A year ago Thursday, on Sept 9, Greece’s notoriously squalid refugee camp of Moria burnt down on the island of Lesbos, leaving nearly 12,000 people in need of emergency housing as winter approached.
As the camp’s remnants smoldered, European leaders vowed such squalid facilities would be a thing of the past. But aid agencies say the conditions for asylum-seekers on Greek islands have barely improved.
“A year after the (European Union’s) promises for a new start in the migration issue, European and Greek leaders continue to deny asylum-seekers, refugees and migrants seeking safety in Europe their dignity, while the catastrophic plan for the construction of centers that resemble prisons on the five north Aegean islands continues,” medical aid group Doctors Without Borders, or MSF, said in a statement.
Greek officials argue the situation is far better than it was last year.
“A year ago, an unprecedented humanitarian crisis was averted in Moria,” Migration Minister Notis Mitarachi said in a statement Thursday. “The fire that broke out threatened the lives of thousands of people and destroyed the camp completely. Under extremely difficult conditions, in just a few days, we managed to build a temporary facility.”
That facility, in the Mavrovouni area of Lesbos, is still housing those left homeless by the fire.
“It was an emergency solution, but infrastructure projects and interventions are continuing till today so as to improve living conditions,” Mitarachi said, putting the number of people living there now at 3,338.
The vast overcrowding of Moria was eased as several other European countries agreed to take in some of the most vulnerable among the camp’s residents in the aftermath of the fire, notably unaccompanied minors and some vulnerable families, while the Greek government speeded up asylum procedures to move people off the islands.
Despite the far reduced numbers in Mavrovouni, aid agencies and people living there say conditions are poor, with the camp prone to flooding and lacking many basic services. The construction of a new camp has been held up by delays.
A new camp, however, is nearing completion on the island of Samos, where hundreds of people have been living in and around an overcrowded facility on the edge of the island’s main town.
Mitarachi said the new Samos camp, scheduled to open this month, will have “high-tech security measures and safeguarded decent living conditions.”
But rights groups have criticized the construction. Some liken it to a prison, noting its remote location in the mountains of Samos and strict controls of who can go in and out.
“In Greece, the future appears more dystopian than ever, as those who manage to cross the sea continue to live in miserable camps on the Greek islands,” said Konstantinos Psykakos, head of MSF’s operation on Lesbos.
“It is a tragic irony that as the world watches the recent developments in Afghanistan, the EU and Greece are inaugurating a new center-prison that will trap refugees on the island of Samos,” Psykakos said in a statement. “This is the best proof of the harshness of the EU’s migration policies.”
Under a 2016 deal reached between the European Union and Turkey, migrants arriving on Greek islands from the nearby Turkish coast must remain on those islands until their asylum applications have been processed, after which they can either move to the mainland or be deported.
The deal, designed to stop a mass movement of asylum-seekers that saw around a million people crossing into the EU in 2015, blocked people on the islands, leading to massive overcrowding and appalling conditions.
Greece has hardened its stance on migration, anxious to avoid a repetition of the 2015 refugee crisis and alarmed by Turkey’s actions last year when the government announced its borders to Europe were open and sent thousands of migrants to the Greek border. It has increased patrols along land and sea borders and toughened legislation on asylum and the action of aid groups.
It has also been broadly accused by rights groups and migrants of carrying out illegal summary deportations of people arriving on Greek islands from the nearby Turkish coast, rounding up the new arrivals, putting them on life rafts, and pushing them back into Turkish waters without allowing them to apply for asylum.
The government vehemently denies it engages in the practice known as pushbacks, despite increasing indications to the contrary. It does, however, say it robustly protects its borders and denies entry to those attempting to cross illegally.
“We managed to regain control. We reduced flows, we reduced residents, we minimized the impact on local communities,” Mitarachis said, adding that Greece’s migration policy had “turned an uncontrollable crisis into a manageable situation.”
Last week, the human rights commissioner of the Council of Europe, the continent’s top human rights body, called on Greek lawmakers to withdraw articles from legislation being voted on that impose heavy penalties on nongovernmental organizations carrying out unsanctioned rescue operations of migrants at sea.
The Council of Europe’s human rights commissioner, Dunja Mijatovic, said the changes would “seriously hinder the life-saving work” carried out by NGOs. The legislation passed.