The Moria Catastrophe and the collective failure of the European Union

COVID-19 and the US presidential election: If you’ve turned on the news anytime in the past few weeks, you will probably have realised that these topics have been dominating the headlines incessantly. Magazines are cluttered with news about the coronavirus pandemic sweeping across the world and were littered with coverage of a particularly heated election campaign and a very unusual and rocky transfer of power in the US. 

The current situation on the Greek island of Lesbos, however, scarcely attracts coverage in the news cycle, even though hundreds of people have died and are still dying in the Mediterranean Sea on their way to Europe: More than 1,000 migrants in 2019, 554 in 2020 and already 42 migrants in a shipwreck off the coast of Libya this January. These appalling figures showcase a social crisis and call for a total rethink of both policy and attitude towards immigration. The issue is by no means confined to Greece only, but rather is the most obvious and significant symptom of an asylum policy based on fortifying borders.

Solidarity, tolerance, justice: Europe’s noble but hypocritical values

The conditions under which EU states are housing refugees on Greek islands are nothing new, the final catastrophe had already been brewing for months – if not years. The devastating fire in the Moria refugee camp in September 2020 only highlighted the political deadlock and human cost of the status quo, and laid bare the failure of EU member states. The humanitarian fallout caused fury among journalists and activists, directed sharply towards the EU. Empty words on the part of the European Commission and a tangle of bureaucracy, indifference, as well as a sheer lack of political willpower were met with widespread anger and seemed to typify the EU’s ambivalence towards the issue.

Two weeks after the Moria camp burnt down, the “Kara Tepe” camp was built and the people, who had just escaped intolerable conditions in Moria, found themselves in a refugee tent camp almost worse than the one before: Over 7,500 people are now living in a tent camp originally intended for 1000 people – among the dust and debris of a former military shooting range. Europe’s noble values – solidarity, tolerance, justice – probably sound like cynical mockery to those who are crammed into overcrowded tents and makeshift shelters with little to no access to water, food, sanitation and healthcare. 

But it’s not just Moria. The French port of Calais for example, has become a bottleneck for hundreds of migrants hoping to reach the United Kingdom – a journey now aggravated by Brexit. And since EU states like Hungary have put up border fences, the situation outside the EU has also become rather tense as migrants are looking for new routes: Many now try to enter the European Union via Bosnia. In December 2020, calls for help grew louder as thousands of migrants lost shelter after a blaze broke out at the so-called Lipa camp in Bosnia and had to live outside amid plummeting winter temperatures. Since early 2018, the EU has provided €89 million to Bosnia and continues to criticise the dire circumstances, as well as Bosnia’s dysfunctional migration management system to this day. 

And yet it is still hypocritical for the EU Commission to point a finger at Bosnia – after all, the EU member states themselves have also been unable to agree on a common asylum and migration policy. Especially now, as the EU border agency Frontex is accused of being involved in several illegal pushbacks on the part of Greek coast guards, it’s just duplicitous to call solidarity, tolerance and justice Europe’s values and at the same time tolerate that people are forcibly being prevented from seeking asylum in a country of the European Union – a right to which everyone arriving at the border of the EU is entitled. Passing the entire responsibility on to Bosnia and thinking that money alone will solve the problem will not be of any help. The EU should work with the authorities in Bosnia and Herzegovina in order to find systemic and long term solutions, since the crisis in Bosnia is simply a consequence of the EU fortifying its borders.

Worse than the lacklustre response to the refugee crisis per se, however, was the EU’s continued refusal to completely overhaul its dysfunctional asylum policy. The two main flaws of the EU’s short-sighted, inhumane, and ineffective asylum policy have been known for years: asylum applications always take too long to process and some European member states simply don’t want to cooperate and still wish to seal off their country completely. 

The EU’s solution strategies: unrealistic, bureaucratic and too late

On the 23rd of September 2020, the European Commission launched the New Pact on Migration and Asylum in an attempt to streamline the EU’s policies in this area. 

Immediately after the pact was announced, it came under fire for allowing EU member states to opt out from participating in the relocation of asylum seekers by offering financial aid. Meaning that member states, which had previously flouted laws and agreements, suddenly had the legal permission to stand idly by. Critics have also expressed their concerns about the fact that border security had been prioritised over access to asylum and that the pact introduced measures that seemed to hamper the process of obtaining protection in the EU. Support, albeit half-heartedly, only came from a few countries – along with a lukewarm remark that the pact was at least a good starting point. 

Until September 2021, the EU wants to have established a new camp on Lesbos together with Greek authorities. For this, a memorandum of understanding between the EU, Greece and the European migration authorities was signed at the beginning of December last year. Once again, the solution comes far too late and is of no help whatsoever to those who are currently suffering. There’s a glaring irony to the fact that the European Union, the Nobel Peace Prize winner of 2012, continuously contradicts the values that the award represents, doesn’t manage to own up to its responsibility and doesn’t live up to the expectations it sets for others.

The EU must revert back to its values, and it must do so as quickly as possible. Because immigration is not something that will die down soon: The crisis is currently on a disastrous trajectory, because for years and years, it’s been categorically deprioritised, normalised and banalised. If the EU is not eager to deal with the grim reality in a human-centred way, this crisis will serve to further divide an already divided Europe, plunge Lesbos into even more turmoil and risk many more lives. 


Genocide: The power of history and collective memory

As our thoughts today go out to the six million Jews who lost their lives in the Holocaust and we remember the atrocities that were committed by the Nazi regime, we are reminded of the importance of remembrance, so that a similar tragedy may never happen again. The Holocaust, whose scale and organization were unprecedented, is without doubt one of the darkest chapters of human history. However, when we view the world from a global perspective, it is sadly one of many tragedies. Not only wasn’t it the first genocide in history, but it was also far from being the last one. 

The word genocide came into general usage after World War II when the full extent of the brutalities committed by the Nazi’s was revealed. In 1948 the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide was approved by the UN and genocide was declared an international crime. The Convention defined genocide as any number of acts “committed with the intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group” and has since been ratified by more than 130 countries. 

Many genocides, however, have not yet been recognized internationally, or worse, have not seen the perpetrators take responsibility for their actions. We may not be able to bring back the thousands of people who lost their lives, but we do have the power to remember and honour the victims, to raise awareness on what happened and prevent the same crime from repeating itself. The Armenian, Cambodian and Bosnian genocides all happened in different historical and geographical contexts. Together with the Holocaust, they represent some of the darkest chapters in world history. It is precisely because of the important role history plays in shaping collective memory that these chapters must not be forgotten.

Armenian Genocide (1915-1917)

The Armenian genocide was the systematic killing and deportation of Armenians at the hands of the Young Turk government of the Ottoman Empire between 1915 and 1918. The Young Turks, who had seized power in 1908, were reigning over a crumbling empire after having entered WWI on Germany’s side. Worried that the Christian Armenian population was planning to side with Russia, the Turks massacred thousands of Armenians, deporting them en masse from eastern Anatolia to the Syrian desert where they were killed or died from starvation and disease. Before the beginning of the war, 1.5 million Armenians were living in the Empire. It is estimated that up to 1.2 million died during the genocide.

Despite early condemnation from the international community and a strong public outcry against the mistreatment of the Armenians, no strong actions were taken to punish the perpetrators. Moreover, no step was taken to require postwar Turkish governments make restitution to the Armenians to make up for the immense material and human losses.

Cambodian Genocide (1975-1979)

Another dark chapter in human history, the Cambodian genocide saw the annihilation of a quarter of Cambodia’s population at the hands of the Khmer Rouge, a brutal regime that ruled Cambodia from 1975 to 1979 under the leadership of Marxist dictator Pol Pot. 

The Khmer Rouge seized power in 1975 with the goal of turning the country into an agrarian utopia: a rural, classless society comprised of collectivized farms. Money, schools, private property and religious practices were abolished, and rural collectives were set up in the countryside. In reality, however, cities were emptied, and millions of people were evacuated to labour camps where they were starved and abused. The regime singled out doctors, teachers, affluent people, anyone with an education as well as ethnic and religious minorities and whoever was unwilling or unable to undertake harsh manual labour was eliminated. Unlike other genocides, no one was immune from being branded an enemy of the state. Anyone perceived to be in the opposition was tortured and killed and it is estimated that 1.7 to 2.2 million people lost their lives. 

The international community was largely silent during the genocide, despite scholars and activists trying to bring attention to the atrocities that were being committed. Only after the regime was overthrown in 1979 did the brutality receive international media attention but it wasn’t until 2003 that an international tribunal was etsablished to try the perpetrators.

Bosnian Genocide (1992-1995)

The Bosnian genocide happened during the Bosnian War, a religious and ethnic conflict between Bosniaks (Muslim), Serbs (Orthodox Christian) and Croats (Catholic) that erupted after Bosnia declared its independence from Yugoslavia in 1992. The creation of an independent nation with a Bosniak majority was opposed by Bosnian Serbs, who launched a campaign to secure territory and rid Bosnia of its Muslim population. With the backing of the Serb-dominated Yugoslav army, Bosnian Serb forces targeted Bosniak and Croatian civilians in areas under their control, which resulted in the death of 100’000 people by 1995, 80% of whom were Bosniaks. 

In July 1995, Bosnian Serb forces murdered 7’000 to 8’000 Muslim men and boys in what will forever be remembered as the Srebrenica Massacre. The city had been declared a safe area for people fleeing the fighting by the UN and was protected by around 500 international peacekeepers. Serb forces, however, overwhelmed the troops, sent all the women to Bosnian-held territory, then rounded up men and boys and trucked them to killing sites where they were shot and buried in mass graves. 

Since the beginning of the conflict, the UN and international actors did not intervene, fearing strong action would complicate peace negotiations and jeopardize humanitarian aid. Even when it became clear that attacks on Srebrenica were planned, the international community did not offer the UN peacekeepers stationed there additional support. However, in 1993 the UN established the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia which eventually proved to be instrumental in the creation of the International Criminal Court.

The importance of history and collective memory

The above-mentioned genocides are but three of the many that took place over the course of the 20th century. Not only do they share the fact that they were initially neglected by the international community but, despite landmark international convictions and much documentation of the atrocious crimes committed, they still happen to be denied by certain actors. In Serbia, some nationalists claim that the number of dead is exaggerated and that Srebrenica was but one of the many atrocities committed during the conflict. Turkey has met the Armenian genocide with over one hundred years of silence and denial.  Similarly, there is a consistent and worrying number of people in the US and Europe that denies the Holocaust. Furthermore, after the end of the Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia, many Western intellectuals of the left denied or minimized the human rights abuses that had taken place in an attempt to protect communist ideology.

The unwillingness to see and recognise what happened is not only dangerous but greatly undermines the role collective recognition and memory play in ensuring such crimes are not repeated. Healing the deep wounds inflicted by genocide is a difficult and perhaps impossible task. One way is surely for the perpetrators to be held accountable for their actions through international justice mechanisms. However, this is not enough. The international community has the responsibility to call out the perpetrators of such crimes and should adopt strategies to punish them, in accordance with the Genocide Convention. Seeking justice in the aftermath of such atrocities does not change the fact that if one had acted sooner, the brutality could have been avoided or at least stopped much earlier. Belated recognition also indirectly supports the proliferation of alternative narratives of what happened which undermine or deny the atrocious crimes that were comitted.

Many greatly underestimate the power of collective remembrance and recognition. Collective memory can ensure that the victims and the crimes are not forgotten, thereby preventing them from repeating themselves. Collective recognition and condemnation, on the other hand, have the potential to stop things from happening or worsening in the first place. Now the international community has the chance to redeem itself for past mistakes: by stopping China from perpetrating mass atrocities against the Uyghurs, a Muslim minority which is systematically being targeted by Beijing through a mass detention and forced labour program, restrictions on cultural and religious practices and coercive birth prevention. Despite transparent evidence of the crimes being committed, the international community has until now failed to address the situation in a meaningful way. The recent condemnation of what is happening by former US secretary of state Mike Pompeo is a step in the right direction but more immediate action is needed.

Extensive recognition of the present and remembrance of the past can spread awareness and are perhaps the strongest tools we have. The perpetrators as well as the survivors of past horrors will eventually leave us and then all we will be left with is history. We must never underestimate its power in helping us work towards a better future. To quote American-Armenian novelist Chris Bohjalian: “History does matter. There is a line connecting the Armenians and the Jews and the Cambodians and the Bosnians and the Rwandans. There are obviously more, but, really, how much genocide can one sentence handle?”.