Greece’s ruling New Democracy government, a year after a fire destroyed the notorious Moria refugee and migrant detention center on the island of Lesbos, still hasn’t moved to build a new facility, leaving thousands in tents. They are facing a second winter there in what were said to be improved conditions but a place that has flooded previously and where refugees can wait two years or more for asylum applications to be processed. In a feature, the news agency Agence France-Presse (AFP) noted how dire the situation remains as residents complain about the conditions in which they’re forced to live during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The fire was set, officials said, in protest of lockdown restrictions but forced more than 12,000 to flee and as the government hastily set up the tent city that still remains. The six young Afghan men jailed for 5-10 years earlier this year for arson insist they were falsely accused for ethnic reasons. Μustafa Hosseini – whose brother Mahdi is one – told AFP they had been framed because they were from the Hazara minority facing persecution in Afghanistan. The only witness was a Pashtun, the country's dominant group. After the fire, Greece and the European Union vowed help but have essentially vanished since then although making some improvements and the new camp that was supposed to open before winter hasn’t even begun construction. Meanwhile, authorities shut two projects providing housing to vulnerable migrants on the island. "No one should have to spend the winter in tents," said Michelle Girard, the UN’s refugee agency’s Greece envoy. "Tents after a fire, yes, but a year later?"
She said that while the site has been much improved since the fire that stop-gaps aren’t enough and that it "is not a lasting solution" although Greek officials said hundreds have been moved to the mainland to alleviate overcrowding. Greece – denying it – has been accused of pushing back refugees and migrants into the Aegean as they’ve tried to keep coming to five islands from Turkey, which allows human traffickers to operate during an essentially-suspended 2016 EU swap deal. Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis, whose center-right New Democracy took power in July 7, 2019 snap elections and ousted the Radical Left SYRIZA has taken a harder line in dealing with refugees and migrants.
Greek officials said the country will "never again be the gateway to Europe" but human rights groups and activists said the government is being too tough and violating EU laws about dealing with asylum seekers. The EU committed 276 million euros ($328 million) for Greece to build reception facilities on the five Aegean islands – Lesbos, Leros, Kos, Samos and Chios, but the EU Commissioner in charge of refugee and migrant affairs – New Democracy’s Margaritas Schinas – has largely been invisible during the ongoing crisis. "One year after the catastrophic fire in Moria camp and its consequences, Greece continues standing firmly against refugees and their rights," Human Rights 360 co-founder Epaminondas Farmakis also told AFP.