By Hanne Beirens
As the embers are put out at the largely destroyed Moria refugee camp, Greek authorities, NGOs, and human-rights organizations face the Herculean task of devising a sustainable plan for the several thousand camp dwellers who have been displaced by the fires. The Greek government intends to house some homeless asylum seekers on ships, others in tents at the ravaged camp. This early fix can hardly be sustainable over the long term. But a more permanent alternative housing solution on Lesbos will be met with severe protest from the island’s citizenry. With 35 confirmed COVID-19 cases among Moria residents pre-fire, fear of further outbreak will add to islanders’ long-held frustrations over the dangerously overcrowded and unsanitary camp, where 13,000 people were packed in a space meant for 3,000.
While the near-term challenges are significant, a far bigger test awaits. The Moria tragedy has further raised the stakes on what the long-awaited EU Pact on Migration and Asylum sought by European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen will propose later this month. The fires have exposed the very uncomfortable reality the European Union has lived with for several years now, epitomized by the warehousing of people on islands amid the bloc’s inability to fully come to terms with its protection role in Europe’s neighborhood and how to shoulder that responsibility across 27 deeply divided Member States.
For months now, Commission staff have labored to devise a plan that not only restores trust among Member States that a protection regime can be jointly shouldered, but that also learns from how asylum seekers arriving over land or rescued at sea were dealt with via the hotspots approach tested in Greece and Italy during the 2015-16 migration crisis.
The pact undeniably has the ambition to create a new rapid, yet rights-respecting and EU law-abiding, mechanism to respond to those who arrive on EU territory and seek refuge there—attempting to avoid the potential for future Morias. And yet the real Moria shows the weak spots that exist in such arrival centers or similar setups, pact or no pact.
First, even if new arrivals receive a swift decision on their asylum claim, where in the European Union and under what conditions will rejected asylum seekers live when they cannot be swiftly returned? And for the 50 percent or so of the caseload whose asylum procedure drags on for months, if not years, where will they be housed? The spectre of Moria-type reception solutions or worse—the Greek government appears to be on the cusp of mandating closed facilities—now haunt the pact. If first-arrival centers and/or border procedures for new arrivals are to be a viable and humane option, the pact will have to complement them with smart monitoring systems and EU sanctions in case of noncompliance. The European Asylum Support Office (EASO) has started collecting data on reception, but an official mandate to fully take up this monitoring role still is missing.
Second, quick fixes to Europe’s asylum system, however desired after five tiresome years of negotiations and ad hoc solutions to tragedies at sea and on land, simply do not exist. Greece’s experience, and that of Italy as well, shows that a neat policy plug-in—the hotspots approach launched back in 2015, which had EU border and asylum agencies work together with national authorities to quickly identify, screen, register, and in some cases process new arrivals—cannot change the tide in and of itself. Greece has had to build an asylum and migration system from near-scratch amidst large arrivals and ramp up its reception capacity on the mainland. And yet it is still not ready to transfer large groups from the islands, where asylum seekers have been housed in overcrowded, filthy, and sometimes dangerous conditions, particularly during the pandemic. Given other Member States’ trajectories, the Greek experience demonstrates that in addition to money, capacity building, and support from EASO staff, time is the other ingredient that is essential to improve reception and processing capacity. A pact that proposes multiyear plans for the European Union and its individual Member States, sets a course for national administrations to define goals at regular intervals, and outlines the financial and capacity support that each Member State will be entitled to, is essential to improve the chances of building a more robust Common European Asylum System (CEAS).
Last but not least, it is hard to imagine how the EU leaders and the Member States who still support a joint EU approach to asylum can launch the pact and still be taken seriously in that ambition if the Moria situation itself is left unresolved. Getting Member States restive on the asylum question to agree to credible implementation of the pact would be doomed by the vast gulf between what is on paper and the on-the-ground reality on Lesbos.
The near-total demolition of the Moria camp has removed the fig leaf that allowed policymakers to avert their eyes from the fact that an EU-unworthy solution to the reception of newcomers has persisted for years now. Keeping asylum seekers on an island, in some cases for years, under the bleakest of conditions, is symptomatic of a Europe that is unable to craft an equitable solution around burden-sharing and what role, if any, Europe is to play in the global protection regime.
The Moria dwellers, the local population of Lesbos, and European policymakers have no time for the blame game. The pact’s launch is imminent, and the crash test for its ambitions has come early. If Moria persists as a concept—with asylum seekers prevented from onward movement elsewhere in Europe—this becomes an integral pillar of future EU asylum practice, whatever is written on paper.