Greece sees end to Lesbos migrant crisis within a week
Greece said Sunday it hoped thousands of asylum seekers left homeless by fires at Europe's largest migrant camp could be rehoused within a week to end a crisis that has seen protesters clash with police.
Asylum-seekers -- including the elderly and small children -- have been sleeping rough on Lesbos island since Wednesday, when some 11,000 fled the overcrowded Moria camp after it was gutted in apparent arson attacks.
Authorities have now set up a new 3,000-capacity camp at Kara Tepe, a few kilometres (miles) from the destroyed camp, regularly criticised by the UN and rights groups for overcrowding and dismal sanitary conditions.
Migration Minister Notis Mitarachi said it would take five days to provide tents for all the homeless, and officials said asylum procedures would be accelerated.
But while around 500 migrants had entered Kara Tepe by Sunday afternoon, with more in queues outside, many others remained on the road, hesitant or outright refusing to go in.
Migrants demonstrated peacefully on Sunday morning pleading for help from the EU, an AFP reporter said.
In the afternoon, thousands waited for hours for the distribution of food and water on the road near Kara Tepe.
"In the new camp, we are all going to die. It is really small. We don't feel safe. We will remain here until another solution is found," Nasrullah, a 22-year-old Afghani, told AFP.
Fears of a repeat of the Moria experience provoked clashes on Saturday, when some young men threw stones at riot police who responded with tear gas.
Locals are dissatisfied as well.
"The new camp, near the port of Mytilini, isn't a solution," Mytilini Mayor Stratis Kytelis told AFP. "The shame of Moria camp is over but the tension and the anguish with all those people in the middle of the road for five days now is ongoing," he said.
Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis said Sunday: "This is a decent provisional structure that will give us the chance to handle the situation until the next stage."
A new permanent reception and registration centre for asylum seekers would avoid "the problems of Moria", he added.
- 'Like a prison' -
"In Moria we could come and go but here, (the new camp) will be like a prison", Zola, a Congolese woman with a five-month-old child, told AFP.
One Congolese migrant inside Kara Tepe also told AFP by text message that police would not allow them to leave.
Police said some Afghan migrants were trying to dissuade others from entering the new camp to access food and shelter.
AFP reporters said police had barred the Afghans from approaching the new camp and the migrants camping on the road, and police minister Michalis Chrisochoidis promised "sanctions" against anyone trying to block access.
Thousands of officers have been deployed "to protect the life and security" of both locals and asylum seekers, Chrisochoidis said.
"We will allow nobody to violate the rules of our country," he added.
- Coronavirus fears -
Greek authorities are stepping up efforts to gather refugees in the camp both to restore order on the island and to tamp down fears that the coronavirus could spread.
Just before the Moria camp burned down, 35 people tested positive for Covid-19 and were facing isolation measures.
On Sunday, authorities said 12 migrants among those entering the new camp tested positive for coronavirus.
"There might be 200 cases of coronavirus by now in those that fled Moria," Mitarachi said Sunday.
The PM said Sunday there was no doubt "overactive" migrants trying to force the government to move them off Lesbos had started the fires in Moria.
- Will EU step up this time? -
The plight of the stranded families has prompted other European countries to offer to take in hundreds of asylum-seekers, particularly unaccompanied minors.
"We are in contact with (German Chancellor Angela Merkel) to see how Germany can support us more by taking in families that have been granted asylum," Mitsotakis said.
Greece has long complained that, aside from providing funds, its EU partners have done too little to help.
Past efforts to create a quota system, in which all European countries would have agreed to take in refugees from Greece, foundered on opposition from right-wing populist governments such as those in Poland and Hungary.
Pope Francis, who visited Lesbos in 2016, on Sunday urged "a human reception for the migrants, for the refugees, for the asylum seekers in Europe", expressing his solidarity with the victims.
On Sunday, local media reported that 21 more migrants had reached the northern shore of Lesbos island. They were hiding in the woods and were taken to a quarantine centre at Megala Therma.