Authorities were quick to start setting up tents in Lesbos after thousands of men, women and children forced by devastating fires to evacuate Greece’s largest refugee camp had a second night of restless sleep.
Faced with intense opposition from local officials who now demanded that the notoriously overcrowded Moria facility be removed “once and for all”
Chinook helicopters, carrying tents and other vital equipment, could be seen landing on a military firing range not far from Mytilene, the island’s main city, and rows of large white tents began to erect.
Officials said it was hoped that by the weekend they would be able to accommodate 2,000 to 3,000 people at the temporary site, adding that a ferry and at least two military vessels had been deployed to accommodate several thousand more, although it was unclear whether they would do it is enough.
“We are ready with the tents, we are ready to cover the needs of families and vulnerable groups,” said Greek migration minister, Notis Mitarachis. “There is a serious problem of collaboration with the local administration, which has rejected every alternative proposal we have made to make these people sleep [somewhere] safe. “
He admitted that the rescue was chaotic, describing the situation as “particularly difficult”.
As a sign of growing frustration, asylum seekers surrounded by riot police and water cannons begged for help, many with cardboard placards proclaiming, “We want freedom.”
Without shelter, young and old families had been forced to sleep where they could: in churches, cemeteries, fields, supermarket parking lots and along roadsides. Three days after the first wave of fires completely devastated the Moria hill field, a 15-minute drive from Mytilene, an estimated 12,500 people were still forced to fend for themselves.
Refugees interviewed by Greek TV against the backdrop of blankets and makeshift shelters scattered along one of the island’s main avenues spoke nostalgically about the detention center. “Moria much better. Here no food, no water [and it is] very cold, “said a young man amidst scenes that evoked the first wave of refugees that arrived in the summer of 2015.
Without the basic infrastructure it was impossible to keep spoiled food in the blistering heat of the day, said another as the camera approached crates 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 arrived on its shores in rickety barges from Turkey as the Syrian civil war forced people to head to Europe in seek security.
From that drama Moria was born. Designed to house no more than 3,000 people, the detention center soon transformed into a mega-camp nearly 10 times that number as the influx of asylum seekers increased. Lesbos initially greeted the newcomers, before compassion turned to exasperation and then anger in the wake of a rise in crime.
Speaking in Athens with Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis, European Commission Vice President Margaritis Schinas, who is Greek, described Moria as “a strong reminder” of what now needed to change.
“Time is up on how long Europe can go without a migration policy,” he said, adding that the EU will soon unveil a new “migration and asylum pact” which provides a robust system to manage the blockade outside the 27 members. borders.
Mitsotakis, like his predecessors, bitterly lamented the inadequate solidarity from Brussels, saying that Greece, as a frontier country, was forced to take disproportionate responsibilities in dealing with migratory flows from the Middle East, Asia and increasingly from 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 had fled the fires but by Friday they too had disappeared, forcing Mitarachis to admit that Lesbos was facing “a very serious public health problem”.
A plane carrying around 200,000 Covid-19 rapid test kits arrived on the island as the first tents began to rise. Each refugee will be tested by doctors before entering any form of official temporary accommodation.
“People are very worried,” said Yannis Mastroyiannis, who presides over the village of Moria overlooking what remains of the facility. “After all these years we are very tired. If they are to be kept here, it should be somewhere very remote. “
Greece’s center-right government blamed the fires on asylum seekers protesting blockade measures in the camp after Covid-19 infections were detected among residents. He vowed to bring the perpetrators to justice, although the refugees contested the official version of the facts. Hints that vigilantes might be behind the arson attacks are also widespread.
Everyone agrees that Moria is gone. But the specter of any place that replaces the infamous camp – one that in the minds of local residents has associated Lesbos with squalor and international outrage – is also unlikely to be accepted. In a statement, the island’s municipality warned it would use “any means” to stop another camp to replace “the abomination that was Moria”.
“The decision on this issue is final,” he said. “We ask the competent authorities to cooperate … before it is too late.”
A senior city official confided that if common sense did not prevail, right-wing extremists would simply take matters into their own hands.