Thousands of protesting refugees left homeless on the Greek island of Lesbos after fires destroyed the Moria camp gathered on a road leading to the island’s main town on Friday, demanding to be allowed to leave.
Clapping and chanting songs, the protesters, most of whom appeared to be from African countries and from Afghanistan, were boisterous but peaceful. Some held up signs pleading for help from Germany, a common destination for many refugees and migrants who arrive in Greece by boat from the nearby Turkish coast.
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The nearly 13,000 people who had been living in and around the notoriously overcrowded Moria camp have been left homeless by two consecutive fires on Tuesday and Wednesday night.
Greek officials say the blazes were deliberately set by camp residents angered by isolation orders issued to prevent the spread of the coronavirus after 35 residents were found to have been infected. The camp had been under a lockdown due to last until mid-September.
Thousands of former camp residents slept in the open for a third night on Thursday, some cutting down reeds and using salvaged blankets to make rudimentary shelters to protect them from the night-time chill and the scorching day-time sun.
“We have spent three days here without eating, without drinking. We are in conditions that are really, really not very good,” Freddy Musamba, a former camp resident from the Gambia, told The Associated Press.
“I want to speak about the European Union, who abandoned us, who left us here like this,” Musamba said, calling on the EU “to come and support us, to not leave us. We are like abandoned children. We have endured things we didn’t know could happen”.
Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis said Greek authorities have “moved very fast” and are working on a temporary facility to shelter the residents from the gutted camp.
Aid organisations have long warned about dire conditions in the camp, which had a capacity of about 2,750 people but was housing more than 12,500 inside and in a spillover tent city that sprang up in an adjacent olive grove.
The situation has led to spiralling tension, among the refugees and migrants inside the camp and with local residents who have long called for Moria to be shut down.
Speaking from Lesbos, Al Jazeera’s John Psaropoulos said that since the tents set up around the main camp were also destroyed in the fire, the entire area had become uninhabitable.
“With the government providing fresh water, some people have returned,” he said, adding that the next step was to provide some 10,000 to 12,000 refugees with shelter.
Psaropoulos confirmed that while more than 400 unaccompanied minors had been flown to the Greek mainland on Wednesday night and temporarily housed in hotels and other facilities, Greek authorities have not yet allowed other asylum seekers to be relocated from the island.
“With the island considered a COVID-19 high-risk area … if people are relocated to mainland Greece, they can end up infecting others,” he said.
Overcrowding at Moria
Moria houses people from Africa, Asia and the Middle East who crossed from Turkey fleeing poverty or conflict in their homeland.
Under a 2016 deal between the EU and Turkey, those arriving on the Greek islands would remain there pending either their successful asylum application, or deportation back to Turkey.
But a backlog in asylum applications, combined with continued arrivals and few deportations, led to significant overcrowding in Moria and camps on other eastern Aegean islands.
The overcrowded camp and its dire conditions have been held up by critics as a symbol of failures in the EU’s migration and refugee policy.
“Moria is a sharp reminder to all of us for what we need to change in Europe,” European Commission Vice President Margaritis Schinas, who also handles migration for the 27-nation bloc, said.
“The clock has run out on how long Europe can live without a migration policy,” said Schinas, who was in Greece to discuss the Moria fire with Greek officials.
The EU’s executive commission plans to present a new “pact for migration and asylum” on September 30, he said.
According to Schinas, the pact will foresee agreements with migrants’ countries of origin and transit to persuade people not to embark on the voyage to Europe, as well a “robust” system to manage the EU’s external borders, including “a new European border and coastguard, with many more staff, boats, instruments and tools”.
It will also include “a system of permanent, effective solidarity in shouldering the responsibility of asylum” among EU countries, Schinas said.
On Thursday, French President Emanuel Macron announced that France and Germany were in talks to take in some of the unaccompanied minors who had been living in Moria.
German Interior Minister Horst Seehofer said on Friday that 10 EU countries had agreed to participate in taking in unaccompanied children from Moria and that talks were ongoing with other countries.
He said Germany and France would take the largest share, “about two-thirds” of the 406 teenagers and children who had been living at the camp without parents or guardians.
German officials identified the other countries as Belgium, Croatia, Finland, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Portugal, Slovenia, and Switzerland.