An Afghan girl loiters outside her family’s tent. Much of Moria’s population lived outside the official camp in olive groves, where the standard construction was a timber skeleton with UNHCR-issue tarpaulin nailed over it

A brief history of Moria

John Psaropoulos travels to Mória Reception and Identification Centre, which was once the largest refugee camp in Europe

Artillery Row

I watched as Moria camp was built in January of 2013. A disused military camp on a terraced hillside was girdled with four-metre-high fences, and large units capable of sleeping 15 or 20 people were lifted onto the terraces by crane. Each terrace was individually fenced off, too, so that if police chose, the only outside space inmates would be able to enjoy would be a few square metres in front of their dormitory.

Moria was then designed for 1,200 asylum-seekers. Greek authorities had been alarmed not so much by the 3,345* arrivals in the previous year, as much as the agitated state of the unregulated migrants already in the country.

In the post-2008 global financial crisis, Greece went through the worst economic recession in the post-war history of the developed world. Many unrecorded migrant labourers found themselves on the street, hungry and undocumented. Fights broke out and petty crime rose. The conservative government elected in April 2012 determined that more should not come in, and those who did should be incarcerated out of sight and out of mind.

A navy transport ship waits to take asylum-seekers to Athens. Those who arrived during March were kept separate from the rest, and were taken straight to Athens in order to be deported without the opportunity to apply for asylum, after Turkey opened its borders to refugees bound for Europe.

But 2013 arrivals tripled to 10,508, and in 2014 they quintupled to over 50,000. Arrivals on Lesvos alone went from 1,417 in 2012 to 3,233 in 2013 and 12,187 in 2014. Thankfully, Moria never functioned as the detention centre the government intended. It always remained a camp with monitored but free movement, evidently because authorities feared the social upheaval the psychological pressure of long incarceration would create. The historic disapproval of detention from the European Union and United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) was also a factor.

When Syriza came to power in 2015, Moria’s capacity was gradually tripled to 3,200 by stacking containers; but the municipality fiercely resisted the camp’s horizontal expansion onto neighbouring olive groves, reflecting popular feeling that Lesvos was in danger of becoming a buffer zone that would enable Europe to ignore the refugee issue.

After 2015, however, Moria was untenable as a self-contained camp. As arrivals exploded that year to 911,000 (Lesvos alone received 512,327), refugees began to build their own shelter around the official camp’s fence. On 20 March 2016, the European Union and Turkey issued a statement, whereby each sought to prevent irregular migration to the other and agreed to take back irregular migrants coming from each other’s soil.

The Greek Asylum Service rushed a presidential decree into law, stating that arrivals on the islands would remain there until their asylum interview had been done. This was to ensure that the provenance of those rejected by the asylum process and deported back to Turkey could not be disputed by Turkey. The process, however, took months and – in some cases – years. The side-effect of this was an uncontrolled build-up of asylum-seekers on the five islands with reception centres – Lesvos, Chios, Samos, Leros and Kos – whose population in early 2020 reached a peak of 60,000, half of them on Lesvos, and most of those in and around Moria camp.

In January 2020, the International Protection Act prioritised the asylum processing of new arrivals. The conservative government that had been elected in July 2019 promised to streamline the asylum system to process applications within 28 days, including appeals, rather than the existing average of several months. This meant that older applicants were kept waiting even longer, as the asylum service focused on achieving its target speed with new arrivals. This contributed to the build-up of frustration which eventually led a group of refugees to burn the camp in September 2020. Police arrested half a dozen Afghan men on charges of arson.

A new tent city was hastily constructed on a littoral artillery range, and on 3 December 2020 the government signed a memorandum with the European Commission to build a model reception centre on Lesvos that would fulfil all humanitarian requirements.

(*All figures are from the Hellenic Coast Guard, the Hellenic Police and the UNHCR)

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