Greece ramps up emergency effort after Lesbos migrant camp fire

Greece ramps up emergency effort after Lesbos migrant camp fire

Greece ramps up emergency effort after Lesbos migrant camp fire

Greece ramped up efforts on Friday to build a new shelter for thousands of migrants left homeless by fires that destroyed the notorious Moria camp on Lesbos island this week, as entire families with small children continued to sleep rough on roadsides.

In a sign of growing frustration days after the blazes, hundreds staged a protest on the road between their charred camp and a town, carrying signs reading "we want freedom" and "we don't want a new camp" as riot police shadowed them.

In the streets of the island's main town, desperate families wandered aimlessly after spending a third night sleeping out in the open, on the sides of roads, in car parks or even at petrol stations.

"We've suffered here for three days," Congolese asylum-seeker Patricia Bob told AFP on the side of a road, sitting on a piece of cardboard serving as her mattress.

"We are hungry and thirsty, we have no toilets or showers."

The Greek military began helping to set up a replacement site on a hilltop army firing range near the burnt-down camp, but had to use helicopters to bypass roadblocks set up by locals opposed to rehousing the migrants on the island.

Some 11,500 asylum-seekers including 2,200 women and 4,000 children are without adequate shelter, the UN refugee agency said Friday, following the fires on Tuesday and Wednesday that gutted the Moria camp.

Over 70 percent are Afghans.

Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis vowed to build a new facility on the island -- but stressed that the EU had to take a more active role in running it.

"A new facility will be needed... it will be done... (but) the management model must be different," Mitsotakis said after meeting with European Commission vice-president Margaritis Schinas in Athens.

"We will discuss the maximum European participation in this effort," the PM said.

- Charities squeezed -

Eleven police vehicles -- some stopping the migrants from reaching a nearby port -- and two water cannon boosted the heavy presence seen on the island since the devastating blazes.

The influx of security personnel has complicated efforts by volunteer groups to give the hapless asylum-seekers assistance. 

"The police blocked several roads... there is no clarity in the government's plan and the situation remains chaotic," Faris Al-Jawad, a spokesman for medical charity MSF, told AFP.

The police forces are also there to prevent local hardliners from causing trouble. In February, efforts to build a new camp on Lesbos sparked days of clashes.

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

The government is desperate to prevent a more widespread infection among the island of 85,000 people. Only eight of the positive cases have been tracked down so far.

- Deal for unaccompanied youngsters -

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

The Moria camp, one of dozens built in Greece following the influx of people to Europe in 2015, was notoriously overcrowded -- often housing more than four times its intended capacity -- and became a lightning rod for local discontent.

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

An EU-wide asylum system fell apart under the strain of hundreds of thousands of arrivals, with other European nations accepting only a trickle of refugees, leaving thousands trapped in Greek camps.

Germany has used the fire to call for more solidarity in Europe and along with France agreed an initiative on Thursday for EU states to share out the roughly 400 unaccompanied children and young people from the camp.

The European Union must "assume more shared responsibility" for migration policy, German Chancellor Angela Merkel told a panel discussion in Berlin, addressing longstanding complaints of Greece and other southern nations.

While several EU states have agreed to take in the young migrants, including Germany, France, the Netherlands and Finland, Belgium refused and Denmark said it would send money instead.

Greece's conservative government has toughened its asylum restrictions, slashing cash benefits and accommodation provisions to discourage further migration.

The government has also passed a law aiming to limit the access of NGOs and charities to the camps and boost official control.

The man believed to have brought the virus to Moria, a 40-year-old Somali refugee, was tellingly among those hit by the new rules. 

He returned to Lesbos after failing to find a future in Athens, the migration ministry said.