ROME — The Moria refugee camp on the Greek island of Lesbos is a living hell even during the best of times. Last April, on the eve of Pope Francis’s historic visit, refugees complained to The Daily Beast through the barbed-wire fence that they had no hot water, no toilets and no information about how long they would have to stay. Many aid agencies long ago abandoned the camp to protest the way the refugees were being treated, which only served to make the conditions worse.
On Monday night, around the time diplomats in New York were signing a multi-national declaration to make life better for the world’s 21 million refugees, Moria’s hell became a literal inferno.
More than 4,000 refugees had to flee a fire that swept through the camp and raged late into the night, destroying more than a third of the shelters. The fire allegedly was set during a protest to mark a six-month anniversary of their detention in a camp that was built to house perhaps half the number of people there. Nine migrants and refugees were arrested on suspicion of starting the blaze.
Everything changed drastically on Lesbos and many other Greek islands last March when the European Union signed a deal with Turkey to trade illegal migrants or refugees for vetted ones. Since then, almost no one’s applications has been processed and the only people who have left the island are those deported back to Turkey.
Residents have also been staging protests against the prolonged detention of migrants on their once idyllic resort island. Aid workers are often caught between the angry groups, even though they all wish for the same thing—that the migrants and refugees leave the island soon.
Rumors among the refugees that they would all soon be deported en masse fueled the frustration, and a late summer windstorm fed the fire.
The International Rescue Committee’s Greek country director Panos Navrozidis warned that Moria should serve as a stark reminder to world leaders that the system is rife with “flawed and deeply questionable policies”
“The systems put in place under the EU-Turkey deal to process their asylum claims and determine their future are opaque and inconsistent. Preferential treatment based on nationality has led to tensions within the community,” Navrozidis said in a statement.
The new pledge signed at the United Nations in New York promises that by 2018 in the signatories would “protect the human rights of all refugees and migrants, regardless of status” and “work towards ending the practice of detaining children for the purposes of determining their migration status.” That would be a very big change indeed from the treatment given today.
Promises made a half a world away mean little for the refugees, including thousands of children and unaccompanied minors, stuck in Lesbos and other incarnations of purgatory. Only resolve that translates into action will make their hell go away.