Two years after the fire, the legacy of the Moria refugee camp still leaves traces | Global development


J2 years have passed since the huge Moria fire ravaged what has become Europe’s most notorious refugee camp. Squalid, gargantuan and infested with rats, the camp surrounded by barbed wire was established in a former military base under a hilltop village on the Greek island of Lesbos at the height of the migrant crisis.

On the night of September 8, 2020, when the first in a series of fires tore through the camp, it was home to more than 12,000 men, women and children – three times its capacity – and had become a stain on the conscience of a continent passionate about flaunting its democratic credentials.

Aria Tajik, an Afghan refugee, recalls the chaos two years ago after the fire was allegedly started by inmates now charged with arson.

“The fire swept through the camp very quickly,” she says, as her baby daughter, Aveesta, cries in the background. “People were panicking, they were in tents screaming and screaming.”

For two weeks, Tajik, her husband, Hamit, and their then four-month-old child had to fend for themselves along with thousands of other people in the camp.

“It smelled bad. It was horribly overcrowded. If you were a woman you were scared to sleep at night but at least [it provided] shelter,” recalls Tajik, who previously held a government post as a ministerial adviser in Kabul.

A “café” in the Lesvos temporary camp, described as resembling a prison. Earlier this year, it still housed around 1,700 people. Photograph: Helena Smith/The Guardian

“After the fire, we spent weeks wandering the streets. We slept outside and for several days there was no food or water,” says the 29-year-old, describing officials on the Aegean island as overwhelmed. “When we finally had something to eat, we gave it to the children.”

Tajik remains in Lesbos, housed in what authorities hoped would be a temporary camp. Built on the site of a military firing range as a stopgap solution for displaced Moria inmates, it sits on an exposed location on the coast and is swept by freezing winds in winter and scorching heat in summer. Earlier this year it housed around 1,700 men, women and children – as Greek authorities continue to move people to camps on the mainland.

But for Tajik, as for so many others, it is as if time has stood still. “There are containers instead of tents, but it’s still like a prison. Checks and checks everywhere,” she says, explaining that her family’s asylum application had been rejected three times until it received a positive response in the spring.

“They kept saying we didn’t need asylum because of our old [high-level] jobs, despite the Taliban [takeover],” she says. “Our application was finally accepted but we spent months waiting for the fingerprinting process. [to happen] so that we can get travel documents to leave Greece.

“All this waiting has made us sick. I am on antidepressants; my husband is on antidepressants. Europeans talk a lot about solidarity but really this camp is a great shame, a shame for Europe.

EU lockdown policies have not only been blamed for trapping refugees on frontline islands such as Lesvos, but also for creating a mental health crisis that has led to a sharp rise in suicide attempts and death cases. self-harm. The establishment of EU-funded “controlled-access closed centres” in remote areas of the islands has sparked fresh criticism of the treatment of refugees at Europe’s external borders.

A smiling man shows a tattoo on his arm
Ahmad Ebrahimi, an Afghan filmmaker now based in Australia, shows off his tent tattoo in memory of his time in Moria. Photography: Ahmad Ebrahimi

But for Stratis Kitilis, mayor of Mytilene, the main port of Lesvos, the destruction of Moria brings nothing but relief.

The camp, he said, had achieved worldwide notoriety and brought discredit to Lesbos, which the island did not need. “It’s a huge relief, a nightmare that we left behind,” he said. “We are very happy that the borders, which are the external borders of the EU, are now properly policed.

“By the end of this year, a new closed controlled camp will be completed 80 km north of Mytilene. The conditions will be much better – it will be the end of this terrible chapter.

A music school is to be built on part of the site where the camp once stood. “Studies are ongoing,” says Kitilis. “University of the Aegean will take care of the rest.”

However, Moria is not easily forgotten, even by refugees who manage to rebuild their lives. Ahmad Ebrahimi, who worked in the Afghan film industry before spending six months in the camp, used his time there to create Citizen of Moriaa documentary that led him to work for the cinema in Athens, where he caught the attention of Talent beyond bordersa global organization that finds opportunities for refugees and has since helped him resettle in Australia.

Next week, the 34-year-old will move into a new home in Melbourne with his wife, Nagiz, and three children to start a new life that once seemed unimaginable.

“I will never forget that camp, or the rain that got into my tent because my tarp was broken, and all the rats,” he says. “It was a place where absolutely anything and everything was possible. I’m not surprised it caught fire.

But all was not bad. There were volunteers – “lovely people from all over the world” – who helped. “I found it magnificent, it gave me hope for humanity,” he says.

“The memory of Moria doesn’t bother me, it’s just a part of me now, so much so that I have a tattoo of my tent there, done by a refugee tattoo artist on my right arm.”

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