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Story Publication logo April 21, 2022

‘A Disaster Waiting To Happen’: Who Was Really Responsible for the Fire at Moria Refugee Camp?


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Greece's latest anti-immigration crackdowns include the criminalization of refugees and humanitarian...


About 11pm on the night of 8 September 2020, residents of the Moria refugee camp on the Greek island of Lesbos were roused from sleep by the smell of smoke and the sound of urgent voices. Sedique, a 16-year-old from Afghanistan, remembers her neighbours bellowing: “Run, run, run!” She poked her head outside her tent and saw fire burning below them on the hillside a few hundred metres away. Along with her parents and two younger siblings, she gathered documents, grabbed an armful of clothing and ran.

The first blaze had caught hold in the official camp, then spread among the clusters of tents outside its walls. At that time, an estimated 12,000 people were living in Moria, most of them in tents packed together so tightly on the steep hillsides above the main camp that there was barely room to walk between them. The flames leaped from one makeshift shelter to the next, making easy work of the plastic tarps and rickety shacks. The olive trees, too, caught fire. Embers blown on the wind caught on people’s shirts and headscarves, and on the trees and brittle grasses, as rats skittered about.

Throughout the camp, walls of flame and thick smoke blocked the pathways and made it difficult to breathe. By midnight, the sky glowed orange. The road below the camp filled with people heading towards the safety of the city of Mytilene, six miles south. Sedique’s family joined the procession, but the police had set up a blockade about a mile before the turnoff to Mytilene.

“Behind us was fire,” one refugee told me later, “and in front of us were police.”

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A local anti-immigration group had also set up their own blockade to keep migrants from entering the nearby Moria village. By 1am, thousands of refugees were marooned on the road without food, water or shelter. Sedique’s family found a place to huddle on the roadside. When the sun rose the next morning, it was clear that much of the camp had turned to char and ash – the tents were gone and the olive trees now resembled smouldering black harpoons. The wind was still blowing, pushing the lingering flames into the unburned areas.

It took four days to extinguish the blaze. For more than a week, thousands of refugees remained on the roads with no medical care, hungry and thirsty, hemmed in by the blockades. When food trucks organised by the local authorities, the ministry of migration and the UN arrived, people rushed the vehicles, pounding on the windows and climbing over one another to reach the supplies. Almost nothing survived of the camp – but miraculously, no one had been killed in the fire.

Pretty much everyone had wanted Moria gone: refugees, locals, volunteers, politicians. The camp had been built in 2013 to accommodate 1,200 people for short stays, then was expanded to a capacity of roughly 3,200 in 2015. But by the time it was destroyed, more than three times that number were living there – many of whom had been stuck for years, trying to get the documents they needed to move on. Inmates had called the camp a “living hell”. “No More Moria” had become a rallying cry of the right and the left. For one side, the slogan meant “no more refugees on our islands”. To the other, it meant no more squalid conditions for people seeking refuge from war and persecution.

Most people at the camp had arrived in Greece in 2015, hoping to travel farther north and west in Europe, but had found themselves stranded as other EU countries shut their borders. EU law obliged Greece to deal with asylum applications before people were allowed to leave – a process that could take years. Under a new deal with the EU, Turkey was obliged to patrol the shore, but for those who got through, Greece, with encouragement from EU officials, corralled refugees on six “hotspot” islands in the Aegean, including Lesbos, in camps that grew more and more crowded, dilapidated and dangerous.

When I first visited Moria in 2019, I met Patrick Mansour, a protection manager for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) who had worked in refugee settings all over the world. He told me that, in spite of the influx of money and volunteer support, Lesbos was one of the most frustrating posts he’d ever held. “Here, even with funding, nothing is moving forward. It’s bulls---. This is a disgrace,” he said.

Between the start of the crisis in 2015 and the end of 2019, about 1.2 million refugees had arrived in Greece, a country of fewer than 11 million, mostly landing on the Aegean islands by boat from Turkey. As Greece and Italy continued to shoulder the work of managing new waves of migrants, both countries stepped up efforts to deter new arrivals, by criminalising migrants and those who came to their aid. Last November, a trial opened on Lesbos of 24 humanitarian workers charged with espionage and forgery. (The arrests had been decried as a farce, and the trial was adjourned after the court declared itself unfit to judge the case and referred it to a higher tribunal.) Thousands of refugees are facing smuggling or trafficking charges: in 2019, nearly 2,000 people were in prison in Greece for driving migrant boats across the Aegean.

In 2019, the Greek government announced plans to demolish the sprawling camps and build secure structures, paid for by the EU, to accommodate fixed numbers of refugees in closed facilities. The minister for migration said arrivals would be screened to make sure they weren’t terrorists. NGOs and legal volunteers protested that the planned camps were effectively prisons, and demonstrated a growing tendency in Europe to criminalise refugees.

The Moria camp on Lesbos after the blaze in September 2020. Image by Eurokinissi/Rex/Shutterstock.

A week after the fire at Moria – as the roads were still being cleared and the migrants moved to a hastily built new camp nearby – Greek authorities announced that six Afghan men had been arrested for starting the fires. The government claimed it had a clearcut case against the men, but to some observers it did not seem so. The charges were based on the testimony of a single witness who had provided six common Afghan first names to the police. “There was a general feeling that they’d got these guys, and that was the end of it,” Amanda Muñoz del Toro, director of Fenix, a Lesbos-based legal nonprofit, told me. “They had to have someone to put it on. After the arrests, the [authorities] talked as if it was a done deal.”

Over the nine months that followed, as a campaign grew to challenge their arrest, the young men, known as the “Moria six”, maintained their innocence. “What did I do to deserve this?” the oldest of the accused said to me through his lawyers. “I came to this country for a better life, and I ended up in jail for something I did not do.” In the eyes of the accused and their supporters, the men were casualties of Europe’s war on refugees.

When Sedique’s family had arrived at Moria camp in the summer of 2019 after a terrifying journey from Turkey in an overcrowded boat, Sedique looked at her mother in disbelief. They’d risked everything to end up here? She was stunned by the wretchedness of the place and its residents. When a new group of refugees arrived at Moria, long-term inmates would jeer from the hillsides: “Welcome to hell!”

For the first two nights, Sedique’s family slept under a tree. After that, a Dutch NGO issued them a rudimentary tent, in which they lived for the next year. “I couldn’t imagine living there for even a week when I first came,” Sedique told me. But she soon learned how long the asylum process could be. People’s days were mostly spent standing in line: they queued for hours for food dispensed by volunteers, and sometimes just as long to use the wash facilities. During her stay in Moria, there was only one shower stall for every 500 people. The toilets were often clogged, the cracked tiles always covered in filth. When it rained, water flowed down from the hills and areas of the main camp would flood.

The official, bricks-and-mortar camp was known as the Reception and Identification Center, or RIC, where vulnerable residents, minors and women on their own lived in shipping containers. The majority of Moria residents, however, like Sedique’s family, lived in what was known as “the jungle”, a shantytown cluttered among the olive groves that stretched across the hills above the camp. Here, the refugees and aid workers built makeshift wooden huts and tents made of canvas or white tarps emblazoned with the blue logo of the UNHCR. Rats and mice burrowed into the trash that filled the passageways and drainage canals, and into tents at night, in search of food. After a number of reported rat bites, volunteer doctors launched rabies vaccination campaigns.

Stalls and kiosks, mostly operated by enterprising refugees, cropped up along makeshift streets. People used the €90 a month stipend to buy their basic needs: phone credit to keep in touch with family back home, tea, bus fares into town to meet lawyers, electric heaters and blankets, supplemental groceries to cook in their tents. Noori, an Afghan refugee living in Moria who volunteered as a medical interpreter, recalled the horrific conditions of the camp, but also had some fond memories, particularly of warmer evenings when residents would cook food and share plates with their neighbours. Such moments offered a fleeting semblance of family and community.

But it wasn’t uncommon for cooking fires – which were not officially permitted – to get out of control. In 2019, a fire in one of the containers killed a woman and child, and another child died in a similar blaze in March 2020. Fire was a hazard and a necessity of Moria life: essential for surviving the cold, dangerous in the overcrowded, rubbish-filled alleys, and at times, a form of protest. In 2016, a group of refugees had deliberately started a fire in protest at the conditions in the camp, and the threat of being sent back to Turkey.

Boredom was another major feature of life in Moria. With months, sometimes years, to wait before their asylum interviews, the feeling of being stuck became unbearable. Since the beginning of the humanitarian crisis, volunteers and NGOs had come to the island to offer activities such as sports, film-making and English classes, but these did little to alleviate people’s despair. Larger NGOs including Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) provided medical care, legal assistance and mental health care, but the waiting lists for these services were long. “This camp does crazy s--- to people’s minds,” as Ahmad Ebrahimi, an Afghan refugee who filmed a documentary about his life inside the camp, Citizen of Moria, put it. Alcoholism and drug abuse were common.

What Sedique recalls most was the fights at night. “On the first of the month,” Noori told me, when their allowance was loaded on to residents’ cards, “there was no wine left in the supermarket next to the camp.” Residents knew to expect fights soon after. Noori despaired, he told me, about how the men would fight over nothing – a perceived slight, or simply being from a different country or, just as common, a different ethnic group within the same country. He often interpreted for stab victims in the hospital.

The longer people spent in Moria, the more their mental health suffered. In 2018, MSF called what was happening in Moria camp “an unprecedented mental health emergency”.

“If not urgently and adequately addressed,” said the head of the Human Rights Commission for Europe during a visit to Moria a year before the fires, “these abysmal conditions, combined with existing tensions, risk leading to further tragic events.”

By the end of 2019, there were nearly 20,000 people living in Moria – a facility designed for just 3,200. Under EU law, refugees arriving on the “hotspot” islands closest to Turkey were required to remain in camps like Moria until their paperwork was processed. “The EU wants to keep the problem away, to give it to Greece,” Kostas Moutzouris, the regional governor for the Aegean islands, told me. “And Greece, they want to keep it to the islands, not the rest of the country.”

On Lesbos, many local people, who had initially rallied around the new arrivals, bringing them home-cooked food and blankets, were weary after years of disruption and chaos. Fed up with the refugees for stealing their goats and cutting down their olive trees for firewood, some residents blockaded town centres and staged protests against the camps.

Earlier in 2019, rightwing politicians had swept local and national elections, running in part on a “tough on migration” platform. In the autumn, the new conservative national government announced that they would shut down the existing, overcrowded camps and build “closed controlled” facilities as far away from towns and tourist areas as possible. On Lesbos, residents reacted furiously to the proposal. Many believed the plan signalled that there would be no end to refugees being detained on Lesbos long-term. Refugees and aid workers feared the new camps, resembling US detention centres, would restrict refugees’ ability to access services including healthcare and legal assistance.

“The people revolted,” Moutzouris told me. On 22 January 2020, local people gathered in Mytilene in their thousands to protest against what Moutzouris described as “warehouses of suffering souls”. “Our islands can no longer be prisons,” protesters told reporters. In February, at the port of Mytilene, protesters clashed with police as they tried to block the unloading of construction equipment for the new camp. As tensions mounted, a group of men armed with clubs attacked aid workers, including a group of foreign doctors, beating people up and smashing up their cars.

Then, on 27 February, Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, announced that his government would no longer be patrolling the borders between Turkey and Europe. Greece sent ships to patrol the sea around Lesbos, and detained all new arrivals at Mytilene. In March, the government announced it would be temporarily suspending the right to seek asylum for one month, a move condemned by rights groups.

“Greece has an obligation to analyse the merits of the asylum claims for people who have arrived in their territory,” Muñoz del Toro of Fenix told me.

The Covid-19 pandemic effectively forced Moria camp to close its gates to the outside world for the spring and summer of 2020. Even when the rest of the island opened to tourists in the summer, Moria remained closed. In early September, the first Covid case was confirmed in the camp, and dozens of Moria residents were transferred to quarantine barracks inside the main camp walls. “Many people felt they were being left to die,” said Amelia Cooper, a researcher with Legal Centre Lesvos, a local nonprofit. Shortly after that, word got out that the local government had contracted a company to build a wall to encircle Moria for good, jungle and all. Then came the fire.

“Moria was a pressure cooker,” Cooper told me. “What surprises me about this fire is that it took so long to happen.”

In the days after the fire, everyone seemed to have a theory about who was responsible. Many, including former residents of the camp, believed it was the refugees themselves who set the hated Moria ablaze. Some Afghans I spoke to blamed the Arabs; the Arabs and west Africans said it was the Afghans. Suspicion was also attached to the island’s growing far-right faction. An anti-immigrant group had burned down a transit centre on the north of the island in 2019.

On the evening of 15 September, seven days after the fire, the police pulled four young Afghan men from their makeshift shelters and took them into custody. Two unaccompanied minors were arrested and brought back from the mainland, where they had been evacuated after the fire.

One of the accused (they all asked not to be named) later told me through his lawyers that when police had loaded him into the car he was certain there had been a mistake. “I was in shock,” he said. But once he and the other detainees were being interrogated in the station, he said, “I lost all hope.” According to the accused, the police treated them roughly, and had taken their statements in separate rooms, without the presence of a lawyer or an interpreter, though they spoke little Greek or English.

The six felt they had been framed by the government, and targeted by the supposed eyewitness because of their ethnicity. Though from different parts of Afghanistan, the young men were all from the Hazara minority. After the Taliban takeover in 1995, Hazara communities had been persecuted, and thousands had fled. One of the six told me his father had been killed by the Taliban in 2005, and he had left Afghanistan as soon as he was old enough. Each of the accused had left their families and travelled to Greece alone, to seek asylum in order to escape the war, and to try to send money home. Just before the fire, one of the unaccompanied minors had received approval to move to France to live with his older brother, who had been granted asylum there. “Why would he burn Moria down when he was so close to leaving?” his lawyer said. “Why would any of them risk everything to destroy the camp?”

Dimitris Choulis, a human rights lawyer on the Aegean island of Samos, told me that the criminalisation of refugees in Greece serves as “an example to others”. The government’s hope, as he sees it, is that locking up refugees will serve as a deterrent to others making their way to Europe via Greece. It also helps appease the rightwing base. “It’s political,” he said.

Effie Doussi, one of the attorneys for the Moria six, agrees. “The Greek authorities are using penal law as a tool for migration management on the Aegean islands,” she told me.

One of the most common charges against refugees in Greece is people smuggling. Refugees have consistently reported that Turkish smugglers force them to pilot the boats themselves, so the smugglers are not exposed to any risk, but the authorities persist in accusing those caught driving the boats of working for the smugglers. People smuggling trials that have come to court in Greece in recent years have tended to last roughly 30 minutes and almost always end in a conviction, with average sentences of 44 years and fines of up to €370,000.

In March 2020, a 25-year-old Afghan man named Amir crossed the Aegean on an inflatable boat with his pregnant wife and young daughter. Amir said he was ordered to drive the boat by the smugglers. He said that as they neared shore, a coastguard vessel attacked the boat with metal poles in what attorneys believe was an attempt to push the boat back into Turkish waters. When Amir’s boat began to sink, the coastguard took the refugees on board, and brought the whole group to Lesbos. Because they had been driving the boat, Amir and another refugee were charged with “facilitating illegal entry” and “provoking a shipwreck” – their own. On 8 September 2020, the same day as the Moria fire, they were each sentenced to 50 years in prison.

Choulis explained that such cases often lack physical evidence linking the accused to the crime. “No fingerprints, no photographs. No one asks who owned the boat, or goes to investigate on the Turkish side.” He adds that there is a racial element to the justice system. “Only 5% of criminal cases end in an innocent verdict,” he said, “if you’re not white.”

A drone view of the camp on Samos, Greece, in September 2021. Image by NurPhoto/Rex/Shutterstock.

In early November, an Afghan refugee named Ayoub Nadir boarded a boat from Turkey with his six-year-old son, along with his brother, mother, sister and 19 other refugees. About midnight, they reached the rocky coast of the island of Samos, where their boat crashed against the shoreline, dumping all the passengers into the sea. Nadir lost his son in the waves, in the dark. He made it to shore, and ran to raise the alarm. When the coastguard arrived, the next morning, they found his son’s dead body in the water.

Choulis, who represents Nadir, believes this death could have been prevented. The Hellenic Coast Guard records noted a distress call at 12.06am, and the passengers testified to twice seeing coastguard vessels nearby, but these ships did nothing to help them. Police charged Nadir with the crime of child endangerment. “They had to accuse someone of this death,” Choulis said. “Either the boy’s father, or themselves. And of course they chose the refugee.”

For 10 months, the Moria six were held in a youth prison outside Athens, awaiting trial. A team of lawyers with Legal Centre Lesvos volunteered to represent them. In May of 2021, the two minors were tried and sentenced to five years in prison. The other four, three of whom claimed to have been under 18 at the time of the fire, were tried as adults. On 11 June, the trial began on the island of Chios, two hours south of Lesbos by ferry. Due to Covid, the judges said, there would be no independent international observers allowed in the court, as is customary in such cases, or journalists. A representative of the UNHCR was asked to leave the courtroom.

The trial lasted two days, during which, as a result of problems with interpretation, the defendants generally had no idea what was going on. The witness who had given their names couldn’t be found. The defence argued his written statement should therefore be deemed inadmissible, but it was allowed to stand. Late in the afternoon on 12 June, the verdict was issued: all four were sentenced to 10 years in prison. The court interpreter repeated the verdict in Farsi, but the defendants could already tell, from their lawyers’ fallen faces, that the news wasn’t good.

“I couldn’t look them in the eyes,” Doussi, one of their attorneys, told me. “I wanted the earth to open up and swallow me.”

The case had received a lot of publicity in Greece, and human rights activists had spoken out about what they felt to be an outrageous miscarriage of justice. When the defendants were escorted out of the courthouse, the narrow street was packed with supporters – local Greeks as well as volunteers, aid workers and fellow refugees, shouting “Azadi, Azadi”, the Farsi word for freedom, Doussi recalled, “like a beautiful symphony”. From there, the young men were taken back to prison on the mainland. After they have served their time, the Greek authorities might try to deport them. They have each traded many thousands of dollars, traumatic experiences on the way to Greece, and years of their lives, for nothing.

After the conviction, I met with Moutzouris, the regional governor, who has been a leading voice in the campaign against the EU’s outsourcing of the refugee crisis to his islands. “If they are really guilty, I am happy,” Moutzouris told me. “Although they helped us. They helped the local society.” A new temporary camp had been built near Moria, but thousands of refugees had been transferred to the mainland after the fire. “It is tragic to say that the fire helped,” Moutzouris told me, “but in a certain way, it was very successful.”

“Moria camp burning was a gift from God,” Vaselis Tsakaris, a baker from Moria town, told me one morning while he pulled bread from the oven. In the early years, he’d provided food and water to the refugees, but they began breaking into his bakery and stealing from his friends, too. “Moria camp burning was a gift from God, and you can say that Vaselis Tsakaris of Moria said so,” the baker repeated.

In July 2021, a few weeks after the trial ended, I drove to the remains of Moria camp and walked among the wreckage. A few carcasses of former buildings remained, and the odd tent had survived, but most of Moria was now just a thick, charred carpet of former belongings – scraps of clothes, shards of kitchen items and broken toys, the odd single shoe. Years before, someone had scrawled “Welcome to Europe, Human Rights Graveyard” in massive letters on the camp’s front entrance. This graffiti had survived the fire, along with the coils of razorwire atop the walls.

As I made my way through the site, I smelled fire – not the remnant char, but actual, live flames. I looked around and saw a small group of refugees sitting beneath a wide-canopied tree. They had built a cooking fire and were boiling water for tea and preparing lunch. This was where I first met Sedique, seated with her family and friends, having a picnic in Moria’s ruins. Her mother greeted me and motioned for me to sit down with the children, who’d formed a small circle around a platter of nuts and sweets.

They hadn’t been back since the fire, they told me. They had been relocated to the new camp that the government had built quickly after the fire, on a former military firing range near Mytilene. Residents were only allowed out for a few hours a week, and today, their release day, the group had decided to take a taxi to see what remained of their former home.

“I hated it there,” Sedique said in English. “But also, we were so curious. What was it like now? What had happened?”

“It was a bad home, but it was home,” her friend Fatimah said, pouring me a cup of tea.

A new refugee camp on Samos, Greece, in September 2021. Image by Nicolas Economou/NurPhoto/Rex/Shutterstock.

The new camp was supposed to be temporary, but nearly a year later it was still in use, with only slight improvements. It was called Mavrovouni, meaning Black mountain in Greek, but most people just refer to the place as “New Moria”.

While the security is better, and it is less crowded, Sedique told me, people’s movements in and out are severely limited. Parts of the site are prone to flooding, and several accidental fires have already broken out. After everything they had been through, people still saw no possibility of escape. Some had become desperate.

That spring, Sedique told me, a 27-year-old pregnant Afghan woman had tried to burn herself to death. She had fled the Moria fire with her husband and their three young children, and they were due to be transferred to Germany, but just before the scheduled flight, she was informed they would not be leaving. No one told her the reason – which was that her pregnancy was too far advanced for her to travel. According to her lawyer, she had been feeling stranded and suicidal. Being trapped in the New Moria sent her even deeper into despair. When her husband was out, she took the children outside the tent, and set fire to the doorway. Then she sat down inside, waiting for the fire to engulf her.

By the time her neighbours saw the flames and ran to rescue her, she was near-unconscious and badly burned. But they managed to get her to the hospital and she survived, against the odds, as did the baby. As she lay in agony, fire inspectors and then the police came to interrogate her. While she was receiving treatment for third degree burns, they charged her with arson and endangering the lives of others. Her case will come to trial in June.

Doussi, who is representing her, sees a powerful link between her case and the Moria six. “After the Moria fire, the authorities were afraid that there would be a mass spread of fires inside the new camp as acts of resistance, and they wanted to make my client an example.” The authorities’ aim was to show that anyone who “tries to challenge their inhumane reality”, Doussi said, will face criminal consequences.

The first of the new, permanent, secure camps for refugees, known as Closed Controlled Access Centres, opened on Samos in September 2021. From the start it was clear that new security measures would mean getting permission to move on would take even longer than before, as each refugee is subjected to an extensive screening process.

“The purpose is to follow the law,” the minister of migration announced, “and the law says we have to screen them and register them to make sure they don’t have fake [papers] and aren’t terrorists, aren’t a danger, and that takes time.” The message was clear: refugees must be treated as potential criminals until proven otherwise.

The ministry promised the new camps would improve on the squalor of Moria, with better sanitation and amenities such as shops, cash machines and recreation facilities. But the emphasis was on security. The Samos camp cost €38m to build, paid for by the EU, and is surrounded with razorwire and equipped with state-of-the-art surveillance systems.

The camp was widely decried by humanitarian workers, who saw it as one step closer to a prison. It is in a remote area, more than an hour’s walk from Samos town, and the bus fare costs several euros each way. Residents are only allowed temporary leave with special permission. Bright lights stay on all night – a security measure that makes it difficult to sleep. Human rights workers fear these camps are merely “warehousing” refugees on the islands, keeping them far away from support centres, and designed to disappear them from view.

“There is no doubt that this new centre will only further dehumanise and marginalise people seeking protection in the European Union,” MSF said just before the camp opened. “For the people undergoing these violent migration policies, the opening of this new centre marks an ‘end’: an end to the meaning of life, to their patience, to any rudimentary freedom they had.”

The ministry announced plans to open further camps on Kos and Leros, each with capacity for 2,140 people. More would follow on the other “hotspot” islands. Moutzouris, the regional governor, refused to go to the opening of the Samos camp in protest. “We don’t want these camps built on our islands,” he told me in September. He felt the Aegean islanders had already borne the brunt of the refugee crisis, which affected the local economy and disrupted daily life. “The people will revolt,” Moutzouris warned. “And I will join them.”

In late January, a ferry full of construction equipment tried to dock at Mytilene harbour on Lesbos, but Greek protesters prevented the ships from unloading. The ministry tried a different tactic, hiring contractors on the island. They began levelling ground in a remote, wooded area an hour north of Mytilene, but word got out, and on 7 February protesters occupied the site. According to a Greek newspaper, about 300 people barrelled past police, who did nothing to stop them. The protesters destroyed a generator and set fire to bulldozers and excavators. Six Greeks were arrested for arson, unlawful violence and sedition. As of mid-April, construction continues – as do the protests.

Within weeks of these protests, Russia would invade Ukraine, sending millions more refugees into the EU. Ukrainians have, by and large, been welcomed with solidarity and open arms – even in Greece. In late March, the ministry of migration announced it had capacity for 15,000 Ukrainian refugees. “We have created a reception centre in Promachonas, the main entry point,” minister Notis Mitarachi told the press, “and have quickly renovated an old building in order to have a proper reception area, with the presence of more medical support, plus hot drinks, food, and a warm welcome.”

The contrast to the treatment of refugees on the Aegean islands is stark. The new camps – with the exception of the ones open to white Ukrainian refugees – represent a crackdown meant to keep refugees in custody until their immigration status is confirmed, or they can be deported.

I kept in touch with Sedique after the picnic. She and Fatimah had started taking painting classes at a nonprofit in town, which allowed them to leave camp every day. On the anniversary of the Moria fires, they hosted an exhibition of paintings depicting that fateful night. When I visited them at the gallery last September, the girls showed me the canvases: images full of blaze and shadow, people running, buildings burning, faces cast in postures of sorrow. One painting depicted a line of people silhouetted against a yellow-orange sky. In the top corner of the painting, a flaming demon bellowed at the refugees, a burning tree in its claws.

In Sedique’s eyes, the painting depicted the Moria fire as a manifestation of the larger forces at play upon the lives of refugees. It brought to mind something attorney Effie Doussi had said when I first met her. The fire at Moria, as she saw it, “was a chronicle of a disaster foretold”.

Reporting for this article was supported by the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.





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