The Martinican poet and essayist Aimé Césaire argued in his Discourse on colonialism (1955) that Europe had cast the curse of Nazism on itself by losing its soul in the colonies in the first place. Strategists and politicians in his day said that Europe was indefensible. Césaire replied that the worst thing was that Europe was morally and spiritually indefensible. Europe’s colonialism was justified on the idea that Europe was the cradle of the Enlightenment, of ‘civilisation’, and later on of human rights. European lives were always regarded as more valuable than those of non-Europeans. It was exactly this dominant attitude that became the focal point of Césaire’s criticism.
The recent destruction of camp Moria and the subsequent haggling and peddling of people confronts us with the more general question of whether Europe is defensible? Or should we consider the camp, as well as its destruction, as an emblem that reverberates the legacy of a colonial Europe, which erroneously, and again, presents itself as a moral compass for the entire planet?
Europe’s asylum system described Moria as a regular registration center where asylum seekers could initiate their asylum application in conformity with human rights. Yet, Moria was far from being a humanitarian registration center. As a result of the EU-Turkey deal in 2016, Moria was transformed into the largest refugee camp in Europe with more than 13,000 residents, despite the fact that it was originally constructed to accommodate up to 3,000 refugees. Apart from an extreme shortage of sanitation facilities, healthcare centers and overcrowded accommodation, lack of shelters and space forced a great number of refugees to live in improvised shelters outside the camp. In 2015, the former mayor of Lesbos had already cautioned that Moria would turn into ‘the Guantánamo Bay of Europe’. The Afghan and Syrian refugees (interviewed by one of the authors of this article during a field research in 2017) used the term ‘Jahanam’ to describe Moria; ‘Jahanam’ denotes hell in Arabic and Persian.
The Mediterranean coffin
Moria is not the only place where refugees are being dehumanized; the entire Mediterranean region has functioned as a coffin for burying human bodies for years now, and the EU has extended its borders far into Africa to keep migrants out, no matter what the human cost. Over recent decades, Europe’s bureaucratic asylum apparatus has reduced refugees to numbers, statistics, and liquid masses that are threatening the continent and flooding over Europe. They are being labelled as aliens, troublemakers, opportunists and parasites, economic refugees – anything except people like ‘us’. Refugees have been condemned to reside in a living hell because they had to leave their countries due to war, persecution, or global economic inequalities. Being a refugee is the only crime that they have committed.
They are being labelled as aliens, troublemakers, opportunists and parasites, economic refugees – anything except people like ‘us’.
Representatives of human rights?
We often deceive ourselves that this situation has arisen under the pressure of the far-right. As a countermeasure to far-right politics, European technocrats and moderate strategists claim that refugee flows and Europe’s external border should be strictly controlled. Following this strategy, ‘moderate’ political parties have, increasingly, hardened their asylum policies and taken a tougher stance with respect to refugees.
What, however, if we were to recognize Césaire’s insights and realize that the current asylum policy is rather the product of the decades-long dehumanization of refugees by the European bureaucracy and technocratic politics, with the legacies of colonial imaginaries and geographies steering them firmly at the background? What if the deceptive self-image of European liberal democracies, in the sense of ‘representatives of human rights’, has never been justified?
Europe’s moderate parties and majorities cannot distantiate themselves from the legacies of Europe’s colonialism which rendered all non-European lives inferior. This is evidenced by many practices. It is the basis for the deep-rooted racism in Europe, which Black Lives Matter has finally put on the agenda. Inferiorization and de-humanization are also unambiguously manifested in the abandonment, detention, deportation and drowning of thousands of our fellow humans at the external borders of Europe. What if we were to recognize that Moria is just a painful symptom of more to come in Europe, following what has already been? Is it not the case that many European institutions, parties, and majorities – not just the far-right— are concerned with European lives instead of human lives?
Since the total burning down of Moria in September 2020, Europe has established another refugee camp on Lesbos, where refugees are living in shaky and leaking tents with no access to running water, protection from the weather, medical care, and legal support. Residents describe this precarious condition as worse than Moria.
There is no doubt that Europe could effortlessly accommodate 12,000 asylum seekers on its soil. All that is required is our political will. But with history telling a different story, it seems that we are giving shape to new Morias. Indeed, refugees have already found a proper name for the updated version of Europe’s largest refugee camp: it is called ‘Moria 2.0’.
 Césaire, A. (1989). Discours sur le colonialisme. Paris: Présence africaine. (original work published 1955)
This piece is based on an article that was first published on September 29, 2020 in the Dutch newspaper, Trouw.