ATHENS - Authorities on the Greek island of Lesbos have moved more than 300 homeless migrants and refugees into temporary facilities after a rash of fires razed the notoriously overcrowded Moria camp, leaving more than 12,000 asylum seekers without shelter in the biggest humanitarian crisis to grip the country in five years.
Scores of bedraggled refugees were seen Sunday lining up before the soaring fence gates of Kara Tepe to check into the temporary encampment after living in the rough for four days.
Many of the migrants were seen carrying infants, flimsy tents and plastic bags stuffed with the personal belongings they managed to salvage before fleeing Moria.
The cause of the fires remains under investigation, but authorities contacted by VOA have pointed to arson, suggesting they were part of an organized bid by refugees angered by quarantine orders imposed after 35 people tested positive for COVID-19.
“We are seeing an active push by authorities today to get these people off the streets and into the new temporary camp,” regional governor Kostas Moutzouris told VOA. “The problem is that many of them are resisting, and large numbers of them have gone into hiding thinking this is their chance to make it to the mainland, and then potentially, to the heart of Europe.”
On Saturday, thousands of the refugees took to the streets, banging plastic bottles and demanding that they be allowed to continue their journeys to the heart of Europe, rather than be moved to a different facility.
The protest, led by young children holding cardboard signs reading “We need freedom,” was mostly peaceful, but brief scuffles broke out as militant youth moved to break police cordons, forcing authorities to fire tear gas to disperse protesting crowds.
Lesbos has been overwhelmed by Europe’s migration crisis, seeing more than a million refugees stream to its rugged shores from Turkey in 2015.
The Moria facility was built to house some 2,300 refugees. Since then, rising tides of illegal migration have forced authorities to squeeze in 10,000 additional people, drawing fierce criticism from international aid organizations and the United Nations for the camp’s appalling living conditions.
Human Rights Watch said in a statement that the Moria fires “highlight the failure of the European Union’s approach of confinement.” It demanded that European nations begin shouldering their responsibility for asylum seekers, while Greece also makes sure it respects human rights.
Lesbos locals and authorities, meanwhile, insist on the migrants’ complete evacuation, resisting attempts by the government to reopen Moria or to set up any additional camps other than that in Kara Tepe.
That new facility has a capacity of around 3,000, leaving the fate of at least 9,000 refugees in limbo.
“There is no way we are allowing for any more room,” Moutzouris said. “If that happens, then Lesbos is doomed for good.”
Locals plan to protest government designs for additional refugee accommodation on Tuesday.