The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

After fire guts Europe’s biggest migrant camp, Greece erects tents, other countries offer little help

The Moria migrant camp on the Greek Aegean island of Lesbos was destroyed by a fire last week. (Angelos Tzortzinis/AFP/Getty Images)
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One week after a fire razed Europe’s largest migrant camp, on the Greek island of Lesbos, few countries have offered to take in any of the 12,500 people who became homeless, and while the Greek government has quickly erected a makeshift tent camp, migrants and aid workers fear it will fall into the same squalid conditions that have symbolized the continent’s failures.

The new camp sits on a converted military practice range. It consists of hundreds of white tents, arranged in rows in the dirt. People moving in must submit to an immediate coronavirus lockdown.

“Your temporary accommodation center is ready. Kindly proceed immediately,” Greek officials wrote in a letter distributed to the migrants who have been sleeping on the side of roads or in supermarket parking lots since the Sept. 9 fire.

Fire destroys Europe’s largest migrant camp, which had been under coronavirus lockdown

Fatima Rezaie, 15, from Afghanistan, said her family decided to register at the new camp after seven days outdoors with little food. By the end of that period, she had found worms ­crawling through her hair and, crying, told her fathershe was ready for anything but homelessness.

She said the new camp is “better” than its predecessor, known as Moria, in part because few people have moved in yet. But the toilets, she said, were already dirty. And because there was no running water — Greek officials say they are trying to get it online within days — she hadn’t showered since the fire.

Authorities say a small number of residents who were protesting restrictions related to the novel coronavirus set the fire at Moria. The camp had been under a mass quarantine since 35 migrants tested positive for the virus. Four people have been charged with arson, the Associated Press reported Wednesday.

In the meantime, authorities have lost track of some of those with previously confirmed cases of the virus. And of the first 1,000 people screened to enter the new tent camp, 39 tested positive, according to Panagiotis Arkoumaneas, president of the board of directors of Greece’s national public health organization.

All migrants who show up at the new camp are being screened for the virus — in contrast with Moria, where health authorities had tested only a portion of the population.

So far, 1,200 people have agreed to move in, according to official figures. Greek officials warn that asylum seekers must register at the camp to continue with their hearings for legal status. On Tuesday, Migration Minister Notis Mitarachi said in a TV interview that “police will have to be used” if people do not go willingly to the new camp.

Greek officials say the tents are an interim solution. They have also drawn up plans for a permanent, indoor facility on the island.

Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis said there was “absolute certainty” that a new, permanent facility would be built. “I want to send this message in all directions,” he said.

Migrants wait in bread lines, while tourists dine on grilled octopus in Greece

But locals are already protesting. Five years ago, at the height of the migrant crisis, many on Lesbos responded warmly to the surge of people arriving by boat. But locals have come to resent the authorities in Athens and Europe who allowed the migrant population on their island to mushroom in size, and they fiercely oppose the construction of any long-term facility.

Aid workers on the island say migrants’ concerns include a fear that Greece will struggle to build a permanent facility and that the tent camp will become a long-term solution with the same sanitary problems.

“I doubt that the conditions in the new camp will be different,” said Natasha Strachini, a lawyer with Refugee Support Aegean who represents some 60 asylum seekers on the island.

Even in the best scenario, the tent camp will be in place into the winter, potentially exposing its occupants to the elements.

Greek officials said in interviews that the temporary camp will be humane — and they have pledged to make it more suitable for the winter.

But for many migrants, the idea of moving into a hastily built facility — and submitting to an indefinite lockdown — is daunting.

One migrant, who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of reprisal, said he thought the new camp would be “like a prison.”

Even before the coronavirus outbreak hit the Moria camp, tensions had been high. Migrants were often stuck at the camp for more than a year. The facility was more than four times over its capacity. People at the camp waited in hours-long lines for every meal. Children shivered through the winter, suffered scabies outbreaks and developed the deep chest coughs of old men.

When the first people started testing positive for the novel coronavirus, aid workers pointed out that the camp’s residents were practically defenseless, given the overcrowding.

The Greek government is averse to transferring migrants from Lesbos to the mainland, because officials say that could trigger a potentially volatile situation, encouraging migrants in other, smaller island camps to push for the same relocation.

For years, Greece and other Mediterranean countries have been forced to host a disproportionately large share of asylum seekers, with other European countries tightening their doors.

In the aftermath of the fire, Germany stands out for its pledge to accept 1,500 people on Greek islands who have already earned refugee status. But the vast majority of people in Moria were asylum seekers, not people classified as refugees. So far, other European countries have signaled a willingness to accept only unaccompanied minors — a small portion of the population.

Of the 12,500 who had been in Moria, 4,000 were children. Nearly 4 in 5 people were from Afghanistan, a group that wins some form of legal protection in Greece in 70 percent of cases.

A complicating factor is that Europe has struggled to deport Afghans who lose their asylum cases. In 2019, across the European Union, about 30,000 Afghans were ordered to leave. But only 2,300 were actually returned.

Eva Cossé, a Greece-based ­researcher for Human Rights Watch, said Europe’s plans so far to help Greece were insufficient, and she noted that the effort to host unaccompanied minors was in place before the fire.

“We’re talking about several hundred kids,” she said. “But what about the rest?”