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Out of sight, out of mind. How we create a legacy by managing the migration crisis

Interview with Sonia Nandzik from ReFOCUS Media Labs

Alicja Pawłowska, Queen Mary University of London Graduate

On a September morning, my Facebook feed was on fire. Moria, the biggest refugee camp in Europe on a Greek island Lesbos was in flames. People were forced to escape to the street leading to the camp with their already scarce belongings burning in the distance. 


In 2015, the Council of Europe published the Relocation Decisions. ‘As of 26th September 2016, 54,000 applicants should be proportionally relocated from Italy and Greece to the other Member States. The Council and the Commission should keep under constant review the situation regarding massive inflows of third-country nationals into the Member States.’ However, some Member States, including Poland, refused to adhere to the relocation policy. Therefore, the frontline countries are increasingly suffering from the pressure of the migration wave. Moria camp was created for 3,000 people, while, at the moment of the fire, there were 12,000. The tensions between the Greek population and government on one side, NGOs and the asylum seekers on the other became a focus of political discourse. 


Sonia Nandzik is one of the founders of ReFOCUS Media Labs. Since 2017, the foundation manages projects aiming at providing people on the move with training in media creation skills, intending to close an education gap and ensure the future employment of their students. Recently, in collaboration with BBC, RML created a documentary ‘Lesbos: Who started the fire at the largest refugee camps?’ which is now available on YouTube. I talked with her about the fire, but most importantly about identifying the challenge of her generation and posed a question about the challenge of ours [generation]. Has our ‘fire’ already started? And what will we do to stop it? 


Alicja Pawłowska: Do you think that Moria fire will change the approach of decision-makers to the migration crisis? Would it be a turning point or only a singled-out momentum resulting in pushing the situation into remote and hard to reach areas?


Sonia Nandzik: It can go both ways, even simultaneously. During the election campaign, closing down Moria was a promise of the current Greek government. Moria was in lockdown for months before the fire, while people were trapped in inhumane conditions. It was evident that the government, even though there was no case of Covid-19 until the first week of September, used the pandemic to justify locking in the inhabitants. The fire is convenient for their policy. 


Therefore, firstly - as there is no other place to relocate them - they will be held in remote military bases in Greece. ‘Out of sight, out of mind.’ Consequently, access to food and sanitary products will be dangerously limited. Recently, the head of the European Commission stated that the EU will support the Greek government in the relocation of inhabitants of Moria standing against the direction followed by the EU before – provision of humane conditions. Secondly, the relocation to different Member States may happen as Greece has no capacity. Although we have already faced such an option. 6,180 people were to be relocated to Poland, but the government refused to comply.


AP: What are the opinions and atmosphere outside of the camps?


SN: There are two sides to this. The first one is well illustrated by the incident from the 8th of September. There was a group of volunteers trying to get to the people stranded on the street to distribute water but were attacked by a group of locals, who threw a large stone inside their car and opened the doors to beat up the passengers. The volunteers hid until friends came to help them. These are, unfortunately, recurring incidents. Secondly, the frustration among the locals is more and more visible. Even people with pro-refugee views see that there is hardly any hope for a change. I talked to the owner of a local pizzeria, who said, ‘Maybe we can set our town on fire, then the world will notice that we suffer too.’


Many locals have anti-immigration views not because of their approach to the people coming to the island, but to the messy aftermath of their arrival. The Greeks often understand that the people who come to Lesbos do not come by choice. It is the fault of the government that Lesbos is perceived in a negative way, which decreases tourism and causes the locals to lose income. It is the government and the EU that abandons people seeking asylum in the camps for years. 


AP: Do you think that the fire will increase the political polarisation seen among the European countries?


SN: The conflict would definitely develop. Many people reach out to us asking how they can help. Still, there are a lot of negative comments on our social media. There is no dialogue between the two sides of the spectrum, both on the island and in Europe in general. For me, it is irrelevant who started the fire as it is a result of inhumane treatment of these people, continuing for years now. Whoever would walk through Moria before the fire imagining being locked in this place, they would think it is impossible to survive. Such an approach to people and the lack of effective European migration policy has its consequences. 


AP: What lessons could the EU, as well as Europeans, learn from the fire?


SN: In my view, it is the need to create an effective, Europe-wide asylum policy. Currently, there is no relocation. People move chaotically, affecting both the Europeans and the migrants [Update: The Commission vowed to replace the Dublin Regulation]. The migrants often become victims of human trafficking, while the Member States suffer. The people who come, live in a grey zone and cannot get a job due to a faulty system. If only Europe conducted profound research into the job market – where and what kind of workers and specialists are needed, it could provide a direction for relocation efforts. Furthermore, there are fears among Europeans that should be confronted and discussed. People should see a project of an effective relocation system and its possible outcomes. Refugees should be relocated to places where they are needed.


AP: How do you think Europe is dealing with the migration crisis and what kind of heritage do we leave behind for future generations?


SN: I came to the Serbian-Hungarian border in 2016 after Hungary closed for the migrants. I thought to myself - my grandparents are the WWII generation, my parents are the communism generation. Mine had everything served on a plate. When I saw the situation on that border, I knew that the migration crisis is the challenge of my generation. One day, history will show which approach to the crisis was right. Not morally, as it is self-evident that people should not be abandoned in places like Moria, or the middle of the Mediterranean Sea in a faulty boat. It is the greatest shame of the EU, especially as it is a Nobel Peace Prize winner. Simply the way Europe is managed, the actions of the Greek Government or the EU, the living conditions in Moria, will be condemned by the future generations from the management perspective. Still, the younger generations have a different challenge to tackle - climate change.


AP: What is your opinion on the approach to the climate migration crisis? From that perspective, what lessons are there to be learnt from the current situation?

SN: It would be a great tragedy, as the climate refugee wave will come out of nowhere and there is no way to prepare for it as we still cannot find a way to manage the current crisis effectively. There are not many climate refugees on Lesbos as there are mostly people who escaped the war. However, the wave of migration will reach us eventually. Europe will remain a promised land for many affected by drought, floods, pollution. The EU has an immense responsibility, beyond the Peace Nobel Prize, as it is supposed to be an example of dealing with climate change issues. However, the management of the situation is for now far from that standard.

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