Marie Dutrepont on Moria: “each piece of humanity disappears like a drop of water on a slab of hot cement”
Marie Doutrepont is a Belgian lawyer, author of the book “Moria: Chroniques des limbes de l’Europe”, 180 ° editions – 2018 (Moria: Chronicles of Europe’s Limbo). Having read her book, we decided to interview her. We wanted to get to know her better and to recognize the work of all those who take care of refugees. We also hope that those who do not feel concerned today will be encouraged to read the letters published in this book, written as a lifeline when she was in the Moria camp.
The interview was carried out a day before the announcement of the new European Contract on Migration 2020 (PACT) and in the shadow of the fire that took place in the “shame of Europe”, at the Center of the reception and identification / Camp Moria. Marie Doutrepont speaks with sincerity and from the heart about her experience in Moria, where she voluntarily provided legal assistance to dozens of asylum seekers caught between restrictive European laws and the impossibility of returning to their country of origin.
We just found out! A few days ago, the Greek government replaced Moria, which caught fire, with a new structure in Kara Tepe (a place near Moria, Lesbos). This interview expresses everyone’s concern, for a change not only in the structure of the camp (hot water, more bathrooms, adequate food and accommodation) but also for the services that, according to the treaties, the EU is obliged to offer people who come to the continent in search of international protection. The right to asylum is inalienable and the way in which this right is violated by the EU-Turkey agreement and the general asylum policies of the EU today is a disgrace that tarnishes Western culture. As we have written many times already, solutions exist and they can be found by delving into the human landscape of these most remote places.
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Why did you go to Camp Moria?
I have always worked in migration law, especially at the beginning. I specialize in asylum law. For ten years people have been coming to me to tell me the reasons why they fled their country. There is a part of the story that remains a black hole, a part of the story that, as a lawyer, we question quite infrequently, because we are more interested in the persecutions in the country of origin. This is the part of the story that concerns what is called the “flight path.” And more particularly, I was interested to know how asylum seekers are treated in Europe, on the borders of Europe, in these places which are places of lawlessness, no-man’s land, places known as “hot-spots” created on the borders of Europe. And then a classified advert circulated from an association looking for volunteer lawyers to provide legal aid in these “hotspots” and I immediately applied and was successful. This is how I got here.
Is the interview process for asylum seekers a violation of human rights?
By definition, the process, the asylum procedure in Moria is hugely changeable. The procedures are very vague, unstable, the rules change all the time … It is very difficult to be able to give even a slightly correct legal consultation to people who are seeking asylum, precisely because everything changes. When I arrived – it’s been three and a half years already – we had a legal briefing at the start of each week. We were all asylum lawyers. This means that we all had fairly precise notions of European law but there were all the procedures specific to Moria that we did not master and, from one week to the next sometimes, the procedures changed dramatically.
So clearly, this legal vagueness, this inability to be able to explain how it’s going to happen, is already a source of enormous violence. So, just that, just the fact that I can’t even explain to you in detail how the procedure goes because it changes so much; it changed when I was there, it has changed several times since, it’s already a basic violation of human rights for people who are completely confused, who really need to have a perspective, to understand what’s happening, what their situation is. This is clearly already a violation. It is certain that, at all levels, there are violations of fundamental rights. Already because there is a first big problem, it is the detection of what are called “vulnerable” people.
There was a procedure in Moria for people arriving on the island – therefore arriving in Europe – where you sort out “vulnerable” people and “non-vulnerable” people. But it’s a little ironic because someone who arrived in an overloaded canoe, who believed they would lose their life in the process, who sometimes saw people next to them in their boat drowning… In fact, by definition, they are all vulnerable! But you have to sort out who is more or less vulnerable and there already, it was very problematic because the determination of this vulnerability is done in a few minutes with sometimes not even an interpreter, with lots of obstacles that make it so that these people are sometimes not going to say that they have problems because they are afraid that if they say they are sick, it will be detrimental to their asylum claim.
I remember an example: a Congolese man who had been horribly tortured, tortured so much that his whole body was covered with blisters and, when he lifted his t-shirt and it to the doctor who was in charge of doing this triage, the doctor thought he had a skin disease and prescribed a skin ointment for him and classified him as “not vulnerable”.
I have met people who were in unbearable distress but, once they got the wrong label, it’s very difficult to go back. There is also the issue of timelines. I have a friend who recently moved to Moria and who said that people who arrived in December 2019 had their asylum hearing in 2021.
So Moria, which was intended to be a transit camp for people who only stay for a few days, even a week or two… Now, this is really a camp where people are going to stay for a long time. It is also a violation of human rights, to force people to be in a concentration camp. This is a camp where people are concentrated since here we are talking about 20,000 people in a camp with a capacity of 2,500 places.
There is not enough legal aid at all. When I was there, we were about 6 lawyers for, at the time, 7-8000 people. So there is not what it takes for people to be properly prepared. And there is no assistance. Here in Belgium, when someone applies for asylum, I accompany them to their hearing. There it was almost impossible; there is no authorization, foreign lawyers are not allowed to accompany them, etc. Everything is so problematic at all levels. There is really nothing that works, whether in terms of information, transmission of information, clarity … even for lawyers specializing in asylum law, we often did not understand anything. The rules change all the time, affecting the processing time of the request. On the merits of a case, in fact, the first step was that of vulnerability, the second step was to see if we could send people back to Turkey.
As soon as we considered that you were part of a group with a high rate of recognition of refugee status, like the Syrians for example, we would start by checking whether we could send them back to Turkey. And once Turkey was considered a safe alternative, they could be sent back to Turkey with a minimum guarantee that they will not be sent directly back to Syria. In fact, we were not even examining the substance of the asylum application, the reason for leaving the country of origin, and this is a clear violation of the Geneva convention – the refugee convention, – which forces all signatory states to at least examine the case, to ask, “Why did you come here? What is your motive?” And, in fact, there are procedures that are put in place at a European level to say that we are not going to examine the reason for migration, the reason why people apply for asylum, precisely in the case of people who have a nationality which requires protection.
Was the EU’s agreement with Turkey intended to speed up the process?
I don’t think it was to speed up the process. It was to stop – I hate those terms – we talk about flow, wave, overflow, surge, etc. It’s still images as if it was a tsunami, a natural disaster. So when there was this big “wave” of people that came in in 2014, 2015, there was a will to put the brakes on, to see how we could put an end to that. I do not think that the primary desire was to speed up the asylum process. I don’t think it was ever like that. I am convinced and I am even more convinced by reading the testimonies of people who have been here after me. I read Ziegler’s book “The Shame of Europe” and it’s interesting to see that we really have the same analysis, to say that Moria is not just neglect, it is not is not just mismanagement.
This is a deliberate policy that aims to give a message to people who want to come to Europe by saying, “Look what we do to people who come here. We treat them badly, we treat them like dogs, we let them die in a camp,” and we hope that these people will tell this to others and that this will have a dissuasive effect. Therefore, the EU – Turkey agreement was never intended to speed up the processing of asylum applications. The objective of this was to try to slow down the arrival and let people languish in a kind of “no-man’s land” where people are in Europe but not quite and as such, yes, that works quite a bit.
Do you have any advice for NGOs on site?
This is a complicated question. I’m not sure how to answer it. In fact, it’s so hard working in Moria because it feels like you’re emptying the sea with a net. Me, to talk about my experience – and that’s how I wrote this book – what helped me, what seemed absolutely necessary to me in any case, was to testify, to tell myself that in fact, the only thing I could possibly do is say what’s going on, denounce it, give examples, and see that it affects people. I think what made this book touch people is that I just told the stories of people, of human beings. When I see the testimonies that I read elsewhere from people who are in Moria or who have been there, it is often just life stories. There they met men, women, children who told them their stories and told them how things were going in Moria. And it seems to me that this is essential. And afterwards, but there, it is no longer the lawyer who speaks, I think that we have to think about how we can also engage the responsibility of our European bodies which authorize, which support, which allow all that.
But I think there is a responsibility to report what is happening in Moria because there is a very, very determined will to create an Omerta. We cannot take a photo in the camp, we cannot take a photo out of the camp; in principle, all people who work in the camp as volunteers must sign a confidentiality agreement in which they agree not to say anything about what is happening in the camp. So there is an intention that this will not get out of hand. And it worked for a while. I find that in the last few years, since I came back, there have been more and more testimonials coming out and people are starting to be more aware of what is going on. But I think we have to keep going. Tell yourself that it is a chance to be there; and that we must continue to say what we see there.
What is the attitude of the Belgians towards the refugees in Moria?
There is no rule! Just look at the political landscape. We have a country with, at least in Flanders, an extreme right-wing majority. There are people who are very, very hostile, who are very afraid of migration. And then there are people, like the citizen platform, for example, people who are very committed.
In fact, what is interesting is that there was an awareness that was created, due to the culpable negligence of the Belgian state which refused to accommodate people. Suddently there are people who did not have a particular commitment or a clear political conviction on these issues who now realize that there is something wrong with the way we treat people. So, it’s like everywhere, there is no rule.
There are some very, very beautiful things happening and then there are unfortunately a lot of fears, which are very politically fueled.
Open the borders or continue to raise the walls?
I think there is something wrong with the way we handle this issue at the moment. Obviously, we are creating a genocide in the Mediterranean!! And I hope that in 5, 10 years our children will look at us in dismay and say, “What did you do?” That there will be a Nuremberg of the Aegean Sea, of the Mediterranean Sea. All the people who have been, sometimes very, very consciously, allowed to drown there, or whose shipwreck has been created. There is a recent article that appeared in the NY Times that shows how Greek officials pick up people who sometimes have refugee status in Greece or in “hotspots”; they put them in boats and leave them adrift to send them back to Turkey. So, there is something really going crazy … It feels like there is no limit to what you can do to these people. So, there is something that doesn’t work, that’s obvious. And we can see that building walls – whether in Mexico, or in Palestine – only exacerbates tensions, it creates more violence.
I think that we must distinguish: there are people who flee their country for reasons of asylum, because they seek a refuge in another country, and that they cannot return to their home. country. There are also people who flee for other reasons and they, unfortunately, do not get protection because in fact they do not fully meet the criteria of the Geneva Convention. They are fleeing because if they stay they will starve. And this is not recognized as a criterion for obtaining international protection. And then there are all those who want to try their luck and have a better future for themselves and for their children. And those who are curious! It’s still part of human reality, I would say, to want to go and see what’s happening on the other side of the mountain! And that, we will never prevent it! It’s inherently human.
The problem is, people are being forced to attempt a journey of no possible return. Because, once they leave, they have to sell everything behind them, sometimes the whole village has contributed. Or, simply, they no longer have the option because their village no longer exists. I think that by opening the borders, there would always be these people who come because they have no other choice. There would also be people who come because, in fact, they want to try something else. And then realize that it’s not their thing, or else that could get away with it easier. This is what China has done. So, I’m not saying that China at this level is a model, but we can see that this is what China has done with many African countries: to have opened the borders and to see that in fact, there is a whole business taking place with people going back and forth.
I think we’re a little focused on this idea of saying that we absolutely have to hold this dike and that the day it breaks, we’re going to have a kind of endless surge. I think we could, in any case, abolish short-stay visas. To say that anyone who wants to come to Europe for less than three months, like us, like Europeans. If you want to go pretty much anywhere in the world for less than three months, you can do it. After that, you have to go back after three months and, if you want to settle down, you can still consider other types of rules. But I think there is something to let go of there. It’s more Belgian-Belgian, but I recently read an interview with Louis Michel who cannot be accused of being a man on the left and who advocates that too. He said in fact, “We must open the borders to Africa, that would promote trade, trade”.
I see the number of people who arrive here and who, in fact, might like to go home but for whom it is not possible because their family is here, who know that, if they return, they will no longer be able to see their families; who would like, for example, to be able to come for two months, see their grandchildren in the summer and then return home. So, there is really something to work on, to deconstruct around here and there, I am speaking at a broader level, I am not speaking only of asylum seekers or refugees. I’m talking about all the people who want to migrate.
But it fits into the same question. I think that there is something to deconstruct at this level and that I do not know what it will give, I’m not Madame Irma, but I think we have to try something else because what we’re doing right now: we’re hitting our head against a brick.
Translation by Lulith V. from the voluntary Pressenza translation team. We are looking for volunteers!