On September 8th, 2020, a large fire broke out at the migrant camp of Moria, in Lesvos, Greece. The fire, burning over several days with multiple ignition points, burned the camp to the ground, forcing the relocation of the thousands of people detained there to a newly built facility on the island, and transforming into ruins the epicentre of the EU’s carceral migration regime. Yet, Moria in flames, this ‘apocalyptic’ imagery was neither an isolated incident, nor an accident; it was burning by design.
The camp was first established in 2013 as a First Reception Centre on the site of former military facilities. During the so called ‘refugee crisis,’ widely covered in the media throughout 2015, it was transformed into a ‘hotspot’, one of the very first sites for the implementation of the shifting European migration policies. Since its establishment as such, the hotspot operated as one of the main carceral infrastructures in place, whereby thousands of people had been detained for indeterminate, and often highly arbitrary, periods of time. At the time of the last, devastating fire, more than twelve thousand people were stranded there under imposed movement restrictions, an ever-present overcrowding which effectively led to the expansion of the camp into various overspills and makeshift settlements in its surroundings.
Being one of the carceral ‘pillars’ at the external frontier of the EU border regime, there has been extensive literary as well as media engagement with the camp, often unfolding in contested and ‘spectacular’ visual as well as discursive modes. However, one defining phenomenon that had tragically affected the existence of the camp and of the people therein contained had been largely overlooked: fire. From 2014 until 2019, more than 100 occurrences of fire had been reported to have broken out in the camp and its surroundings, a staggering number considering that in the previous decade this did not exceed six occasions. In this research project, fire operates as an analytical angle in order to interrogate its emergence in a twofold manner: as the symptom and material manifestation of the violence exercised by contemporary borders against illegalized migrants – a violence that is articulated through a precarious regime of malign neglect and enforced precarity in a site that is presumed to be an enclave of protection, as established by the various international conventions on human rights; and as a medium of resistance and an active agent which in turn affects and reshapes the conditions of its emergence. Through these fire occurrences, far from being singular, decontextualized accidents/incidents, the migrant camp of Moria appeared to be in a constant state of smouldering; not merely because of the ubiquitous presence of the provisional fires migrants maintained for cooking and warmth, but also due to its tendency to discharge into these frequent, often detrimental, conflagrations.
Smouldering, in combustion terminology, denotes a precarious state of slow, flameless burning, whereby the essential set of conditions that facilitate the chain reaction of combustion – oxidizer, heat, and fuel – are already in place, but not at adequate levels or in the right combination that could produce visible flame. What characterises this state of combustion is its volatility, as with a slight modification of its parameters, such as a nominal increase in temperature, it may display abrupt transitions to flaming blowouts or explosions. In the Moria camp, the amassing of matter-energy – an accumulation of combustible materials, faulty wiring, overcrowded and flammable shelters, European policies, governmental restriction orders, neglect, indignation, exhaustion, injury – was already in place, facilitating smouldering on the ground, which gained visibility with a minute change of its variables and its transition to sporadic flaming fronts. One of the most recurrent questions
surrounding these frequent outbreaks of fire has been that of direct causation. Where did the fire start, what was the physical source of ignition? Was it the collapsing electrical infrastructure that creates tangles of often deteriorated cables dwindling from the flimsy tents and leading to frequent episodes of power outage? Was it the volatile moment of contact between the flammable fabric of the shelters and the deficient heating devices that migrants resort to during the cold winter months? Was the fire caused by the frequent cases of spontaneous ignition due to elongated draughts and heatwaves that more and more frequently afflict Southern Europe as a consequence of rapidly changing environmental conditions? Or did the fire start as a deliberate act of protest on the part of the migrants against enforced containment and deplorable living conditions?
While these diverse threads of inquiry are not analysed here, Smouldering Grounds operates as an investigative tool that archives reports of fires gathered from social media, official accounts, and sources living inside of the camp at the time, and locates them spatially and temporally. By offering this material in a public and interactive repository, it endeavours to prompt further research and legal action at the time when a new detention centre is once again being built on the island for the third time in the last few years.
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