Thousands sleep in open after Greek refugee camp burns down

Thousands of refugees and migrants have spent a third night in the open on the Greek island of Lesbos after two consecutive nights of fires in the notoriously overcrowded Moria camp left them homeless.

Some awoke Friday after sleeping by the side of the road, having cut down reeds and used salvaged blankets to make rudimentary shelters to protect them from the night-time chill and the scorching day-time sun. Others used tents or had just sleeping bags to protect them from the elements.

Greek authorities have said the fires on Tuesday and Wednesday evening were deliberately set by some of the camp’s residents angered by isolation orders issued to prevent the spread of the coronavirus after 35 residents were found to have been infected.

The camp had been under a lockdown due to last until mid-September after the first virus case was identified in a Somali man who had been granted asylum and left the camp but later returned to Moria from Athens.

“We have spent three days here without eating, without drinking. We are in conditions that are really, really not very good,” Freddy Musamba, a former camp resident from Gambia who denounced the situation in Greece and the conditions under which he had been living.

“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 has a capacity of just over 2,750 people but was housing more than 12,500 inside and in a spillover tent city that sprang up in an adjacent olive grove.

The situation has led to spiraling tension, both among migrants and refugees inside the camp and with local residents who have long called for Moria to be shut down.

Moria houses people from Africa, Asia and the Middle East who arrived on the island from the nearby Turkish coast fleeing poverty or conflict in their homeland. Under a 2016 deal between the European Union and Turkey, those arriving on Greek islands would 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 in Moria and other camps on eastern Aegean islands.

The overcrowded camp and its dire conditions have been held up by critics as a symbol of failures in the EU’s migration and refugee policy.

“Moria is a sharp reminder to all of us for what we need to change in Europe,” European Commission Vice President Margaritis Schinas, who also handles migration for the 27-nation bloc, said.

“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, he said.

According to Schinas, the pact will foresee agreements with migrants’ countries of origin and transit to persuade people not to embark 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 also include “a system of permanent, effective solidarity in shouldering the responsibility of asylum” among EU countries, Schinas said.

He said that after the fire that gutted Moria, Greek authorities will have to “set up a new, more modern installation.”

“The European Union is ready not only to finance and support the construction of this new facility, but we are ready also to consider any Greek request for a more active role in the management of this new facility,” Schinas said.

On Thursday, French President Emanuel Macron announced that France and Germany were in talks to take in some of the children who had been living in Moria.

German Interior Minister Horst Seehofer said Friday that 10 EU countries had agreed to participate in taking in the unaccompanied children from Moria and that talks were ongoing with others.

He said Germany and France would take the largest share, “about two-thirds” of the 406 teenagers and children who had been living at the camp without parents or guardians.

German officials identified the other countries that would help take in the unaccompanied children as Finland, Luxembourg, Slovenia, Croatia, the Netherlands, Portugal, Belgium and Switzerland.

A program was already in place before the fire for several European countries to take in some of the thousands of unaccompanied minors, mostly teenagers, who were staying in refugee and migrant facilities across Greece.

The first fire in Moria on Tuesday night left around 3,500 of the camp’s inhabitants homeless, Greece’s migration minister had said. Tents were flown in and a ferry and two navy ships were to provide emergency accommodation. But the remnants of the camp were burned down on Wednesday night, leaving the remaining inhabitants with nowhere to stay.

On Wednesday, government spokesman Stelios Petsas stressed that none of the camp’s residents, except for unaccompanied children who had been living there, would be allowed to leave the island. The unaccompanied minors were flown to the mainland and temporarily housed in hotels on Wednesday night.

Thousands sleep in open after Greek refugee camp burns down