Teargas fired during migrant protests on Greek island of Lesbos

Teargas fired during migrant protests on Greek island of Lesbos
Thousands of asylum seekers have been sleeping rough on Lesbos since Wednesday when the Moria camp was destroyed in apparent arson attacks.
4 min read
12 September, 2020
Many have spent months in desperate conditions on the island [Getty]
Greek riot police fired tear gas at protesting asylum seekers on Lesbos island on Saturday as tensions simmered following the catastrophic fire that ripped through Europe's largest migrant camp there this week.

Thousands of asylum seekers have been sleeping rough on Lesbos since Wednesday when the Moria camp was destroyed in apparent arson attacks, with families huddling under blankets and sleeping in doorways or by roads. 

Clashes occurred on Saturday noon near a new temporary camp built by Greek authorities where hundreds of young men gathered to protest, some throwing stones at riot police who responded with tear gas.

A fire set there earlier in the day near a police blockade had to be extinguished by the fire brigade. 

"Freedom!" said one handwritten sign held up by a protester. "We want to leave Moria," said another. 

Round-the-clock efforts to find temporary shelter for over 11,000 people made homeless by the destruction of the Moria camp were still inadequate, rights groups said.

"As thousands are now left sleeping rough in the hills around Moria or on the streets, tensions between local residents, asylum seekers, and police are increasing," Human Rights Watch warned in a statement on Saturday.

The Moria camp, which had been regularly criticised by the UN and rights groups for overcrowding and its dismal sanitary conditions, burned down in successive fires on Tuesday night and Wednesday.

Officials have blamed migrants for the blazes, the first breaking out shortly after 35 people tested positive for coronavirus and were facing isolation measures.

Many of the mostly Afghan asylum seekers have spent months in desperate conditions on the island, hoping in vain to be allowed to cross tightly shut European borders.

Greek Migration Minister Notis Mitarachi on Saturday said the new camp, a few kilometres (miles) from Moria at a location near the sea, would open later on Saturday with capacity for 3,000 people. 

"Rapid tests for coronavirus will be conducted at the entrance," Mitarachi told Skai TV.

Alexandros Ragavas, a spokesman for the migration ministry, said vulnerable asylum seekers would be the first to be housed.

"We will give priority to families. It will be tents of six and the camp will be separated by ethnicities. The process of moving people will start today," he told AFP.

Local objections

Local volunteer groups have faced difficulty in supplying asylum seekers with food and water.

"We are sleeping in the dirt or on the road under the open sky," a group of migrants from the former camp said on Facebook, noting that some people had even found shelter under the trees of the local Greek cemetery.

Sleeping on the roadside and in parking lots, men, women and children have made use of whatever they can find in nearby fields, pinning tarpaulins on tree branches and reeds in a bid for privacy and protection from the beating sun. 

The local mayor has rejected efforts to build new temporary camps as "unrealistic" and residents have tried to stop the construction of new camps by setting up roadblocks.

Army and fire service helicopters have been used to bypass the barriers.

"Any thought to rebuild this sort of thing should be forgotten," Mytilene Mayor Stratis Kytelis told Antenna TV on Friday.

"The island's society cannot take any more... for reasons of health, social cohesion, national security," Kytelis said.

'Making the same mistake'

The plight of the stranded families has prompted other European countries to offer to take in hundreds of asylum seekers, particularly unaccompanied youngsters.

But Greece has long complained that, aside from providing funds, its EU partners have done too little to help.

Efforts in the past to create a quota system, which would have seen all European countries agree to take in refugees from Greece, have floundered due to opposition from right-wing governments, in particular in Poland and Hungary.

"Moria is the Europe we need to change. High time for a truly European Migration Policy," European Commission vice-president Margaritis Schinas tweeted Thursday after visiting the island.

"The fires highlight the failure of the European Union's 'hotspot approach' on (Greek) islands, which has led to the containment of thousands of people... with the aim of returning them to Turkey, from which they transited," HRW said.

"Some EU members have voiced agreement to relocate limited numbers of asylum seekers from Lesbos, but the EU response is hardly adequate or united".

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