MORIA, Lesbos — Some asylum-seekers on the Greek island of Lesbos moved into temporary tent housing Saturday, part of the thousands left homeless after fires destroyed the notoriously overcrowded Moria migrant camp.
More than 100 people moved into the new camp built with UNHCR tents after first undergoing coronavirus tests. Over 12,000 people were left homeless after fires on Tuesday and Wednesday gutted the Moria camp in the midst of a coronavirus lockdown.
Officials say the blazes were deliberately set by some camp residents who were angry at quarantine orders imposed after 35 people in Moria tested positive for COVID-19. Thousands have spent four nights sleeping in the open under improvised shelters of reed stalks, blankets and salvaged tents.
The Moria camp was built to house around 2,750 but overcrowding led to more than 12,500 people living in squalor, and had been held up by critics as a symbol of the European Union’s migration policy failings.
Authorities flew in the new tents by helicopter to avoid protests by residents angered at the use of their island as a holding center for thousands of people from the Mideast, Africa and Asia arriving from nearby Turkey.
The new camp has a capacity of around 3,000, although authorities have said they will provide housing for all left homeless. Plans to use a ferry as temporary accommodation for migrants have been stymied after local officials demanded to know how long the ship would be used.
Some children among the first families to move into the new tent camp discovered a small beach nearby and were playing in the water.
Earlier Saturday, many migrants held a mostly peaceful protest demanding to be allowed to leave the island, a gathering that also drew supporters with Black Lives Matter signs.
“We need peace & freedom. Moria kills all lives,” read one. One scuffle with riot police broke out but was short-lived.
Leaving the island would require bending EU rules, under which asylum-seekers reaching Greek islands must stay until they are either granted refugee status or deported back to Turkey.
Authorities say none of the camp’s residents — except for 406 unaccompanied minors — will be allowed to leave Lesbos. Those teens and children were flown to the Greek mainland on Wednesday, and several European countries will take some of them in.
Other countries have pledged assistance for a new camp to be built on Lesbos, a development that neither local residents nor the migrants want.
Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz underlined his hardline stance on migration in a Facebook video on Saturday.
“Some migrants have set alight and destroyed the Moria refugee camp on Lesbos to create pressure so that they can get from Lesbos to the European mainland,” Kurz said. “If we give way to this pressure, we risk making the same mistake as in 2015. We risk people getting up false hopes and setting off for Greece, the smuggling business flourishing and once again countless people drowning in the Mediterranean.”
“What we want to and will do is help on the spot, so that humane supply and accommodation is ensured,” Kurz said.
Human Rights Watch said the Moria fires “highlight the failure of the European Union’s ‘hotspot approach.’” It demanded that European nations take responsibility to support asylum-seekers and that Greece make sure it respects human rights as it responds to the fire.
Many asylum-seekers described life in Moria as being worse than much of what they had endured on their long, painful journeys toward a better life in Europe.
“While in Africa, we walked from 7 p.m. till 5 a.m. in the morning to avoid the heat and the police. That was hard. But being here, stuck, I think is worse,” said Amados Iam, a 23-year-old from Mauritania. “I didn’t come all the way to stay here. (I) want to leave Greece.”
Iam arrived in Moria three months ago with his 19-year-old brother. Both have suffered severe stomach issues, and Iam said a doctor in Lesbos told them it was due to the poor living conditions, including bad quality water and food.
The brothers left Mauritania in 2017, crossing North Africa on foot and then making their way by truck to Turkey. Drought had ruined their mother’s farm, so Iam couldn’t continue studying, and the brothers feared conscription or being killed by the armed groups coming in from Mali.
All their paperwork had been completed but the brothers have heard nothing about the status of their asylum request, they said. Their intended destination is France or Belgium.