- Franziska GrillmeierGerman journalist based in Lesbos, Greece.
We get an update on the massive fire at the Moria refugee camp in Lesbos, Greece, which has left 13,000 refugees and migrants from Afghanistan, African countries and Syria without access to shelter, food or sanitation. The fire has raised concerns about a coronavirus outbreak and comes as migrants protest their living conditions during the pandemic. Some of the asylum seekers — many of them women and children — are demanding they be allowed to leave the island of Lesbos, but the Greek government is refusing to relocate most people displaced by the fire to the mainland. “The calculation of the Greek government was, in my opinion, to really break people’s spirit,” says reporter Franziska Grillmeier, who joins us from Lesbos.
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now! The Quarantine Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Nermeen Shaikh, as we go to Greece, where over 10,000 refugees and migrants remain homeless a week after a fire burned down a massive refugee camp last week. Moria is Europe’s largest refugee camp. The fire left nearly 13,000 refugees from Afghanistan, African countries and Syria without access to shelter, food or sanitation, raising concerns about a coronavirus outbreak after 35 refugees tested positive. Thousands are now moving into a temporary camp that officials say is ready to host at least 5,000, but others are refusing to go. They say they don’t trust the facility.
This comes as four Afghan men were charged with arson Wednesday for their alleged participation in the fire. Two more minors are being held by the Greek police but haven’t formally been charged. Greece claims the fire was started by a small group of asylum seekers in protest over conditions at the camp, which had been locked down due to the coronavirus pandemic.
This is 23-year-old Aman Ullah from Kabul, Afghanistan, who had been in the Moria camp for almost a year.
AMAN ULLAH: [translated] We want a free life. We have come here to live. We are humans; we are not animals. They put us in this place where there is no life, and it’s like a jungle. A human cannot live in such tents. And if people live here for just one or three days, they will be fed up with the situation. We urge the Greek government to let us get out of here, because life is tough here. We have experienced hunger and thirst here. It has been for days that I didn’t drink clean water and I didn’t have food. I’m searching for water; otherwise, our children and I will die of thirst.
AMY GOODMAN: Refugees have been protesting the conditions, pleading for help from other European nations. Some of the asylum seekers, many of them women and children, are demanding they be allowed to leave the island of Lesbos, but the Greek government is refusing to relocate most people displaced by the fire to the mainland. Over the weekend, police fired tear gas on the demonstrators. On Tuesday, the Greek government asked the European Union to help run refugee camps on the country’s islands, where tens of thousands of refugees live. This all comes as Greece’s conservative government has implemented increasingly hostile anti-immigrant policies in recent years.
For more, we go to the island of Lesbos, where we’re joined by reporter Franziska Grillmeier, who’s been closely following this.
Welcome to Democracy Now!, Franziska. Explain the situation. Human Rights Watch called that camp that burned down unsanitary and dangerous. Now what happens to the homeless refugees?
FRANZISKA GRILLMEIER: So, at the moment, the people are moving very slowly into the new camp structure, but very reluctantly, I have to say, because people are really fearing to just face another prison situation like they faced for the past weeks and months and years. So this is why most of the people were staying out on the streets for eight nights now.
So, the fire happened one week ago, and people were fleeing, really, with all they had on their body, into the streets and were blocked in one street part in between the camp and the main city of Mytilene. And they have stayed there now for eight days, mostly, as we just heard, also without any running and clean water, without any sufficient food supplies, without electricity.
And so, you know, you have to imagine people were — they didn’t have diapers for the children. They didn’t have toilet paper. Most of them are families, and they have elderly. They have people in wheelchairs. And we, as press, we couldn’t really approach the site in the last four days, so we had to find alternative ways in order to get to the people. The same with humanitarian aid and doctors, and any medical and legal assistance wasn’t allowed through — I mean, not frequently. This was really a problem. So the people felt left alone, are highly desperate at this point. Many fainted on the way because you have a lot of medical cases still inside who weren’t treated in the old camp structure.
So, at the moment, it’s a real desperation. And the calculation of the Greek government was, in my opinion, to really break the people’s spirit at this moment in order to go into the new camp facility many fear because it’s a symbol of retraumatization and, yeah, no safety for them.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Franziska, could you talk about the people who have been arrested, the refugees who have been held responsible for these fires, and also if a fire, certainly of this scale, is unprecedented, or whether there have been smaller incidents in other camps on various Greek islands?
FRANZISKA GRILLMEIER: Yes, absolutely. I mean, this fire is just a symbol of the many fires that burn daily in people’s lives there. I mean, many fires physically broke out and also killed many people in the last years. But also, a fire, symbolically, is really not getting any medical treatment and not getting any school or medication into pharmacies. You can’t just walk out, you know, and pull up, I don’t know, a bathing suit and go swimming or go to the cinema. It’s not the case inside of these camps. These are not really camp structures. This is really, many people felt, like a prison and ghettos.
And this was really a foreseeable and dangerous backlash of this political calculation of the European Union to deter people from coming. So, you could really feel the camp is architected in a way — or, is an architecture of deterrence. So, we were really wondering why it didn’t go up in flames, you know, earlier, in a way that, I mean, not that we calculated this catastrophe in. But at the moment, I mean, the Greek government is framing people, criminalizing people, since years now, who are seeking shelter in Europe. And this is also the European member states who are supporting this framing.
And so, what we see now is that, yes, four people got arrested. However, the question should not really be — and it’s not clear yet who really — like, what factors led to the fire, if there were also local responses in it or not. However, really, the question should be at this point, like: How could it sustain for so long? And why are we watching for eight days now people in severe dehydration and no safety? And it is no political failure; it’s really political calculation, what we see behind it. And it’s kind of this — you get a bit distracted from the political calculation when you have someone to blame. And blaming the refugees and asylum seekers at this point is also calculation.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Franziska, well, you know, Moria, as we mentioned earlier, is the largest refugee camp — was the largest refugee camp across Europe, because Greece is the main port of entry to Europe for these refugees. And as far as the rest of the EU is concerned, it’s only — Germany has taken in over a million refugees and has now said that it will take an additional now 1,500 refugees from Greece. Could you talk about where the remaining countries in Europe stand, because Greece does bear a disproportionate burden for the care of these refugees, and the 2016 EU-Turkey agreement and how that altered the flow of migrants into Europe?
FRANZISKA GRILLMEIER: Yes, absolutely. So, what we can see at the moment is really the result of an echelonization campaign by the European member states, which means that you put or you shift the responsibility absolutely towards the border countries and to the Aegean islands, as we see it here in Greece at the moment, so not shouldering any responsibility from many member states of the EU and pushing Greece also to the margins and, yeah, really pushing them over the brink, actually, in the share they have to take at this point.
But also what we see now is that you really have the European member states saying, well, Greece is the shield of Europe, so, I mean, these kind of camps are built on human rights violations. The border deterrence is built on human rights violations. At the moment, we see illegal pushbacks carried out, since weeks and months now, on these Aegean Sea strips, which means that the EU member states are actually in favor of Greece’s hard stand against refugees and asylum seekers and supporting this. And this is — I mean, we’ve really seen it in the past year now, that the Geneva Conventions are not functionable anymore, that, I mean, after 2016, the EU member states said, “OK, we want to control the situation,” and they made a deal with Turkey to secure the borders, so much less people arrived in opposite to 2015.
So, the people were stuck on these islands and had to wait for their asylum procedure to get through. But the problem was that many people — that the bureaucracy didn’t work very well, that it’s — as I said before, like, the whole camp was to designed to deter the people from coming. And so, there was no political will in order to better the situation for those people, in order to say, “Well, look, if you arrive in Europe, then you don’t necessarily get a better future.” And there was always this narrative also of putting me and them, like of othering, definitely. It was never like — you could really feel that there were fences built around people seeking asylum here in Europe. And it just transformed more and more into a black box, where human rights advocators and journalists didn’t get enough, yeah, entry, really, to cover the violations, the gross violations.
And this is what we see now in these last years and now really culminating into the fire, into also the situation now where people’s spirit is really broken, in order to go into a closed camp, because this was the strategy of the Greek government from the beginning of this year, saying that they want to transform open structures into prison camps, in a way, and to close structures, so that, yeah, people are sealed off.
AMY GOODMAN: Franziska, we have to go. We have 30 seconds. But Nermeen and I were in the — what was known as “The Jungle,” the largest refugee camp in France, a few years ago. And now we see this camp, where the overwhelming majority are Afghans. Can you make the final link — yes, we’re in the midst of the pandemic, but between the refugees and war, the U.S. still involved in its longest war in U.S. history, and that is in Afghanistan, where so many of these refugees are from?
FRANZISKA GRILLMEIER: So, I mean, yes, it’s 79% are Afghan, and mostly Afghan families. And people are really trying to seek shelter at this point. And most of them don’t have any safe third country in Turkey also, so there is nowhere to go from this point onwards for them.
AMY GOODMAN: Franziska Grillmeier, we thank you so much for being with us, from the Greek island of Lesbos, where the largest refugee camp in Europe has just burned down.
When we come back, we go to Pentagon Paper whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg, who just testified yesterday at the extradition hearing of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange in Britain. Stay with us.