European governments should step up urgent efforts to relocate nearly 13,000 men, women, and children left homeless by fires inside Moria camp on the Greek Aegean island of Lesbos, Human Rights Watch said today.

Since the fires at Moria camp on September 8, 2020, the people affected have had limited shelter or access to food, water, sanitation facilities, and health care, including those who have contracted Covid-19. Greek security forces have also used teargas and stun grenades on displaced people protesting the dire living conditions since the fires, and tensions with the local population are high.

“European leaders should act quickly to bring the people stranded on Lesbos to safety,” said Belkis Wille, senior crisis and conflict researcher at Human Rights Watch. “They also need to fundamentally rethink the failed and inhumane policies that led to the creation of a sprawling, unsanitary, and dangerous refugee camp in an EU country, rather than just building a replica of the same thing.”

The Greek authorities and the European Union (EU) should ensure that the humanitarian response plan to support people in the aftermath of the fires pays particular attention to the needs of at-risk asylum seekers, including children, people with disabilities, those who are pregnant, those with newborns, those with medical and mental health conditions, survivors or those at risk of gender-based violence, and older people, Human Rights Watch said. The plan should address immediate needs for shelter, food, and water, as well as psychosocial – mental health – support and health care, but also provide for swift transfers to appropriate accommodation on the Greek mainland and to other EU countries.

Two Syrian men and one woman, and an Afghan man who were living in Moria with their families at the time of the fires, spoke to Human Rights Watch by phone between September 11 and 15. They said that when the fires broke out, they grabbed their children and their documents and fled the area. They did not take any other belongings. They said police blocked the main road to Mytilene, the island’s capital, so they were forced to spend the night next to the road, seeking shelter under some trees.

One of the Syrians interviewed said: “We lost everything in Syria, we came looking for safety, this is not safety. Please take us out of this hell. Right now, we are just waiting here to die.”

Two of those interviewed were able to leave the area the next day with their families, but the other two have remained by the side of the road and shared photos of their surroundings and lack of shelter with Human Rights Watch. They said that the only shops whose access is not blocked off by police, a Lidl and an AB chain store, both large supermarkets, have remained closed.

The Afghan man is part of a group of volunteers bringing assistance to the now homeless. He and two other aid workers interviewed said that while aid groups have been able to hand out food and water, it is impossible to distribute to everyone – including some members of particularly vulnerable groups – because of the large number of families spread out along the road.

“In the camp we had areas where people lined up to get their food, but now the situation is impossible,” he said. “When we arrive, people run to the trucks, grabbing whatever they can. But there are some who get nothing – mothers alone with young children who can’t just leave their babies to run to the truck, and older and people with disabilities. I am sure that not everyone is getting food and water, and we have been hearing from aid groups numerous cases of people suffering from dehydration because they haven’t had anything to drink in days.”


Those interviewed said that the Greek military is doing daily food distributions from trucks that are running into the same problems.

Amanda Munoz de Toro of Fenix, a legal and protection organization, said that only small aid organizations are distributing items such as sanitary pads, wet wipes, or milk formula on an ad hoc basis.

A nongovernmental organization makes efforts to distribute food to those rendered homeless by the fires in Moria.  © 2020 Private

The Syrian woman, a mother of six children ages 18 months to 9 years, and a Syrian man also sleeping on the road with his family both said that since the fire, they had barely been able to get any food or water and were begging from other displaced people. They had no blankets or any form of shelter.

While the authorities have said that vulnerable asylum seekers including families with young children and single women are being prioritized for transfer to a temporary site, some women living alone and female-headed households and other at-risk people remain on the street, with no clear provisions for their protection. Women who were previously housed in a separate section of the camp due to risk of violence are now in the same area as their attackers, a representative of one protection organization said.

Apostolos Veizis, director of the Medical Operational Support Unit for Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) in Greece, said that the vast majority of people who were still on the streets had no access to toilets or running water for sanitation purposes.

The Migration Ministry told the media that consideration of asylum claims will resume only for homeless asylum seekers who agree to enter and register at the new temporary site.

The EU should fundamentally reconsider its hotspot approach on the Greek Islands and end policies that lead to the containment of thousands of asylum seekers in unsuitable facilities, Human Rights Watch said. The Greek government should urgently transfer people affected to safer and appropriate accommodations on mainland Greece, starting with children and at-risk groups.

The European Commission and the EU should build on the experience of their 2015 Emergency Relocation Mechanism, and like-minded EU member states should, without further delay, urgently relocate asylum seekers from Lesbos, including through family reunification and humanitarian visas. They should urgently establish and support a permanent system to share responsibilities for receiving asylum seekers and processing their asylum applications to alleviate the pressure on Greece and the suffering of migrants.

“In these difficult times, it is of utmost importance for respect for human rights to be at the center of the Greek and EU response to the fire in Moria,” Wille said. “It is particularly important for the authorities to avoid using force or inflammatory language and to take appropriate steps to de-escalate any risk of violence.”

Fire and the Aftermath

Before the fires, security in Moria camp had already deteriorated and tensions were high. Human Rights Watch and other nongovernmental groups have long warned European leaders about the dire conditions in Moria. These have been exacerbated by Greek authorities’ containment policy, which has blocked transfers to the mainland. For years, residents were crammed into overcrowded, inadequate tents, with limited access to food, water, sanitation, and health care, including during the pandemic and despite the risk of Covid-19.

On the night of September 8, fires broke out inside Moria, the Reception and Identification Center (RIC) built to house 2,757 migrants but at the time housing 12,767, mostly women and children. More fires on September 9 burned to the ground the parts of Moria camp remaining after the first blaze. The cause of the fires remains under investigation

Nearly 13,000 people who had been living in and around Moria were left homeless by the fires, with most living for days without any shelter beyond makeshift structures constructed with blankets and sticks in fields and along roadsides, with limited access to food, water, and sanitation, and threatened by a possible spread of Covid-19 and growing anger among locals, some of whom have threatened the migrants with violence.

As of September 15, the government had set up at least 600 tents, sheltering at least 700 people, with plans to erect enough tents to house the full group. At the same time, opposition from locals to establishing temporary sites has been intense, with residents setting up roadblocks and demanding the immediate transfer of all people to the mainland. 

Rows of new tents that the government set up to temporarily house the Moria population. © 2020 Thanasis Voulgarakis/freelancer

Additional government plans include potentially housing a few thousand people on a passenger ferry and two navy ships at the island’s port of Mytilene, authorities told aid workers. In March, the authorities held over 450 migrants, including people with disabilities, those who were pregnant, and unaccompanied children, on a naval vessel in overcrowded conditions before transferring them to a closed camp on the Greek mainland.

The Pandemic Situation

Since a lockdown was put in place in the camp in March, the authorities have not provided sufficient access to health care, hygiene products, running water, and testing. On September 2, after the first case of Covid-19 was confirmed in the camp, the authorities imposed a more rigid lockdown that forbade people from entering or leaving the camp.

At the time of the fire, 35 people inside the camp had tested positive for the virus that causes Covid-19, according to authorities, who had isolated them with about 45 close relatives. They, like everyone else from the camp, have been left homeless and without access to adequate health care. In the chaos following the fires, the authorities lost track of the people who had tested positive. The authorities began rapid testing on everyone entering the new temporary site. As of September 15, out of 1,000 people tested they had confirmed 37 cases of Covid-19, including a newborn.

Aid workers estimated that the new site had about 37 toilets, none of them adaptable and accessible for those with disabilities, and no other sanitation facilities.

Veizis of MSF said that many people living in Moria already had limited access to health care and support for acute and chronic health conditions, including mental health conditions. The living conditions in the camp had been nowhere near adequate to meet the Sphere Standards, a set of principles and minimum humanitarian standards developed by humanitarian groups for application in humanitarian crises, including protracted situations. Veizis said that now the system had completely collapsed though his organization was still trying to provide medical care. MSF continues to provide pre- and post-natal care services, which were already overstretched, but reaching patients is now even more difficult.

Greek Government Response

Following the fires, the Greek government blamed camp residents for the situation and responded by referring to a plan already in the works to lock people up in closed facilities on Lesbos and the other Aegean islands hosting asylum seekers. “Some [people] do not respect the country that is hosting them,” a government spokesperson, Stelios Petsas, said on September 10.

That day, one of the Syrian men who spoke to Human Rights Watch attended a meeting with local authorities, as a representative of his community, to discuss the what would happen to the homeless migrants: “At the meeting they told us they will build a new closed camp where Moria used to be, which will take five or six months to construct.”

On September 13, Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis said: “I want to say with absolute certainty that there will be a permanent reception and identification center – I want to send this message in all directions.” The authorities are calling for joint EU management of the new facility.

All of the migrants who spoke to Human Rights Watch said they were concerned for their safety on the island. Six riot police units as well as four Crime Prevention and Suppression Teams and two water cannon vehicles arrived on Lesbos on September 10. On several occasions on the night of the fire and since then, Greek forces have used teargas and stun grenades on groups of people, including children, either to prevent them from reaching Mytilene, the island’s capital, or to disperse protests over their dire conditions. 

One man shared photographs of what appears to be a teargas grenade that police used on protesters on September 12. 

An aid worker who was at the September 12 protest said that members of the Crime Prevention and Suppression Squads dressed in protective gear arrested a young man, and his mother reacted by hitting them. They violently pushed her and a man who was defending her, the aid worker said. The aid worker and one of the Syrian men shared two separate videos of the incident with Human Rights Watch.

Feelings of insecurity were also heightened by threats of violence and intimidating behavior by some groups of local residents. In some cases, police protected the migrants from possible attacks.

“Whatever the immediate cause, this fire is a clear result of the Greek government and the European Union’s own failed policies and management of the situation,” Veizis said. “It is absolutely shocking that in a European setting, a week after this fire, the majority of people still are without shelter and running water.”

Despite calls from nongovernmental groups for immediate transfer of those affected by the fires, among them many children and at-risk groups, to safety on the mainland, the government said only unaccompanied children will be evacuated. The authorities flew 406 unaccompanied children to Thessaloniki, in northern Greece, on three flights, where they will either be relocated to other EU countries or placed in long-term shelter facilities in Greece. Several countries, including Germany, France, and the Netherlands, have pledged to take in unaccompanied children. A broader relocation effort had already begun in March, when EU member states pledged to relocate 1,600 unaccompanied children from the Greek islands. On September 15, Germany said it also plans to relocate an additional 1,553 people from the Greek islands hosting asylum seekers, including Lesbos.

However, those pledges do not address the immediate needs of the thousands of others who are not unaccompanied children, still on the island and in need of appropriate accommodation, Human Rights Watch said.

Many existing facilities for refugees and asylum seekers on the mainland are already full, with homeless refugees and asylum seekers living on the streets of Athens.

In addition to the newly homeless on Lesbos, an estimated 12,300 asylum seekers and migrants are contained in inhumane and degrading living conditions on Chios, Samos, Kos, and Leros islands. 

Recommendations

The EU Commission and like-minded member states should collaborate closely with Greece in the coming weeks to establish an emergency decongestion plan for Lesbos and other Greek islands with a public and ambitious timetable to find appropriate solutions for those left homeless.

Until such a plan is carried out, the Greek authorities should ensure adequate conditions for those affected by the fires, including in the temporary shelters, and ensure that everyone has access to sanitation facilities, food, water, and basic health care, in accordance with international standards. Secure temporary shelters, food distribution, and sanitation should be accessible to women, families headed by a single person, and people with disabilities. The authorities should also secure enough interpreters, human resources, and technical capacity to support people’s needs, including through psychosocial support outreach.

The authorities should provide appropriate accommodation for at-risk people, including families with young children, people with disabilities, women traveling alone or heading households, those who are pregnant and have newly given birth, and those at higher risk of severe illness or death from Covid-19, including older people and those with underlying health conditions.

The authorities should supply adequate sanitary and hygiene products, including for menstrual hygiene management, and ensure that people can follow the guidelines of the National Public Health Organization for protection from Covid-19. People who tested positive for the virus that causes Covid-19 should be given safe housing for the quarantine period and health care, and transferred to hospitals for treatment if necessary.

The European Commission should ensure that its new “Pact on Migration and Asylum,” expected on September 23, reflects the right lessons learned from the devastation and human misery on Lesbos. The Commission and EU member states should commit to border governance that respects human dignity and the right to seek asylum while ensuring a fair distribution of responsibility among EU member states.