens and Brussels, the worse the mood became.
When I was on the island in February 2020, right-wing extremists from all over Europe came to the island and took control of the streets of Mytilini, the capital of Lesbos. Then the pandemic broke out and it was abundantly clear that the camps were not equipped to deal with it.
Refugees should have been evacuated a year ago but instead they are still stuck there. Now there is no electricity, no hot water, no school for the children, no permanent housing, and no medical care. There is virtually no protection from the pandemic, nor from diseases like scabies that are spreading rapidly.
The new Moria is built on an old military shooting range, where the soil is contaminated with lead - a resident recently found a hand grenade. Every heavy rainfall leads to flooding, leaving the residents of the light summer tents defenceless. Everything that destroyed so many souls and ended in disaster in the old Moria camp was rebuilt a few metres away.
“If we throw all our European values overboard to deter a few thousand people in need of help from entering the EU, what do we have left to defend?”
Psychologists report of toddlers who pull out their own hair, bang their head against the wall over and over again, and seven-year-olds who try to kill themselves. Some say they would rather have died in Syria from a bomb explosion than die a little every day in the camp. They have given up any hope that Europe still cares about them.
The promise of European Commissioner Ylva Johansson of “no more Morias” must sound like sheer mockery to the residents of the camp: their life is now even worse than it was in the old Moria camp. The Greek government prohibits aid organisations and journalists from doing their jobs, with access to the camp hampered.
Meanwhile, in Central Europe, people congratulate themselves for inadequate reception programs instead of addressing the fact that hundreds of people seeking protection are abandoned on the open sea in the Aegean. The degradation from human beings to burdens has become a means of European policy at the EU’s external borders, while the European Commission whitewashes the situation instead of finally enforcing EU law.
Europe’s common asylum policy is a policy that is shaped by empty promises. Despite the Commission’s promise, the temporary, undignified, ill-equipped camp on Lesbos will most likely still be there next winter. Many claim that the recently released New Pact on Asylum and Migration should be implemented first, but the proposals will perpetuate the problems on the ground, and a comprehensive reform takes years.
Waiting for the Pact before helping people is inhumane. Fear is stirred up over a threat that does not exist - policymaking is driven by right-wing populists and not by the protection and promotion of human rights that the EU is supposed to be founded upon.
The #LeaveNoOneBehind campaign is supported by many individuals, celebrities, and organisations across Europe, and it has been demanding humane treatment for all people in Europe for months - even and especially when they are crammed into slum camps on Greek islands and mistreated on a daily basis.
It is the Commission’s duty to ensure EU law is respected by Member States. And it is important that individual states go ahead and evacuate people from the external borders. We cannot wait for a “European solution” that is going to include Viktor Orbán and other right-wing populists. They are not going to change their minds.
We need a ‘Coalition of the Willing’ for a better and more humane European asylum policy which focuses on human rights and the individual right to asylum. If we throw all our European values overboard to deter a few thousand people in need of help from entering the EU, what do we have left to defend?