Digital Reconstruction of Fire in Moria Refugee Camp

Internet, 2023

Moria refugee camp was established in 2015 as a temporary facility to accommodate migrants arriving on the shores of Lesvos and other Greek islands close to Turkey. It was initially intended to be a temporary reception and identification centre where individuals could register their asylum claims before moving to other locations in Europe. However, due to the large influx of people seeking refuge and protection, the camp quickly became overcrowded and turned into a long-term settlement.

For years conditions in the camp deteriorated. Although it was meant for 2800 people, the population grew until it peaked in early 2020, reaching over 20.000 residents.  The camp lacked space and infrastructure needed for adequate accommodation and it lacked services to cover even the most basic needs, including sanitation and hygiene. Physical, psychological, and sexual abuses were frequently reported. In early 2020, residents of the camp organised several protests, demanding to leave the camp and the island. The government response was the repression of the protests by the police force. A majority of the local population of the island also opposed the existence and the conditions of Moria camp, however a significant part of this opposition used a right-wing xenophobic discourse towards camp residents, rather than demanding equal and humane treatment on the basis of fundamental rights. 

On September 8, 2020, following the first official diagnosis of COVID-19 in Moria camp, fires broke out over the next two days, resulting in the camp’s complete destruction. Thousands of people were displaced, without shelter, trapped between police and far-right groups’ barricades preventing their access to the city centre, exacerbating the already dire situation. In the weeks following the fire, the Greek government, with the support of UNHCR and the European Commission, established a temporary camp, and those displaced from Moria camp were forced to move there despite their demands to be evacuated from the island. Two years later this ‘temporary’ camp was converted officially into the Lesvos Closed Controlled Access Center (Lesvos CCAC), and it continues to operate today to effectively detain all newly arrived asylum seekers in Lesvos.

Immediately following the September 2020 fires, six young Afghan teenagers - who became known as the Moria 6 - were arrested and accused of the camp’s destruction. All six Afghans were arrested arbitrarily and declared guilty by the Greek authorities, before their trials even took place, in full disregard of the fundamental principle of presumption of innocence.  Following their arrest, the case of the Moria 6 was separated, as two of the accused were registered as minors at the time of their arrest and were tried in a Court for Minors, and the other four were tried as adults. All six are represented by lawyers from the Legal Centre Lesvos.

The two who were tried as minors were found guilty of arson with risk to human life in March 2021 and this verdict was confirmed on appeal in June 2022, although their sentence was reduced from five years to four years imprisonment. An annulment application was filed with the Supreme Court, which was heard in March 2023, and for which a decision has not yet been issued. The four who were tried as adults were convicted in June 2021, also of arson with risk to human life, and sentenced to ten years imprisonment. Their appeal trial, which was scheduled for March 2023, has now been postponed to March 2024.

All three trials held to date for the Moria 6 constituted gross miscarriages of justice and blatantly violated the rights of the defendants.

The case of the two of the Moria 6 who were tried and convicted as minors contained several procedural errors. Firstly, the prosecution case is based on the evidence of a single witness who never appeared before the court in person, despite his residence being known to the court. This meant that the defendants were unable to examine his evidence as stipulated in the criminal code of Greece. Notably, the witness claims to have seen five of the defendants setting a fire in the zone of the camp where he lived, however, the circumstances of his written testimony are subject to criticism and the defence never had the opportunity to cross-examine his testimony. Secondly, the appeal court declined to consider the mitigating factors offered by the defendants without offering specific and detailed justification. These mitigating factors related to the defendants never having previously been in trouble with the authorities, and two of the defendants were on the point of relocating elsewhere in Europe at the time of the fire. Thirdly, essential documents within the court file were not translated into the defendant's native language (Farsi), which violates their right to a fair trial under Greek, European, and international law.

The case of the four of the Moria 6 who were tried as adults contained all of the above procedural errors in their June 2021 trial, and additional serious breaches of the defendants’ right to a fair trial. Indicatively: 1) Under the pretext of COVID-19 measures, lawyers – trial observers of international organizations, a lawyer-representative of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), journalists of the domestic and international press, as well as the public were excluded from the courtroom. 2)None of the essential documents of the trial was translated into a language that the defendants could understand, and as a result, they could not understand the charges against them. Further, during the trial, the interpretation provided to them by the court was inadequate. 3) Their conviction was based solely on the testimony of a witness who did not appear in court (likely because the prosecution did not seek him out as they should have), and 4) three of the four were tried as adults despite the fact that they had original documentation from Afghanistan showing that they were actually minors. All four were sentenced to 10 years in prison, with no mitigating circumstances accepted.

This page was prepared in collaboration with Legal Centre Lesvos. 

Over the years Moria camp became the notorious symbol of the failure of Europe’s migration policies and its 2016 agreement with Turkey (also known as “EU - Turkey Statement). Moria camp’s destruction, and the criminalisation of the Moria 6 as scapegoats are also representative of the European narrative on migration, portraying especially men and teenage boys as a threat to Europe. For this reason, it was essential to deconstruct this narrative through the commissioned Forensic reconstruction video, and through legal representation of the Moria 6 in their criminal trials. The reconstruction video creates a counter-memory of the fire that took place in Moria, challenging state-dominated narratives concerning refugees as well as laying bare the inhumane conditions at the camp. This project also qualifies as a transnational memorialization work since the video explains how Turkey, Greece, and the EU created the political and physical conditions under which the fire broke out and engulfed the camp. In addition, the methodology used in creating counter-memory establishes transnational ties across borders. Forensic Architecture (FA) has also made a reconstruction video for the killing of Tahir Elçi. As the states use similar methods of silencing facts and producing discourses blaming the victims and survivors, FA’s methods of unearthing facts result in transnational solidarity against forgetting, unremembering, victim-blaming, and unaccountability.

The forensic reconstruction project “Fire in Moria Refugee Camp'' was conducted by FA and Forensis. FA / Forensis were commissioned by the lawyers (including from the Legal Centre Lesvos) representing the six defendants of Moria 6 accused of burning down the Moria refugee camp in September 2020.  FA/Forensis’ report and accompanying spatio-temporal video reconstruction of the spreading of the fires was released in advance of the appeal trial of four of the Moria 6, which was scheduled for March 2023. Hundreds of videos, images, testimonies, and official reports were analysed in the production of this report, including hours of footage from ReFOCUS Media Labs. The report of FA/Forensis casts serious doubt on the credibility of the testimony of the only witness who had identified the accused as the ones who had supposedly set the fire and is crucial for the defence in the case of the Moria 6 and as evidence of public record.

The Forensic Architecture reconstruction of the fire is vital for the legal defence of the Moria 6 as it casts substantial doubt on the testimony of the main witness who identified the defendants.  The reconstruction has shown that the fires in the zone the witness claims he saw the defendants setting fire to were not caused by arson but by embers from fires in other areas. The witness also claimed to have seen fires in another zone, but the reconstruction shows that the relevant zone was not yet on fire at the time the witness claims to have seen this. 

 While the Greek courts have yet to examine this new evidence, the publication of the Forensic reconstruction was nevertheless important as it added to the public discourse and helped shape the narrative around the prosecution of the Moria 6, exposing the flaws in the evidence used to convict them and to criminalise migrants in general. Above all, the forensic reconstruction has brought an important level of visibility to the Moria 6 case, as well as strengthening the bonds and multi-disciplinary work that different civil society organizations and activists can carry out in pursuit of justice. The project's actual effects as evidence will finally be understood on the upcoming trial date in March 2024.

 The reconstruction has also appeared on various public platforms such as the Guardian, Radio France, European Council on Refugees and Exiles, and more. By revealing the silenced facts and making them public, the reconstruction highlights that the fire in Moria resulted from long-term transnational politics of abandonment and dispossession of refugees. In other words, the fire in Moria can be seen as one of the catastrophic results of the EU-Turkey Statement in 2016 via which Turkey became an open-air prison for refugees. As the perilous sea migration route became one of the few viable options for crossing into the EU borders from Turkey, those who managed to leave Turkey got stuck in Moria.

The Forensic Architecture reconstruction of the Moria Camp fire was published in March 2023. However, due to the postponement of the appeal court of four of the Moria 6, the evidence contained therein has not been taken into account by the court, as new evidence cannot be presented or considered until their appeal trial date. The constant delays and resultant uncertainty are yet another aspects of the unjust criminalisation of migrants in Greece. 

Additionally, following guilty verdicts at the first instance and appeal, the two among the Moria 6 accused who were tried as minors, are awaiting the outcome of an appeal in cassation heard in front of the Supreme Court of Greece, Arios Pagos. An appeal in cassation is only able to consider the procedure of the case and not the facts of the case, therefore the new evidence presented by the FA/Forensis reconstruction cannot be considered.