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Authorities have rushed to start putting up tents on Lesbos after thousands of men, women and children forced by devastating fires to evacuate Greece’s largest refugee camp spent a second night of sleeping rough.
Faced with intense opposition from local officials who were now demanding that the notoriously overcrowded Moria facility be removed “once and for all” from the island, the Greek government scrambled to break the deadlock.
Chinook helicopters, which were carrying tents and other vital equipment, could be seen landing at a military firing range not far from Mytilene, the island’s main town, and rows of large white tents began to be erected.
Officials said it was hoped that by the weekend they would be able to accommodate 2,000 to 3,000 people, adding that a ferry and at least two naval ships had been seconded to host several thousand more, although it remained unclear whether they would suffice.
“We are ready with tents, we are ready to cover the needs of families and vulnerable groups,” the Greek migration minister, Notis Mitarachis, said. “There is a serious problem of cooperation with the local administration, which has rejected every alternative proposal that we have made in order for these people to sleep [somewhere] safely.”
He admitted relief efforts had been chaotic, describing the situation as “especially difficult.”
In a sign of growing frustration, asylum seekers surrounded by riot police and water cannon, pleaded for help, many holding cardboard placards proclaiming: “We want freedom.”
Without shelter, families young and old had been forced to sleep wherever they could: in churches, graveyards, fields, supermarket car parks and along the sides of roads. Three days after the first in a wave of fires had completely ravaged the hilltop camp in Moria, a 15-minute drive from Mytilene an estimated 12,500 people were still being forced to fend for themselves.
Refugees interviewed by Greek TV against a backdrop of blankets and makeshift shelters strewn along one of the island’s main boulevards spoke nostalgically of the holding centre. “Moria much better. Here no food, no water [and it is] very cold,” said one young man amid scenes that evoked the first wave of refugees that arrived in the summer of 2015.
Without basic infrastructure it was impossible to keep food spoiling in the fierce heat of the day, said another as the camera homed in on crates of rotten eggs.
Five years ago the Aegean island the first taste of the west for almost 1 million men, women and children who arrived on its shores in rickety boats from Turkey as the Syrian civil war forced people to head for Europe in search of safety.
Out of that drama Moria was born. Designed to host no more than 3,000 people, the holding centre soon morphed into a mega-camp of close to 10 times that number as the influx of asylum seekers increased. Initially Lesbos greeted the newcomers, before compassion turned to exasperation and then anger on the back of a reported rise in crime.
Holding talks in Athens with Greece’s prime minister, Kyriakos Mitsotakis, the European commission’s vice-president Margaritis Schinas, who is Greek, described Moria as “a sharp reminder” of what now had to change.
“The clock has run out on how long Europe can be without a migration policy,” he said, adding that the EU would soon unveil a new “pact for migration and asylum” that foresees a robust system to manage the 27-member bloc’s external borders.
Mitsotakis, like his predecessors, has complained bitterly of inadequate solidarity from Brussels, saying Greece, as a frontier country, has been compelled to shoulder disproportionate responsibility in dealing with migratory flows from the Middle East, Asia and increasingly Africa.
The coronavirus pandemic has also complicated the response since dozens of Moria’s former residents had been diagnosed with Covid-19 before the fire destroyed the camp.
Eight infected people were found among the thousands who had fled the fires but by Friday even they had gone missing, forcing Mitarachis to concede Lesbos was confronting “a very grave public health problem”.
A plane carrying about 200,000 Covid-19 rapid test kits arrived on the island as the first tents began to go up. Each refugee will be tested by doctors before entering any form of official temporary accommodation.
“People are very worried,” said Yannis Mastroyiannis, who presides over the village of Moria that overlooks what remains of the facility. “After all these years we are very tired. If they are to be kept here it should be somewhere very remote.”
Greece’s centre-right government has blamed the fires on asylum seekers protesting against lockdown measures in the camp after Covid-19 infections were detected among residents. It has vowed to bring the perpetrators to justice, although refugees have disputed the official version of events. Suggestions that vigilantes may be behind the arson attacks are also rife.
All agree that Moria is no more. But the spectre of any location replacing the infamous camp – one that in the minds of local residents has associated Lesbos with squalor and international outrage – is unlikely to be accepted either. In a statement the island’s municipality warned it would use “any means” to stop another camp replacing “the abomination that was Moria”.
“The decision on this issue is final,” it said. “We call on the relevant authorities to cooperate … before it is too late.”
One senior municipal official confided that if sense did not prevail, rightwing extremists would simply take matters into their own hands.
Source: The Guardian
Keyword: Local anger as Greece tries to shelter refugees after Lesbos fire | World news