Authorities have rushed to pitch tents on Lesbos after thousands of men, women and children who were forced to evacuate Greece’s largest refugee camp by devastating fires slept restlessly for a second night.
Faced with fierce opposition from local officials who are now demanding that the notoriously overcrowded Moria facility be removed from the island “once and for all”
Chinook helicopters carrying tents and other essential equipment landed on a military rifle range not far from Mytilene, the island’s capital, and rows of large white tents were erected.
Officials said it was hoped they could accommodate 2,000 to 3,000 people by the weekend, adding that a ferry and at least two naval vessels had been seconded to pick up several thousand more, though it remained unclear whether they would be enough.
“We are ready with tents, we are ready to meet the needs of families and vulnerable groups,” said Greek Migration Minister Notis Mitarachis. “There is a serious problem with working with the local administration, which has rejected every alternative proposal we have made so that these people can sleep [somewhere] for sure.”
He admitted that the relief efforts were chaotic and described the situation as “particularly difficult”.
In a sign of growing frustration, asylum seekers, surrounded by riot police and water cannons, asked for help. Many held cardboard posters and proclaimed: “We want freedom.”
Without shelter, young and old families had to sleep wherever they could: in churches, cemeteries, fields, supermarket parking lots and on the roadside. Three days after the first wave of fire completely devastated the mountain camp in Moria, a 15-minute drive from Mytilene, an estimated 12,500 people were still forced to fend for themselves.
Refugees interviewed by Greek television against the backdrop of blankets and shelters dotted around one of the island’s main boulevards spoke nostalgically about the holding center. “Moria much better. No food here, no water [and it is] very cold, ”said a young man in the midst of scenes that sparked the first wave of refugees that arrived in summer 2015.
Without basic infrastructure, it is impossible to spoil the food in the heat of the day, said another, as the camera dipped into boxes of rotten eggs.
Five years ago, the Aegean Island was the first taste of the West for nearly 1 million men, women and children who came to the coast from Turkey in rickety boats as the Syrian civil war forced people to Europe in search of safety.
From this drama Moria was born. The holding center was not meant to accommodate more than 3,000 people and soon turned into a mega-camp, almost ten times as high as the influx of asylum seekers increased. First, Lesbos greeted the newcomers before compassion turned into anger and then anger at the reported increase in crime.
In talks with the Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis in Athens, the Greek Vice-President of the European Commission, Margaritis Schinas, described Moria as a “sharp reminder” of what now had to change.
“The time has run out how long Europe can do without a migration policy,” he said, adding that the EU will soon present a new “Pact on Migration and Asylum” that will provide a robust system for managing the foreign policy of the 27-member bloc provides limits.
Like his predecessors, Mitsotakis has complained bitterly about insufficient solidarity from Brussels, stating that Greece, as a border country, was forced to assume disproportionate responsibility for dealing with migration flows from the Middle East, Asia and, increasingly, Africa.
The coronavirus pandemic has also complicated the response, as dozens of former Moria residents were diagnosed with Covid-19 before the fire destroyed the camp.
Eight infected people were found among the thousands who fled the fires, but by Friday even they had disappeared, forcing Mitarachis to admit that Lesbos was facing “a very serious public health problem”.
An aircraft carrying around 200,000 Covid-19 rapid test kits arrived on the island when the first tents were set up. Every refugee is tested by doctors before entering official temporary accommodation.
“People are very concerned,” said Yannis Mastroyiannis, who presides over the village of Moria, which overlooks the remains of the facility. “After all these years we are very tired. If they are to be kept here, it should be very remote somewhere. “
The center-right government of Greece has blamed asylum seekers for the fires protesting lockdown measures in the camp after residents were found to be infected with Covid-19. She has vowed to bring the perpetrators to justice, even though refugees have denied the official version of the events. Suggestions that vigilantes might be behind the arson attacks are also widespread.
Everyone agrees that Moria is no more. But the ghost of a place to replace the infamous camp – one that local residents believe has associated Lesbos with misery and international outrage – is unlikely to be accepted either. In a statement, the island community warned that it would use “all means” to stop another camp that would replace “the abomination that was Moria.”
“The decision on this issue is final,” it said. “We urge the relevant authorities to work together … before it’s too late.”
A senior community official confided that right-wing extremists would simply take matters into their own hands if the sense of the word didn’t prevail.