Thousands still homeless after fire at Moria refugee camp in Greece, as police boost presence

VIDEO: REUTERS
Asylum seekers carry their belongings near the Moria refugee camp destroyed in a fire on Lesbos island, Greece, on Sept 11, 2020.
Asylum seekers carry their belongings near the Moria refugee camp destroyed in a fire on Lesbos island, Greece, on Sept 11, 2020.PHOTO: EPA-EFE

LESBOS ISLAND, GREECE (AFP) - Thousands of asylum seekers have spent a third night in the open on Lesbos island after the country's largest camp burnt down, as police reinforcements arrived en masse on Friday (Sept 11).

Eleven police vehicles - some stopping the migrants from reaching a nearby port - and two water cannon boosted the heavy presence seen on the island since the fires late on Tuesday and Wednesday laid waste to the Moria camp.

Greek officials have blamed migrants for the fires, which came after 35 people tested positive for coronavirus and were facing isolation measures.

The plight of the stranded families has prompted other European countries to offer to take in hundreds of asylum seekers, particularly the unaccompanied youngsters.

The Moria camp, one of dozens built in Greece following the influx of people to Europe in 2015, was notoriously overcrowded - often housing more than four times its intended capacity - and became a lightning rod for local discontent.

Islanders have set up roadblocks near the burnt-out camp to halt attempts to clean up the site and rehouse the asylum seekers.

"Now is the time to shut down Moria for good," said local politician Vaguelis Violatzis. "We don't want another camp, and we will oppose any construction work. We've faced this situation for five years, it's time for others to bear this burden."

While nobody was seriously hurt in the fires, the blaze on Tuesday destroyed the official part of the camp, where 4,000 lived, and another fire on Wednesday wrecked most of the remaining camp, where another 8,000 lived in tents and shacks.

Ships have been sent to the island to provide somewhere for the migrants to sleep.

Greece has long complained that its EU partners have done far too little to help since the country became one of the main gateways into Europe for migrants and asylum seekers in 2015.

An EU-wide asylum system fell apart under the strain of hundreds of thousands of arrivals, with other European nations accepting only a trickle of refugees, leaving thousands remaining trapped in Greek camps.

Germany has used the fire to call for more solidarity in Europe and, along with France, agreed to an initiative on Thursday for EU states to share out the roughly 400 children and young people from the camp.

"As a preliminary step, we are offering to Greece to accept refugees who are minors - other steps must follow," German Chancellor Angela Merkel told a panel discussion in Berlin.

The European Union must "assume more shared responsibility" for migration policy, Dr Merkel said, addressing the complaints Greece and other southern nations have voiced.

 
 
 

The Netherlands and Finland have also offered to take in some of the young migrants.

European Commission vice-president Margaritis Schinas, who visited Lesbos on Thursday, said they had organised the transfer of 400 unaccompanied minors to the mainland with a view to their relocation in Europe.

"And in the next few hours, there will be ships financed by the European Union to provide shelter to those vulnerable, more in need," he said.

Many desperate families are surviving without tents or basic bedding, creating makeshift sleeping arrangements by the side of roads.

"We've lost everything, we were abandoned, without food, water or medicine," said Ms Fatma Al-Hani, a Syrian woman who barely had time to grab her identity papers before the flames engulfed the camp.

"This is Europe?" asked Ms Hani, clutching her two-year-old son. "I've had enough, I just want my baby to grow up in peace."

Greece's conservative government has toughened its asylum restrictions, slashing cash benefits and accommodation provisions to discourage further migration.

 

The government has also passed a law aiming to limit the access of NGOs and charities to the camps and boost official control.

Some NGO workers told AFP they had to hide from law enforcement while helping the stranded migrants in case they fell foul of the new rules.