On the island of Lesbos, migrants in sleeping bags, small tents, and on blankets lined a coastal road between the now-gutted Moria refugee camp and the Greek town of Mytilene. Others sought makeshift shelter in parking lots, fields, and even a cemetery after the camp burned down last week. “They need to evacuate the island to get people to dignified accommodation,” said Josie Naughton, CEO of the aid group Help Refugees.
Fires broke out in three areas of Moria late Sept. 8. Another the following night destroyed what remained of the camp. Authorities did not report any deaths, but the blazes displaced about 12,000 people who lived in the camp originally built to hold 3,000. The fires revived a yearslong migration crisis as European Union members fight over how to resettle the thousands of migrant and refugee arrivals from more than 70 countries.
Naughton described conditions in Moria before the fire as “absolutely horrific.” The organization, which has operated in Lesbos since 2015, worked with its partners to provide food, tents, and blankets. “It was grassroots actors who have been providing people with the very basics, installing toilets and running water,” she said.
Naughton expressed concern for the children who made up about 40 percent of the camp’s population. In a December 2019 report, psychologists working with the refugees told the BBC a rising number of children were self-harming and attempting suicide. Greek authorities have transferred 406 unaccompanied and separated children from the destroyed camp to the mainland.
A Greek court in Mytilene on Wednesday charged four Afghan migrants with arson, while authorities detained two other minors involved. Authorities accused the migrants of starting the fire after COVID-19 isolation measures sparked anger.
After the fire, Greek security forces cordoned off the area and used tear gas and stun grenades to keep migrants from entering towns. Authorities opened a new temporary facility on a nearby former military firing range. Neat rows of white United Nations tents lined the open area. But many migrants chose to remain on the streets, concerned authorities would close off the new camp and restrict them from other parts of the island. Many feared returning to a crowded space with meager resources. On Thursday, police began moving people off the streets, and more than 5,000 refugees from Moria had checked into the new camp, Greek Immigration and Asylum Minister Notis Mitarachi said.
Efstathia Thanou, a lawyer with the Greek Council for Refugees, said many of the migrants had hoped authorities would send them to the mainland or other European countries. Thanou visited the temporary camp on Tuesday but could not access the residential area. She asked authorities about providing legal and psychosocial support for the migrants. “What we saw are the authorities trying to deal with the immediate need,” she said. “In their opinion, it’s to have people inside the camp.”
Tens of thousands of migrants remain in camps like Moria across different Greek islands after arriving on Lesbos, a Greek island off the coast of Turkey, at the height of the migration crisis in 2015. Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis on Tuesday asked the European Union to help: “There must be shared responsibility not only for construction but also for the operation of the camp.”
European Council President Charles Michel acknowledged the need for more progress and pledged solidarity with Greece. The EU’s executive committee will review the bloc’s migration policy in the coming weeks, including proposals on border policing and uniform asylum regulations.