Greek authorities have begun moving thousands of refugees to a new army-built camp on the island of Lesbos after a fire destroyed the country's largest migrant facility last week.
More than 12,500 people from 70 countries, mostly refugees from Afghanistan, African nations, and Syria, were left without shelter and access to food, water, and proper sanitation when fire decimated the overcrowded Moria camp.
Authorities dressed in masks and white protective suits have so far guided some 1,800 migrants and refugees, who had been sleeping in makeshift shelters on the side of the road, to the new temporary facility at Kara Tepe near the port of Mytilene.
Seventy female officers were flown in to organize the transfer of women and children to the new camp. No violence was reported.
"As long as it is peaceful, we believe it is a good move," said Astrid Castelein, head of the U.N. refugee agency's office on Lesbos. "Here on the street it is a risk for security, for public health, and it's not dignity, which we need for everyone."
Authorities have charged five Afghan asylum-seekers with starting the fires. Law enforcement officials say that the blazes broke out after 35 people tested positive for the coronavirus, triggering a lockdown of camp residents. A small group of inhabitants objected to being put into isolation. There have been no reported deaths as a result of the fires.
Greek officials say the new camp is equipped to host at least 5,000 people, but many migrants are hesitant to move there. Moria had a capacity of roughly 2,700 people but was home to more than 12,500 at the time of the blaze.
The Greek government said it aims to replace open-air tent facilities with formal migrant centers that have temporary housing options, but a number of migrants and refugees hope to leave Lesbos. They say they fear that the living conditions at camp Kara Tepe will be no better than they were at Moira, which international aid groups had called "appalling."
During the operation to move residents to the temporary camp, they were tested for the coronavirus and so far, 35 have been found positive.
The nongovernmental medical aid organization Medecins Sans Frontieres, known as Doctors Without Borders, says that Greek police denied the health care workers access to its new clinic in Lesbos.
According to the group, it took several hours before its workers were finally allowed to reopen their facilities, but says it was "highly concerning" that their critical medical care services were compromised during the move.
Critics of the Moria camp say that the inhuman conditions there were a symbol of Europe's failed migration policies.
The number of migrants seeking refuge on Greek islands near Turkey has fallen significantly since 2015, although camps remained overcrowded. In the past, the Greek government has accused wealthier European Union nations of failing to share the burden of assisting refugees, migrants, and asylum-seekers as they seek a new life in Europe.
Transfer to Germany
The German government said this week it would take in 1,553 migrants, many of whom are families with refugee status, who had been living at camp Moria at the time of the fire.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel said Monday that any transfer of migrants to Germany would need to go hand-in-hand with a broader European initiative to support the refugee crisis in Greece.
Merkel has voiced support for the Greek government to build a new reception center for migrants and refugees on Lesbos. The structure would be managed by EU agencies.
Following the fire, Greece's top public order official said plans to decongest migrant camps will be accelerated. On Tuesday, the Greek government vowed that the island of Lesbos will be emptied of refugees by early April 2021.
In a statement to The Guardian newspaper, Greece's civil protection minister Michalis Chrysochoidis said, "Of the roughly 12,000 refugees here currently, I foresee 6,000 being transferred to the mainland by Christmas and the rest by Easter. The people of this island have gone through a lot. They’ve been very patient."