Greek riot police fired teargas at protesting refugees clamouring to leave Lesbos as the situation on the island became more explosive days after devastating fires forced thousands to flee its notorious migrant camp.
Tensions mounted as asylum seekers, desperate to make their way to other parts of Europe, watched authorities, including the Greek army, rush to replace the now gutted facility of Moria with a new holding centre.
“Freedom, freedom,” demonstrators chanted under the watchful eye of riot police deployed to the Aegean isle from Athens. “We don’t need new camp … we want freedom,” proclaimed some of the crude handwritten placards held aloft by protesters on Saturday.
Witnesses reported teargas being fired after younger migrants began lobbing rocks at the police units.
A series of overnight blazes starting on Tuesday razed Moria, Europe’s largest refugee camp, decanting close to 13,000 men, women and children into the surrounding countryside. With the exception of 406 lone migrant children who have been flown to the Greek mainland, the former residents have been left to fend for themselves, many making makeshift shelters out of tarps and bamboo reeds along the side of a main road leading to Mytilene, the island’s port capital. Others have camped in fields, olive groves, churches and even cemeteries.
Frustration, the insistence of Greek officials that transferal is out of the question and a growing realisation that any prospect of leaving is diminishing fast have helped create an increasingly toxic atmosphere.
The destruction of containers housing the asylum service in Moria has further fuelled a prevailing sense of desperation among refugees.
“The thought that they may be here for even longer now, the sight of the replacement camp and being stranded without proper shelter for days has, for many, become the tipping point,” said one aid worker requesting anonymity because she was not authorised to speak.
Earlier, Greece’s Alternate Migration Minister, Giorgos Koumoutsakos, told SKAI TV Lesbos was facing a public health emergency, “a triple challenge” that also involves “public order and national security”.
He expressed “certainty” that the blazes, which erupted in quick succession and appeared to be coordinated, were the result of arson although as yet no one has been arrested and no concrete evidence offered. Suggestions that rightwing vigilantes may be behind the infernos have also been made.
The fires broke out within hours of authorities announcing further lockdown measures in the facility after health officials said they had detected dozens of coronavirus cases in Moria. None of those diagnosed with the virus have yet been found, according to Greek officials.
On Saturday a woman and her 20-month-old baby were flown to Athens where they will be hospitalised after testing positive for the virus. They were not among the original group, most of whom were described as asymptomatic carriers of Covid-19.
With fears of infection rates increasing, some 200,000 Covid-19 rapid tests were flown into Lesbos on a specially chartered plane on Friday.
“There are now real fears among our island’s residents of the virus spreading,” local journalist Yannis Sinanis told the Guardian.
Officials were working around-the-clock to erect the new settlement, a collection of 500 tents with the capacity to accommodate six people each. Other asylum seekers are expected to be accommodated in a ferryboat and naval ships.
The Greek migration minister Notis Mitarachis, coordinating relief efforts on the island, said every refugee would be tested before entering the temporary site. “We believe that within the day we will start taking people in,” he told reporters in televised comments streamlined by the ministry in Athens. “Already the first families are settled here. Food, water, medical supplies, shelter, safety are the priorities of the day.”
Greece, like Lesbos, may be on the frontline of migratory flows from war-torn countries in Asia, the Middle East and Africa but the refugee problem was an issue that affected the entire continent he said, thanking EU countries for weighing in with aid in the wake of the fires.
“We expect from all our European partners to contribute to an issue that is not Greek,” Mitarachis added. “It is European.”