No country for men, women or children

VINCENT HAIGES

AFTER a fire broke out in the largest refugee camp in Europe, migrants slept on the street before being rounded up into a rebuilt camp, which lacks food, water and health services.

On 8 September 2020, Moria Camp, the biggest refugee camp in Europe and a symbol of the continent’s inhumane policy towards migrants, burst into flames. 

When the fires broke out, people left in a panic, grabbing their children and leaving behind their few possessions. Many settled on a one-and-a-half kilometre stretch of coastal road, close to Mytilene, the small capital of Lesbos. Migrants slept on the pavement and used trees and foliage to erect makeshift shelters to protect themselves from the sun. It seemed unthinkable, but life had just become even worse than in Moria. 

There was limited access to food, water, sanitation or healthcare. Greek police erected checkpoints at both ends of the road, keeping people in. 

Hopes that they would be transferred to the mainland were shattered when information came to light that a new camp was being built. Many were afraid it would simply be a continuation of the situation they faced in Moria and refused to leave the stretch of road. For over a week, daily protests were held, calling for their freedom. These were met by Greek security forces, who used teargas and stun grenades on the protesters. 

But the will to resist was quashed as it became known that unless they moved to the new camp, their asylum applications would not be processed. In the new camp, a policy of deprivation continues, with limited access to food, water and healthcare and no proper sanitation facilities. People who have tested positive for Covid-19 are in a separated area but get no special treatment. The experience of the fire, living on the street and now the uncertainty of the new camp, puts a heavy burden on the already strained mental health of many in the camp. 

“The world found nothing sacred in the abstract nakedness of being human,” Hannah Arendt wrote in The Origins of Totalitarianism, a useful book when thinking about the human rights violations playing out in Europe. It considers Arendt’s experience of being a stateless refugee for nine years after leaving Nazi Germany. The core ideas that undergird the notion of human rights, including providing relief when people are reduced to their blank existence, were nowhere in sight for Arendt. It seemed you needed to be a citizen, not a person, to have rights. 

People on Europe’s borders ask for access to rights without much more to offer than being human. Europe responds with camps, teargas and the deprivation of exactly those rights for which it claims to be a bastion. 

After 2015 and the subsequent rise of far-right parties in Europe, the political discussion mostly centres around integration. While this is a debate on its own, it cannot outweigh the need for a dignified policy towards those who arrive on Europe’s shores. As long as the European Union continues to militarise its borders, as it is now doing again in Lesbos, it proves that it finds nothing sacred in the human – and so it cannot claim to be a homeland for human rights. 

12 September 2020: The aftermath of the fire that destroyed Moria, Europe’s largest refugee camp, on 8 September, leaving 13 000 men, women and children homeless.
12 September 2020: A school exercise book in the rubble of Moria. Of the camp’s 13 000 inhabitants, almost 40% were children.
12 September 2020: Protesters inhale smoke from burning paper, improvised relief from the effects of the tear gas hurled at them by Greek police.
15 September 2020: Migrants camp in a supermarket parking lot. After Moria was destroyed, they used blankets and sticks to build improvised shelters in fields, along roadsides and in other open places
14 September 2020: A group of Afghan men look at the new camp from a hillside. Many are reluctant to enter because they think it is a continuation of Moria.
13 September 2020: In Lesbos during late September the sun is particularly fierce.  People use every patch of shade to shield themselves, especially at midday. 
13 September 2020: Sitting on a road, women engage in early evening prayer.
13 September 2020: Children play in an abandoned car near where people sought refuge after the fire destroyed Moria. Seven out of 10 migrant children are under 12 years old.
Left: 19 September 2020: Young men from different parts of Afghanistan wake up after spending the night close to the new camp, into which they moved later that day. 
12 September 2020: A group of refugees and asylum seekers wait to be registered as a policeman watches. After sleeping on the street for days, without proper access to healthcare or sanitation, more and more people decided to move to the new camp.
19 September 2020: A father with his son inside the new camp.