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After Fire Razes Squalid Greek Camp, Homeless Migrants Fear What’s Next


LESBOS, Greece — They’ve been sleeping on tombstones and on the side of the road, in parking lots and among dried weeds on the hillsides. They’ve pitched makeshift tents with bamboo poles and blankets. They’ve used the few clothes they have to make mattresses so their babies don’t sleep on tarmac.

About 4,000 children, including hundreds of infants, and 8,000 adults have been stranded without shelter or sanitation on the Greek island of Lesbos, most of them packed along a 1.5-mile stretch of coastal road, since blazes last week razed their squalid refugee camp, Europe’s largest.

“We escaped from fire, but everything is black,” said Mujtaba Saber, sitting on a thin blanket spread on a street, next to his napping three-year-old son. His 20-day-old baby slept nearby in her mother’s arms.

The fires have intensified what was already a humanitarian disaster on the Aegean islands, where Europe warehouses tens of thousands of migrants in overcrowded camps with severe shortages of toilets, showers, medical care and even food.

The camps are a centerpiece of the European Union’s strategy, following the migrant crisis of 2015-16, to slow the movement of people from the Middle East, Asia and Africa who try to reach Europe. The now-destroyed camp, called Moria after a nearby village, had for years been a byword for misery, an unflattering emblem of European policy.

The razing of the camp “was a tragedy,” Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis of Greece said in a speech on Sunday. “It was a warning bell to all to become sensitized. Europe cannot afford a second failure on the migration issue.”

Aid workers and Greek officials say the fires were started by a small group of asylum seekers who were angry that the government had instructed them to quarantine after an outbreak of coronavirus, and put the entire camp under a lockdown. But if Covid-19 was the spark that lit the tinderbox, its arrival in Moria was hardly a surprise.

The European Commission — the E.U. executive branch that has funded much of the construction and operation of the camps but has not taken responsibility for their squalor — and aid groups had warned that conditions there made Moria an ideal breeding ground for disease outbreaks.

What remains of Moria is a rancid pile of charred tents, ash and debris, melted metal frames, gutted communal toilets and burned rats lying next to potatoes and onions that will never be consumed.

More than one million undocumented people entered Europe in 2015, fleeing violence and poverty — primarily the war in Syria — and the vast majority arrived on Greece’s shores. Most headed north to the continent’s wealthier countries, particularly Germany, where many were able to settle. But some nations refused to take them in, and even in the most welcoming countries, the willingness to take in still more waned over time.

The European Union sent extra funding to Greece, and made deals with Turkey and Libya, paying them to stop the migrants from moving on. Those who reach Greece must remain in camps while their applications for asylum are processed, which can take more than a year.

Originally built to hold 3,000 newly arrived people, Moria quickly burst at the seams, spilling into surrounding olive groves and fields. Six months ago, more than 20,000 asylum seekers lived there.

The pandemic expedited the relocation of thousands of them, but by the time the fires struck last week, the camp was still dramatically overcrowded, hosting 12,600 people.

No one will miss it, homeless asylum seekers said, even as they faced more nights in the open.

“I think sleeping on the street is bad, but Moria is bad-bad,” said Mahbube Ahzani, 15, who had been in the camp with her family for 10 months. But what will be worse, she said, is the “new Moria.”

“They’re building it again, and I don’t want to go — it will be a prison,” she said of the tent city the Greek army has been setting up. The Greek authorities said they hoped to relocate the migrants over the next few days into 2,000 tents in the new seaside camp, fitting six people into each tent.

The migrants, nearly two-thirds of whom are Afghans, fear that they will simply be put back into a lockdown where the coronavirus will run rampant. Fewer than 1,000 people had voluntarily moved into the tent city by Sunday evening. Of 300 tested, seven were infected with the virus.

Asylum seekers desperate to be moved off Lesbos protested against the new camp Saturday, a small number clashing with Greek riot police, who responded with tear gas that sent women and children fleeing in screams.

After the first cases were detected in Moria earlier this month — eventually at least 35 people tested positive — the government responded by quarantining the entire camp, rather than isolating only the infected and their close contacts. Medical groups and aid workers protested that with thousands of people crowded together, the decision put everyone at risk, including pregnant women and elderly people.

The local authorities on Lesbos, hostile to any moves that could be interpreted as improving the lives of asylum seekers, obstructed the establishment of a response plan. They fined and threatened to sue the international medical charity Médecins Sans Frontières for alleged violations of urban planning rules with its temporary Covid-19 isolation facility, forcing the organization to shutter it. A similar clinic built with donations from the Dutch government had no staff and never operated.

Aid workers and officials say that a few camp residents who were furious about being told to isolate started a fire.

The homeless asylum seekers desperate to leave Lesbos are oddly aligned with the weary locals, who’ve seen their island change dramatically since 2015. Back then they helped rescue and feed Syrians who braved the crossing from Turkey in flimsy boats, but the handling of refugees since then, the growing population stuck in the camp and instances of petty crime have depleted reserves of generosity.

The Greek government, in a bid to manage the expectations of both groups, has said that most of the asylum seekers displaced by the blaze will remain on Lesbos. They worry that a mass relocation to the mainland, which many migrants have pleaded for, might trigger uprisings among the 15,000 people who are still stuck in grim camps on four other islands.

The government also wants to send a tough message, in keeping with the stricter migration policy of the new Greek government that has repelled asylum seekers from reaching Greece using methods that human rights group decry as illegal. Greece has repelled some migrants who reach the country’s waters, leaving them in rafts at sea.

According to officials, of the 12,600 who fled the fire, 400 were unaccompanied children who have already been taken to mainland Greece and will travel on to new homes across the European Union. Another 1,200 people have already been granted refugee status, and Mr. Mitsotakis, the prime minister, said he was in talks with Chancellor Angela Merkel about potentially relocating some of them to Germany.

And the European Commission, which has deflected responsibility for the grim conditions at Moria onto the Greek government, has raised the prospect of a new, improved first-reception facility on Lesbos that it would co-manage with Greece.

Still, several days after the fires, it had become clear that most E.U. countries were not scrambling to help Greece and Moria’s displaced. Most that have expressed an interest in taking in asylum seekers do not want large numbers, and want to pick them based on criteria that Greece has long decried as deeply unfair.

Many countries want only unaccompanied minors, and others said they would only take a few dozen Syrians or Yemenis, according to international migration officials. Speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to reporters, the officials welcomed the offers, but said the majority of those in need of assistance on the island were Afghans.

A new European Union migration and asylum policy, in the works for months and due to be presented this month, is meant to address the reluctance of most E.U. countries to take in any refugees from the countries where they first reach the continent, such as Greece and Italy. Their resistance to helping ease the crisis on Lesbos does not bode well for such an agreement.

“The near-total demolition of the Moria camp has removed the fig leaf that allowed policymakers to avert their eyes from the fact that an E.U.-unworthy solution to the reception of newcomers has persisted for years now,” said Hanne Beirens, director of the Brussels-based think tank Migration Policy Institute Europe, in a note.

“Keeping asylum seekers on an island, in some cases for years, under the bleakest of conditions, is symptomatic of a Europe that is unable to craft an equitable solution around burden-sharing,” she said.

For some on Lesbos, the fire and the coronavirus are just more curveballs in a yearslong journey to safety and the prospect of a meaningful life.

Sixteen-year-old Yaser Taheri was taking tea and bread with his family on Sunday, beside a small chapel in an olive groves, where they had slept since fire took their tent and, critically, their asylum papers.

The family had been granted asylum but was waiting for new identification cards when the fire struck. Despite the setback, Mr. Taheri said he was determined to get off Lesbos and go back to school.

“I should be at school, but the situation I’m in I have no possibilities to study and working may be all that I can do for now,” he said. “But this can’t be forever. “I don’t want to leave my education, I came here for it.”

Niki Kitsantonis contributed reporting from Athens.

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