This article was originally published in German with the TAZ in October 2020 in reaction to the fire at the Moria camp in Lesvos, September 2020.
The destruction of the Moria refugee camp and the opening of the Turkish border a few months ago demonstrate to the whole world how fragile, as the outer wall of “fortress Europe,” Greece really is. It shows the brutal fate of those who become the pawns of geopolitical cockfights. Despite this, the extent of public outrage indicates how frighteningly well the European outsourcing of border management to the African continent is working. This is not to say that European migration policy in Africa is successful in combating the causes of flight or that the forced closure of borders, criminalization of migration by African governments does not lead to unexpected resistance and great suffering. It is to say, however, that the supposed externalization of the "refugee problem" by Europe successfully serves a purpose: Out of sight, out of mind.
In early 2020, on January 4th , a United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) refugee camp near the Nigerien city of Agadez went up in flames. The fact that hardly anyone here has heard about it is – the media coverage was close to zero – goes to show the wide glaring gap in public attention for the fate of refugees who find themselves trapped in seemingly endless, precarious and unbearable waiting loops long before they‘ve reached the Mediterranean. As in Lesvos, the people of Niger were accused of setting fire to the camp in protest in order to pressure the UNHCR and the Nigerien government to resettle them in other countries. Accordingly, the reactions of the responsible authorities were similar. An irresponsible act of vandalism and attempt at blackmail, which must be rejected on principle. Although the circumstances are tragic, this is going too far.
The fire in Agadez was preceded by sustained protests and a sit-in by refugees from Darfur in particular. These started in December 2019, outside the UNHCR office to denounce the poor living conditions for refugees in Niger and the neglect of their asylum applications. Contrary to the UNHCR's interpretation, according to which the protests were only aimed at calling for rapid resettlement to other countries, a former staff member contradicted this report in the The New Humanitarian:
"They repeatedly cite resettlement as a kind of straw man to distract from the fact that these people have been neglected. They have been neglected because they are not a priority for anyone."
The people in the camp were some of the relatively few refugees who had been evacuated from Libya by the Emergency Transit Mechanism (ETM) since 2017. Of the 57,000 registered refugees in Libya, 3,080 were flown to Niger by March of this year, according to the UNHCR. Hardly any African country declared itself willing to become a reception camp for the EU, especially in view of the already large numbers of internally displaced persons or refugees on their territories. Niger's government, which at the time already had already pocketed a billion euros from European governments for cooperation on migration issues, offered itself as a temporary site for a reception camp. It also insisted on controlling the need for protection and thus the right to asylum of all people who were to be resettled from the camp, independently and in addition to the UNHCR. The latter – caught between the interests of its donors and host countries - is running up against walls in Europe when it comes to fulfilling its promises to resettle the people evacuated from Libya.
It is not difficult to imagine how impossible its become in such a situation to count on a speedy and fair asylum procedure. At the time of the fire, many people had been waiting for more than two years for reliable information regarding their asylum procedure.
Accordingly, it is no wonder that since December 2019 almost 1000 people have brought their demands for safety and dignity to the streets of Agadez. On January 4, 2020, Nigerian security forces violently disbanded the sit-in. A video shows how a person was thrown from a building by security forces. According to the independent Sudanese Radio Dabanga, 453 people were arrested and the others were taken back to the camp 15 km away. There the protest did not break down. Eyewitnesses reported a confusing escalation of violence and the use of tear gas grenades. A fire broke out and destroyed most of the shelters. For the Nigerian government and UNHCR officials, it was quickly determined that the camp was set ablaze intentionally. Others interpreted the incident as a final act of desperation and anger against the repressive policies of the Nigerien authorities; a response to the hopeless lack of change in the refugee's situation.
According to The Guardian, other Sudanese fugitives denied this account and blamed the security forces' tear grenades for the fire. Following a logic of collective punishment, the Nigerian government took at least 335 people into custody, while the camp's director, Alexandra Morelli, declared on a decidedly emotional level that she felt betrayed "as a mother who believed in her children" and that she was working in solidarity with the Nigerien authorities to clear up this "unspeakable" act of vandalism. In Agadez, people outside the burnt-down camp remained in emergency relief for weeks in the desert while the UNHCR waited for permission to build temporary shelters. According to the Irish Times, the protests continued well into August of this year. 111 people were criminally convicted in February earlier.
The question of guilt seems to be resolved just as quickly in Moria as in Agadez. The Greek government is not alone in its view that it is not primarily the unbearable conditions in the camps, or the hopelessness of escaping them that should be criticized, but rather, what they see as the ungrateful attitude and criminal actions of those seeking protection themselves. This is not a search for causes, but for scapegoats. Even if in Moria or Agadez it was clearly proven that the camps were set on fire in protest and despair, this does not undermine or lessen the responsibility or accountability that European governments have for the deplorable circumstances that people have to endure in and around the numerous camps in and around Europe.
Thus a logic of deterrence and isolation continues to dominate European migration policy, even those measures that are pursued to supposedly combat the causes of flight. One thing seems certain: Moria can no longer be swept under the carpet so quickly. Agadez can.