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Greek police begin moving asylum-seekers into new camp

KARA TEPE, Greece (AP) — A Greek police operation was underway on the island of Lesbos Thursday to move thousands of migrants and refugees who have been sleeping on a roadside after a fire destroyed their overcrowded camp into a new facility on the island.

Police said the morning operation included 70 female police officers who were approaching asylum-seekers with the aim of persuading them to move to the new camp in the island’s Kara Tepe area. No violence was reported as the operation began.

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The U.N. refugee agency’s local representative welcomed the move.

“As long as it is peaceful, we believe it is a good move, considering that here on the street it is a risk for security, for public health and it’s not dignity which we need for everyone,” said Astrid Castelein, head of the UNHCR’s office on Lesbos.

The notoriously squalid Moria camp burned down last week in fires that Greek authorities said were deliberately set by a small group of the camp’s inhabitants angered by lockdown restrictions imposed after a coronavirus outbreak.

The blazes have left more than 1,200 people in need of emergency shelter. The vast majority have been sleeping rough by the side of a road leading from Moria to the island capital of Mytilene, erecting makeshift shelters made of sheets, blankets, reeds and cardboard.

The new camp consists of large family tents erected in a field by the sea. By Wednesday night, it had a capacity of around 8,000 people, according to the UN refugee agency, but only around 1,100 mostly vulnerable people had entered.

New arrivals are tested for the coronavirus, registered and assigned a tent.

“This is an operation for the protection of public health and with a clear humanitarian content,” the police said in a statement.

It said 450 people had been moved to Kara Tepe on Thursday morning, and 250 of them had already entered the new camp after undergoing a rapid test for the coronavirus. The rest were waiting to enter, while more people were due to arrive.

The medical aid organization Doctors Without Borders, or MSF, said Greek police were preventing its staff on the island from accessing a clinic it has set up there.

“We are the only medical organization in that particular zone, but we continue to not have access!” MSF Greece tweeted. “Many people need medical help but we can’t reach them. Why are they stopping us?”

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Six Afghans, including two minors, were arrested on suspicion of causing last week’s fires at Moria. The blazes broke out after isolation orders were issued during a generalized camp lockdown, when 35 people tested positive for the coronavirus.

Moria had a capacity of just over 2,700 people, but more than 12,500 people had been living in and around it when it burned down. The camp and its squalid conditions were held up by critics as a symbol of Europe’s failed migration policies.

Greece has long called for more solidarity from other European Union countries, saying it should not be left to shoulder the burden of the continent’s migration issues just because of its geographical location on the EU’s southeastern border.

Several countries have said they will take in some of those who had been in Moria, but all were pledges to take only some of the 406 unaccompanied teenagers and children who had been living there. The minors were flown to the northern Greek mainland the day after Moria was destroyed.

Germany, however, said earlier this week it would take in 1,553 refugees from the Greek islands who had already had their asylum applications approved. On Wednesday night, Luxembourg Foreign Minister Jean Asselborn told Germany’s ARD television that his country would take in up to 15 refugees.

Belgium has offered to relocate between 100 and 150 refugees, mainly families with children, mothers or single women, while it pledged last week to take in 12 of the unaccompanied minors.

Becatoros reported from Athens. Geir Moulson in Berlin and Samuel Petrequin in Brussels contributed.