Greece has promised that migrants rendered homeless after devastating fires in Europe’s largest refugee camp will be relocated to the island “within days” in spite of fierce opposition from locals.
The country’s Minister of Migration Notis Mitarachi said the resettlement process of more than 12,500 men, women and children forced to flee the facility on Lesbos is well underway, although the coronavirus pandemic has meant it took even longer.
“It will take a few days, but all those affected will be moved to this temporary place behind me,”
Rapid tests of Covid-19 were conducted before anyone walked in to make sure it remained “a safe community,” Mitarachi said. Erected in a former shooting range with a view to the sea, the replacement camp is the government’s response to the humanitarian emergency that erupted last week after fires broke out in the now-gutted detention center in Moria.
A series of fires, starting on Tuesday, decimated the notoriously overcrowded structure, forcing thousands of people to take refuge in the surrounding countryside. In the ensuing chaos, refugees slept poorly, many in makeshift shelters along the side of a stretch of road leading to Mytilene, the island’s port capital, under heavy police guard.
Others had sought refuge in olive groves, churches, supermarket parking lots and even a local cemetery as authorities and aid groups struggled to bring water and food. The prospect of being moved to a new site was not welcomed by either the refugees or the locals.
Lesbos, which faces Turkey, has long been at the forefront of refugee arrivals. Nearly one million displaced Syrians landed on its shores in rubber dinghies and ramshackle boats at the height of the country’s civil war as the migrant crisis in Europe peaked.
For migrants forced to endure long waits for processing applications, the Aegean island is not the promised land expected when they embarked on the often perilous journey to Europe.
On Sunday, a day after riot police fired tear gas at protesters, many refused to enter the new site for fear they would never leave. Mitarachi insisted that those who remained outside would not be transferred to the mainland. “The best solution for them to move forward with asylum applications is in the camp,” he said, arguing that the center-right government’s migration policies were “tough but fair”.
Fears of a spate of coronavirus cases, authorities say, have made it increasingly vital that people living in the camp are found and tested. Before the hells, 35 Moria residents had been diagnosed with the virus, with the Greek migration minister telling reporters “there could be 200 cases … at this point.”
In Thessaloniki, Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis said the combination of the pandemic and the migration crisis created “an explosive mix” and blamed the “hyperactive asylum seekers” hoping that the destruction of Moria would see them transferred to Athens.
But he also expressed optimism that the end of a structure long deplored by human rights groups for its appalling conditions could mark the beginning of a new era for Europe in its often botched handling of the issue.
“I want to believe that this tragedy is a wake-up call for everyone,” he said, adding that no matter what happened, a new camp would be built on Lesbos with the help of Europe. “I asked that the EU be involved in the management of the new center wherever it is located [on the island]. I would like to see the flag of Greece and Europe waving from the trees. “
Athens has long complained that, aside from funds, it has received little solidarity from the 27-member bloc. “We cannot fail a second time as Europe in handling the migrant crisis,” said Mitsotakis.