Can Europe Make It?

On the Greek islands a long-term commitment is needed from fellow Europeans

All they do is perpetuate a situation that the islands cannot continue to bear. Greece cannot continue to bear.

Fotini Rantsiou
10 September 2020
Asylum seekers sleep by the roadside near the burnt-out refugee camp, 10 September 2020, Greece, Moria.
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Socrates Baltagiannis/PA. All rights reserved.

When you sit where I am sitting here in Lesvos, you may become a bit cynical with Europe’s inaction on the refugee issue. A fire ripped through the Moria camp on Lesvos[1] on the night of 8 September, effectively destroying 80-90% of the facility and the adjoining olive groves where 12,500 asylum seekers were staying. The whole population is now displaced and emergency solutions are sought.

The immediate reaction of the European Union has been words of support towards the Greek government. The European Union (EU) Commissioner for Home Affairs immediately announced the funding for transfer of unaccompanied minors to the Greek mainland. This recipe has been used in the past: shifting people from the islands to the mainland keeps the problem in Greece. It doesn’t address the fact that this country – which was facing an unprecedented economic crisis before the refugee influx of 2015, before the current health crisis of COVID-19 and before Turkey’s aggressive behaviour towards it – carries the burden on behalf of the EU for the vast majority of arrivals from Turkey, the other being Cyprus.

The German state of North Rhine-Westphalia committed to taking 1,000 asylum seekers from Moria. Again, this is a recipe already tried. Such commitments are of course welcome but usually take months to materialize and are ad hoc, depending on the receiving state’s politics and interest. Another disaster has to happen for another round of commitments to be made.

A hospital was donated by the Netherlands to Greece to be used for treatment of COVID-19 cases on Lesvos. A cynic might say that this was a move to pacify the opposition in the Netherlands who were calling for the transfer of asylum seekers from Lesvos. The coming days will show whether this was the rationale behind this donation. In any case the hospital was not used because the Greek government has failed to provide the human resources to run it. Then it was damaged by the fire and is only partially operational now.

Every move of any number of asylum seekers, usually unaccompanied minors, often people awaiting family reunification (an obligation by the receiving states) or other vulnerable cases, is presented by the media with pomp and words of thanks from the Greek government. All they do is perpetuate a situation that the islands cannot continue to bear. Greece cannot continue to bear.

A plan that distributes asylum seekers to European states according to their population and economic capacity to absorb refugees, has to be put in place. Those who reach Greek shores usually come with the hope to go somewhere else with better infrastructure. It is unacceptable that Germany, Norway and others, have empty refugee housing, while people escape fires on the Greek islands and wait for up to two years for an asylum decision, in unhygienic crowded conditions, ripe for manipulation by anyone with a political or other agenda.

[1] Time to establish the correct spelling and pronunciation of the island as it is in Greek: Lesvos. Just like Bombay was accepted as Mumbai decades after colonial rule ended in India, it is time to correct the mistake made by Anglo Philhellene archaeologists of centuries past regarding the island of Sappho.

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