MYTILENE – Authorities on Friday sought to shelter thousands of refugees and migrants on the Greek island of Lesbos after fires destroyed the squalid and overcrowded Moria camp that for years symbolized Europe's biggest migration policy failings.
Soldiers set up new tents on a site near Moria's blackened remnants. The structures were flown in by military helicopters to forestall protests by Lesbos' permanent residents angry at their island's protracted use as a holding center for thousands arriving from nearby Turkey.
Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis said authorities have “moved very fast” to construct a temporary facility.
Thousands of people who fled the camp prepared to sleep rough for a third night, under makeshift shelters beside the road to the island capital of Mytilene, in parking lots, fields and even a cemetery.
Greek officials said the fires on Tuesday and Wednesday were deliberately set by a tiny number of camp residents angered by isolation orders issued to prevent the spread of the coronavirus after 35 residents were found to have been infected.
Tents for about 3,000 people — out of Moria's 12,500 — are expected to be erected at the new Kara Tepe site, near Mytilene, while the first migrants and refugees were expected to move in Saturday.
Several hundred people from vulnerable groups were moved to rented accommodation, although a ferry sent to the other side of the island Thursday to temporarily house up to 1,000 people as a floating hotel remained inexplicably empty.
Earlier, thousands of the migrants and refugees held a brief protest demanding to be allowed to leave Lesbos. That would require severe bending of European Union rules, under which asylum-seekers reaching Greece's islands from Turkey must stay there until they are either granted refugee status or deported back to Turkey.
The protesters sang, danced, clapped and banged plastic water bottles together in a boisterous but peaceful demonstration. Some held signs requesting help from Germany, a favored destination for many who arrive in Greece. Police blocked the road to Mytilene, from where many had hoped to board ferries for the mainland.
Authorities have said that none of the camp's residents — except for 406 unaccompanied teenagers and children — would be allowed to leave the island. The unaccompanied minors were flown to the Greek mainland on Wednesday.
Moria had been under a lockdown until mid-September after the first virus case was identified in a Somali man who had been granted asylum and left for Athens but later returned to the camp.
On Friday, 200,000 rapid detection kits for the virus were flown to the island for an extensive testing drive that would include asylum-seekers and islanders.
The World Health Organization said Greece had asked for the deployment of an emergency medical team. Two such teams, one from Belgium and one from Norway, were expected Saturday and Monday.
The United Nations refugee agency said the pandemic is adding to "an already desperate situation.”
"UNHCR has advised all those previously staying in the (camp) to restrict their movements until temporary solutions are found,” it said. The advice appeared to be largely ignored.
“We have spent three days here without eating, without drinking. We are in conditions that are really, really not very good,” said Freddy Musamba, from Gambia.
“I want to speak about the European Union, who abandoned us, who left us here like this,” Musamba said. He called for 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.”
Aid organizations have long warned about dire conditions in the camp, which had a capacity of just over 2,750 but had more than 12,500 living in and around the facility before the fire.
Moria housed people from Africa, Asia and the Middle East who crossed illegally from Turkey fleeing poverty or conflict in their homeland. Under a 2016 deal between the EU and Turkey, those arriving on Greek islands 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 massive overcrowding.
“Moria is a sharp reminder to all of us for what we need to change in Europe,” said European Commission Vice President Margaritis Schinas, who also handles migration for the 27-nation bloc.
“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 Sept. 30.
Prime Minister Mitsotakis said Athens awaits the commission's proposals “with great interest.”
“And perhaps such a tragedy (as Moria) is needed to awaken consciences so that everybody in Europe realizes that management of the problem cannot just fall upon ... countries on Europe’s external borders,” he said during a meeting with Schinas.
According to Schinas, the pact will foresee agreements with migrants' countries of origin and transit to persuade people not to head for Europe, as well a “robust” system to manage the EU’s external borders, including “a new European border and coast guard, with many more staff, boats, instruments and tools.”
It will include “a system of permanent, effective solidarity in shouldering the responsibility of asylum” among EU countries, Schinas said.
German Interior Minister Horst Seehofer said 10 EU countries had agreed take in unaccompanied children from Moria, with Germany and France to take “about two-thirds.” German officials identified the other countries as Finland, Luxembourg, Slovenia, Croatia, the Netherlands, Portugal, Belgium and Switzerland.
Seehofer, who has insisted on a pan-European solution to the migrant issue, said later Friday there would also be “swift” measures to help families with children.
“I personally place great emphasis on reaching a swift solution for families with children,” he said. “Taking in 400 unaccompanied minors is only the first step. The second step will follow.”
Paphitis reported from Athens. Elena Becatoros in Athens, Iliana Mier in Lesbos, and Geir Moulson and Frank Jordans in Berlin contributed.