Greek authorities in Lesbos are vying to find refugees who tested positive for Covid-19 before a series of devastating fires forced thousands to flee Europe’s largest migrant camp.
Health officials have sent 19,000 test kits to the northeastern Aegean island amid fears of an increase in coronavirus cases.
“This is a very dangerous, very explosive situation,”
Only eight of the more than three dozen refugees diagnosed with the virus have been found. Authorities say they were quarantined in a special area with close family members.
Additional police units were sent to the island on Thursday, reinforcing a cordon around Moria, whose charred remains were still smoldering when new fires broke out in and around the facility more than 24 hours after the main fire began.
The sheltered men, women and children slept on the side of the road, in olive groves and even a cemetery after the fires that started late Tuesday. Many woke up on Thursday, huddled in sheets and blankets, their only protection from strong winds.
Hopes that some would be able to return to the small camp on the hill that survived hell were dashed by a second wave of fire.
In the early morning light, former residents could be seen in the apocalyptic landscape, desperately searching for belongings. Less than 48 hours after the first fire, the infamous overcrowded facility – home to 13,000 people earlier in the week – was reduced to just over a pile of twisted steel and a melted tent canvas.
Greek officials who declared a state of emergency on Lesbos say the fires were deliberately started by asylum seekers responding to quarantine measures after Covid-19 infections were discovered.
Moria, like other refugee camps in Greece, has been concluding since the pandemic began in March. The closure fueled anger and hostility among people who had waited, often for years, before the pandemic, responded to asylum applications.
“Some people do not respect the host country,” Stelios Petas, a government spokesman, told reporters in Athens. “They believed that if they set Moria on fire, they would be able to leave the island indiscriminately,” he added, adding that only unaccompanied minors would be removed from Lesbos. “We tell them they didn’t understand. They will not leave because of the fire. ”
In an EU-funded operation, a third charter plane carrying the last of the 406 children housed at the holding center took off from Mytilene International Airport in northern Greece on Thursday morning. From there, they are expected to continue their travels to EU countries that have promised to accept them.
Efforts are focused on the government and the UN refugee agency, which are sending thousands of tents in addition to a ferry and two naval vessels for temporary accommodation.
The center-right government faces stiff opposition from locals, tired of their island being at the forefront of migratory flows from the war-torn Middle East, Africa and Asia.
In the summer of 2015, at the height of the Syrian civil war, nearly 1 million refugees crossed the sea from Turkey to Europe via Lesbos.
A former barracks army originally designed to accommodate less than 3,000 men, Moria had eight times the capacity at the beginning of the year. Human rights groups have criticized the facility and its appalling living conditions, as the miserable face of distracted European migration policies and the inability to manage refugees humanely. Many call it a stain on the continent’s conscience.
On Thursday, while the army was clearing the wreckage with bulldozers and excavators, enraged villagers set up blockades to prevent them from entering the camp.
“[The refugees] we have to go somewhere else, “said Tsimis, deputy mayor. “We understand their plight, but the people here are also exhausted. Either they are taken to an uninhabited island, or, if that is not possible, Europe must accept them. “
Greek Migration Minister Notis Mitarachi, a staunch supporter of open-air island camps like Moria, replaced by smaller, “closed” detention centers, called for calm. However, the prospect of the centers has been criticized by aid groups and islanders, who fear the camps will become permanent sites.
“Everyone has to be realistic,” Mitarachi told Skai TV, saying the government’s priority is not to have a “homeless family” until the evening.
“At the moment we are facing two fronts. One is the migrants who resort to extortion to leave, and the other local leaders who do not show the necessary responsibility in such a difficult [time]. “