Moria migrants and Greek islanders protest over new camp

7:02 am on 12 September 2020

Thousands of migrants and refugees left without shelter after a fire on the Greek island of Lesbos have been protesting against the construction of a replacement camp.

Refugees and migrants from the destroyed Moria camp protest to call for their resettlement in front of a police blockade near the town of Mytilene and the Kara Tepe camp, on 11 September 2020, on the island of Lesbos.

Refugees and migrants from the destroyed Moria camp protest in front of a police blockade near the town of Mytilene and the Kara Tepe camp, on the island of Lesbos. Photo: AFP

Almost 13,000 people had been living in squalor in the overcrowded Moria camp and are desperate to leave the island.

The island's residents also oppose the reconstruction of the camp and have blocked roads to stop aid deliveries.

But the Greek army has already begun setting up replacement accommodation.

Families have been sleeping in fields and on roads after fleeing the blaze on Wednesday, as authorities struggle to find accommodation for them.

The Moria camp was initially designed to house 3000 migrants. People from 70 countries had been sheltered there, most from Afghanistan.

On Friday, migrants and refugees approached police barriers blocking the road out of Moria camp, holding signs calling for "freedom" and opposing the construction of a new camp.

There is also strong resistance from locals for a new camp to house them.

"We don't want another camp, and we will oppose any construction work," local leader Vangelis Violatzis was quoted as saying.

"We've faced this situation for five years, it's time for others to bear this burden."

The question of how to deal with the mass arrivals of migrants, mainly to Italy and Greece, has divided the EU for years.

Italy and Greece have accused wealthier northern countries of failing to do more, while a number of central and eastern nations are openly resistant to the idea of taking in a quota of migrants.

After visiting the area on Thursday, European Commission Vice-President Margaritis Schinas announced that the devastated camp would be replaced by a modern facility at the same location.

He has also said that the Commission's proposals for a new pact on migration and asylum, due to be presented on 30 September, will "put an end to this unacceptable situation".

Migrants wearing masks gather outside the Moria camp on the island of Lesbos during a major fire there on September 9, 2020.

Migrants wearing masks gather outside the Moria camp during a major fire there on 9 September 2020. Photo: AFP / Manolis Lagoutaris

What else is happening?

On Friday, Germany announced that 10 European countries had agreed to take 400 unaccompanied minors who had been living in Moria.

German Interior Minister Horst Seehofer said France and Germany would each accept between 100 and 150 of the children. The Netherlands has already pledged to accept 50 and Finland will take 11. Talks are ongoing with other states to take part, Seehofer said.

Other countries expected to take in children include Switzerland, Belgium, Croatia, Slovenia, Luxembourg and Portugal, according to German reports.

The fire at Moria was "a sharp reminder to all of us for what we need to change in Europe", the interior minister said.

But a group of charities and NGOs have written to the German government saying more has to be done for all of the migrants, not just those minors.

"The shameful situation in the camp and the fire disaster are the direct result of a failed European refugee policy - now the EU must finally help the people affected," the open letter reads.

All 400 children have now been flown to the Greek mainland.

EU home affairs commissioner Ylva Johansson said on Wednesday that the EU had agreed to finance the transfer of the minors to the mainland and their accommodation.

"The safety and shelter of all people in Moria is a priority," she tweeted.

What caused the fire at the camp?

Fires broke out in more than three places overnight on Tuesday, according to local fire chief Konstantinos Theofilopoulos. Further fires left the camp almost completely destroyed.

The fires started hours after reports that 35 people had tested positive for Covid-19 at the camp. Authorities placed the facility under quarantine last week after a Somali migrant was confirmed to have contracted coronavirus.

Eight of the 35 who tested positive for Covid-19 are since believed to have been found and isolated.

Greek Migration Minister Notis Mitarachi said the fires "began with the asylum seekers because of the quarantine imposed". Some of those infected with the virus had reportedly refused to move into isolation with their families.

He did not say, however, that the fires were a deliberate act of arson aimed at destroying the camp.

Meanwhile, some migrants told BBC Persian that the fire had broken out after scuffles between migrants and Greek forces at the camp.

Migrants leave as a fire burns in the Moria camp on the island of Lesbos on September 9, 2020.

Migrants leave as a fire burns in the Moria camp on the island of Lesbos on 9 September 2020. Photo: AFP / Manolis Lagoutaris

What is being done for the migrants?

As the military begins constructing new tents on Lesbos, Greece has also sent three ships to provide accommodation for some 2000 migrants.

The Blue Star Chios ferry, which has capacity to house 1000 people, has docked at the Lesbos port of Sigri. Two naval vessels have also been provided.

But officials have also increased security on the island. Military personnel, riot police and water cannon have arrived at the scene.

On a car park outside a supermarket on Thursday, hundreds of migrants, including families with small children, waited for bottled water and food to be distributed.

"There is no food, no milk for the baby," Congolese migrant Natzy Malala, who had a newborn infant and an eight-year-old girl, told Reuters news agency.


Get the RNZ app

for ad-free news and current affairs