After fire destroyed Greek camp, refugees seek European support

Tensions rise on Lesbos after Moria fire, with fears new, permanent reception centre could limit refugees’ freedom.

Lesbos Fire - What next?
Asylum seekers previously living in the Moria camp on Lesbos are now sleeping rough in front of a Greek supermarket in improvised shelters [Anna Pantelia/Al Jazeera]

Lesbos, Greece – In the middle of the burned remains that were once the Moria refugee camp lies a notebook left behind by one of the thousands of people who rushed to save their lives when fires tore through the sprawling refugee camp on Lesbos.

On one page, a few basic sentences. The book had belonged to an Afghan refugee trying to learn English, as they attempted to start a new life away from war.

“What is your favourite sport”, “My favourite sport is football”, “What do you do in your free time”, “I usually study book”, “What is your nationality”, “I am Afghan”.

He or she is likely one of the thousands of people who are now left searching for answers on the streets of Lesbos.

Since the fire almost a week ago, which left about 13,000 people without shelter, thousands have been sleeping on roadsides and petrol station forecourts.

A temporary camp nearby has been constructed to house some of the former Moria residents, but there is concern over plans for a permanent reception centre for refugees and migrants on Lesbos.

Locals reject the plan, aid workers have humanitarian concerns, and refugees fear the centre will resemble a prison, leaving them unable to start new lives in other EU countries.

Amid protests, with police firing tear gas at demonstrators, and journalists widely denied access to the site where thousands are currently sleeping over the past two days, the situation is tense.

According to the police, a “military operation” was ongoing and there were orders from the chief of police to keep journalists away from the area.

According to the Greek Ministry of Migration, there are now approximately 300 people in the new temporary camp, which has capacity for some 3,000 people.

Lesbos Fire - What next?
An Afghan boy holds a sign saying ‘We need peace, freedom’ during a peaceful demonstration on September 12, demanding to be allowed to leave Lesbos island. [Anna Pantelia/Al Jazeera]

One young father from Afghanistan, who has been sleeping on the streets for days, described feeling bereft and worried about going to the new temporary camp without his wife, who he usually makes key decisions with.

After the fire, she was hospitalised and he was left caring for their six children, including an eight-month-old baby. 

Those who have been living on the streets feel abandoned by the “Europe” they hoped for when they crossed the sea to reach Greece.

“Everyone knows what’s happening,” said Marzia, 27, bouncing her three-month-old baby on her lap. “Angela Merkel sees us and closes her eyes. I came here for my children and nobody has opened the way for me.”

Food distribution has been hectic and sometimes non-existent but Marzia says eating is less important to her than leaving the island.

“We don’t want food, we need freedom,” she said.

At protests this weekend, people raised cardboard placards bearing slogans such as “we want, peace, freedom”, and “Europe, help”.

They were met on Saturday with tear gas by riot police and small children were among those affected. Rallies on Sunday were mainly led by women and children who chanted “No camp, freedom.”

“We don’t want to go, we never want to go back again,” said Nazir Ahmad, 26, a refugee from Afghanistan.

He sleeps in the car park of a supermarket. As twilight falls, children play exuberant games of hopscotch and a group of men play volleyball.

Just a week ago, this car park would have been empty on a Sunday evening.

“I have two children and my wife is pregnant again,” said Ahmad. “We have been one year and two months here. How can I go back to a camp here again? We will go anywhere except here.

“We want to go to the mainland or another European country, at least to be somewhere where people understand us.

“They use tear gas against us and on my children. We had to save ourselves from Afghanistan but here we are sometimes in danger from other refugees, from far-right people and sometimes from police.”

Nazanin, who is 14 years old, writes a message carefully on her phone that she wants to share.

“All of the refugees want freedom from this situation, we don’t want hell again, we want help from Europe,” she types. “Please share it with people from Europe,” she says and asks if people in other European countries care about the situation she is in.

A couple of children sitting on the side of the road hold a cardboard sign, written in German, addressing Horst Seehofer, the German interior minister. “Mr Seehofer, say yes, thank you,” it says.

Some federal states in Germany have offered to take in refugees from Lesbos and the mayors of cities such as Cologne and Dusseldorf have written a letter to Seehofer and Chancellor Angela Merkel to this effect.

Greece has repeatedly called for greater European solidarity over the years to deal with the serious overcrowding on the Aegean island camps.

The new temporary camp is visible from the Moria-Mytilene road, dotted with white UNHCR tents.

In a press conference on Sunday, Notis Mitarakis, the Greek migration minister, said it would be “temporary,” but confirmed there would be a new “permanent” structure on the island soon.

Before the fire, there had been discussions about “closed and controlled” camps from the Ministry of Migration in light of the first confirmed case of coronavirus infection in Moria camp, which had about 35 confirmed cases before it burned to the ground.

Now coronavirus is only one of many problems facing people who fled Moria.

On the streets, conversations are bursting with questions. “What is going to happen to us? Do you know? Have any European countries offered to take us?”

For now, as tensions simmer, there is little to do but wait.

In the twilight of Sunday evening, a small girl approaches holding her arm, which has a cut on it.

“Are you a doctor?” she asks. A mother also asks for milk formula for her baby, she has none.

At protests this weekend, people raised cardboard placards bearing slogans such as “We want peace, freedom”, and “Europe, help”.

Lesbos Fire - What next?
An Afghan woman runs to escape tear gas that Greek riot police fired against the crowd after a peaceful demonstration in Kara Tepe, Lesbos [Anna Pantelia/Al Jazeera]
Source: Al Jazeera