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Thousands still homeless after Greek refugee camp fire

A migrant holds her baby as she runs to avoid a small fire in a field near Mytilene town, on Greece.
A migrant holds her baby as she runs to avoid a small fire in a field near Mytilene town, on the northeastern island of Lesbos, Greece.
(Petros Giannakouris/AP)

Thousands of asylum-seekers have spent a fourth night sleeping in the open on the Greek island of Lesbos, after successive fires destroyed a notoriously overcrowded migrant and refugee camp during a coronavirus lockdown.

Officials have said the Tuesday and Wednesday night blazes were deliberately set by some camp residents angered at quarantine and isolation orders imposed after 35 people in the Moria camp tested positive for COVID-19.

With the camp gutted, on Saturday morning men, women and children were sleeping under improvised shelters made of reed stalks, blankets and salvaged tents.

Thousands gathered for a protest demanding to be allowed to leave the island, gathering on a road blocked by police buses. The demonstration was loud but peaceful, with mainly children and women at the front. Riot police observed nearby as protesters chanted slogans and held up improvised banners made of pieces of cardboard or sheets.

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“We need peace & freedom. Moria kills all lives,” read one.

A few of the demonstrators wore masks in the tightly packed crowd of people who recently had lived in the camp, which had dozens of confirmed coronavirus cases before it burned down.

Leaving the island would require a bending of European Union rules, under which asylum-seekers reaching Greece’s islands from Turkey must stay there until they are either granted refugee status or deported back to Turkey.

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The Moria camp was built to house around 2,750 people but was so overcrowded that this week’s fires left more than 12,000 in need of emergency shelter on Lesbos. The camp had long been held up by critics as a symbol of Europe’s failings in migration policy.

Moria was put under a coronavirus lockdown until mid-September after the first case confirmed there was identified in a Somali man who had been granted asylum and left for Athens but later returned to the camp.

On Friday, 200,000 rapid-detection kits for the virus were flown to the island for an extensive testing drive that would include asylum-seekers and islanders.

The World Health Organization said Greece had asked for the deployment of an emergency medical team. Two such teams, one from Belgium and one from Norway, were expected to arrive on Saturday and Monday.

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Authorities have said none of the camp’s residents — except for 406 unaccompanied teenagers and children — would be allowed to leave the island. The unaccompanied minors were flown to the Greek mainland Wednesday, and several European countries have said they will take some of them in.

Soldiers have been setting up new tents to house about 3,000 people on a new nearby site, flown in by helicopter to avoid protests by local residents angered at the use of their island as a holding center for thousands of people from the Middle East, Africa and Asia arriving from nearby Turkey.

Moria’s overcrowded squalor created tension both among the camp’s inhabitants and with locals, whose initially generally welcoming attitude during the height of Europe’s refugee crisis in 2015 has waned over the years.

Many of the asylum-seekers in Moria described life there as being worse than much of what they had endured on their long, often painful journeys toward what they hoped was a better life in Europe.

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“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,” Amados Iam, a 23-year-old from Mauritania, said. “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 a doctor in the local hospital in Lesbos told them it was due to the poor living conditions, including bad quality water and food, in Moria, Iam said.

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 various armed groups coming from Mali and roaming in the south and west of Mauritania, they said.

All their paperwork had been completed but the brothers had heard nothing about the status of their asylum request, they said. Their intended destination was France or Belgium.

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