LESBOS ISLAND, GREECE – Police on the Greek island of Lesbos on Thursday (Sept 17) launched an operation to rehouse thousands of migrants who have been sleeping rough after their camp was destroyed by fire, an AFP journalist said.
Officers woke the migrants in their tents and sleeping bags on the roadsides to take them to the temporary centre that was hastily set up after Europe’s largest camp for asylum seekers at Moria burned down last week.
With only the sounds of children crying, and under a hot sun, the migrants folded their blankets, picked up bags containing whatever belongings they had saved from the fire and dismantled their tents.
Women and children with bundles on their backs were seen gathering by a barricade police had set up on the road.
Around 1,000 people have been transferred to the new temporary centre since morning, Greece’s Citizen’s Protection Minister Michalis Chrysochoidis, who oversees the police, told reporters on the scene.
A migration ministry source said some 2,800 people are now inside the new camp.
“The aim is to safeguard public health,” police spokesman Theodoros Chronopoulos told AFP in Athens, confirming that “an operation is under way” which “responds to humanitarian aims”.
He said around 70 women police officers took part. Videos posted by police showed women officers in white uniforms talking to migrant families.
Doctors Without Borders (MSF), which opened an emergency clinic in the area, was earlier barred from accessing its facility during the night, as rumours of the police operation spread, the group said. They were later allowed to reopen.
Over 12,000 people including entire families with elderly and newborns were left homeless when fire tore on the night of Sept 8 through the overcrowded and unsanitary Moria camp – built five years ago at the height of Europe’s migrant crisis .
Six young Afghans have been arrested in connection with the incident, with four of them brought before a Lesbos magistrate on Wednesday.
Thousands of the migrants have been sleeping under tarpaulins or tents at roadsides and in the car parks of closed supermarkets since the blaze.
Late on Wednesday, around 1,000 tents, each able to accommodate between eight and 10 people, had been erected at the new site near Moria.
Medical tents were to be set up, and two quarantine zones were planned for the several dozen people who have tested positive for coronavirus.
But many migrants have refused to enter the new camp, fearing they would be left waiting for months to have their requests for asylum processed and transferred to the Greek mainland or to another European country.
The UN refugee agency on Wednesday urged Greece to speed up asylum processes on Lesbos.
“The idea is not that people remain for ever on the island of Lesbos, but that processes are accelerated so that people can leave gradually and in an orderly way” to the capital Athens or elsewhere on the mainland, the UN agency’s chief in Greece, Mr Philippe Leclerc, told reporters.
Mr Chrysochoidis this week said that “half” the migrants on Lesbos should be able to leave “by Christmas” and “the rest by Easter”.