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Greece Says All Refugees, Migrants Moved Off Lesbos by Easter 2021

Αssociated Press

Migrants sit outside a makeshift tent as thousands remained camped out along a road leading from Moria to the capital of Mytilene, on the northeastern island of Lesbos, Greece, Tuesday, Sept. 15, 2020. (AP Photo/Petros Giannakouris)

MORIA, Lesbos -- Facing fierce resistance from residents and refugees and migrants left homeless when fires destroyed the notorious Moria camp on Lesbos, Greece's New Democracy government said all the detainees will be moved off the island by Easter 2021, which is May 2.

“They will all leave,” Civil Protection Minister, Michalis Chrysochoidis, told the British newspaper The Guardian of the timetable.

“Of the roughly 12,000 refugees here currently, I foresee 6,000 being transferred to the mainland by Christmas and the rest by Easter. The people of this island have gone through a lot. They’ve been very patient,” he said.

In the meantime, Migration Minister Notis Mitarachis said the government will use force, if necessary, to make the homeless migrants and refugees move into tents where they will spend the winter, including those with babies and children.

He said efforts to relocate migrants on a voluntary basis, with the help of government translators and pamphlets being distributed to asylum-seekers, were continuing. 

He told Mega TV that, "If this is not possible through discussion, then the police will have to be used. It is their obligation to be moved to the new site." 

Those in the camp were seeking asylum after the European Union closed its borders to them and has offered Greece only verbal support so far with no major assistance for housing people left sleeping on streets, sidewalks, in graveyards and in supermarket parking lots.

About 70% of asylum seekers on Lesbos were Afghans who would be awarded refugee status and given travel papers, he said. Recognized refugees can move to another EU member state for up to three months using the documents but other countries have reneged on pledges to help and the EU won't force them.

Chrysochoidis, who flew into Lesbos to help oversee relief efforts, welcomed reports that Germany was prepared to take in 1,553 people from Moria but apart from Bulgaria and Luxembourg no other countries have shown interest in helping Greece or the homeless.

“It’s very generous, very brave,” Chrysochoidis said of the goodwill gesture. “All over Europe, countries have their own internal political problems around this issue but I also think they (EU states) can see we are protecting the bloc’s borders, we have greatly minimized flows.”

Some countries, such as Austria, have categorically rejected taking in people from the destroyed camp, the paper said.

“If we give in to this pressure now, then we risk making the same mistake we made in 2015,” said Chancellor Sebastian Kurz, referring to German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s decision to take in hordes of refugees then.

Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis,accused some residents of Moria for trying to blackmail his government by deliberately setting the fires that destroyed their camp in a response to a COVID-19 quarantine imposed after 35 people tested positive for the Coronavirus.

Chrysochoidis said people must move move into a temporary camp, close to Mytilene, the port capital, that the government, with the aid of the army had rushed to build but only 1,000 agreed and others want off the island where they have been held two years or more awaiting processing of sanctuary applications

The government has asked help from non-governmental organizations and passed around multi-lingual flyers encouraging the displaced refugees and migrants to move to the temporary camp but resistance is strong, many calling it “a new Moria, another prison.”

The Greek government has pledged to build a new structure on the island that will be co-managed by EU agencies but says construction of the camp in a place that has yet to be decided will require at least six months.

“There are groups of Afghans and I am afraid even some human rights organisations who are encouraging thousands of people not to go in,” said Chrysochoidis.

But he said, “It’s non-negotiable. They will leave the island but they have to go through this new facility and get the requisite legal documents first.”

Human rights groups and activists long denounced Moria as unfit for humans and the BBC called it “the worst in the world” but former ruling Radical Left SYRIZA leader and ex-Premier Alexis Tsipras said he was “proud” of it.

The camp was designed to hold 3,000 people but often held more than six times that, people of different ethnicities who came to Lesbos from Turkey, where they had gone fleeing war, strife and economic misery in their homelands, taken by human traffickers to five Greek island hoping to get to more prosperous countries before the door was shut on them.

“It was a camp of shame,” Chrysochoidis admitted, denying that the government was also forcibly pushing back other refugees who were trying to get to Greece . “Now it belongs to history. It will be cleared up and replaced by olive groves.”