Despite strong resistance, more refugees and migrants burned out of the notorious Moria detention camp on the island of Lesbos were being taken to a new tent city where they will spend the winter as the COVID-19 pandemic is spreading.
After the New Democracy government said force would be used if necessary to get them to comply, only about 1200, or less than 10 percent of the 12,500 left homeless by the blaze, had been moved or taken in.
But squads of Greek police on Sept. 17 were sweeping around the capital Mytilene were people were sleeping on streets, sidewalks, parking lots, fields and in graveyards, with little food or water, including children and babies.
Police said the morning operation included 70 female police officers trying to persuade them to move to the new camp in the island’s Kara Tepe area.
No violence was reported as the operation began with the newspaper Kathimerini reporting 450 had been transferred to the tents although many said they want off the island and fear a new Moria is being set up, which residents on the island also don't want.
More than 12,000 people, mostly refugees from Afghanistan, Africa and Syria, were left without shelter, proper sanitation or access to food and water by the fire that tore through Moria.
Astrid Castelein, head of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR’s) office on Lesbos said, “As long as it is peaceful, we believe it is a good move, considering that here on the street it is a risk for security, for public health and it’s not dignity which we need for everyone.”
The fires that destroyed the squalid Moria were deliberately set by a small group of the camp’s inhabitants angered by lockdown restrictions imposed after a Coronavirus outbreak, with six people, including two minors, arrested so far, the government said.
The new camp consists of large family tents erected in a field by the sea and so far had a capacity of 8,000, with those moving in being tested for COVID-19, registered and assigned a tent.
“This is an operation for the protection of public health and with a clear humanitarian content,” the police said in a statement.
The medical aid organization Doctors Without Borders, or MSF, said Greek police were preventing its staff on the island from accessing a clinic it has set up there.
“We are the only medical organization in that particular zone, but we continue to not have access!” MSF Greece tweeted. “Many people need medical help but we can't reach them. Why are they stopping us?”
Moria had a capacity of just over 2,700 people, but more than 12,500 people had been living in and around it when it burned down. The camp and conditions that human rights groups and activists said were inhumane were held up by critics as a symbol of Europe’s failed migration policies.
Greece has long called for more solidarity from other European Union countries, saying it should not be left to shoulder the burden of the continent's migration issues just because of its geographical location on the EU's southeastern border.
Several countries have said they will take in some of those who had been in Moria, but all were pledges to take only some of the 406 unaccompanied teenagers and children who had been living there. The minors were flown to the northern Greek mainland the day after Moria was destroyed.
Germany said it would take in 1,553 refugees from the Greek islands who had already had their asylum applications approved, with virtually all the detainees seeking sanctuary after the European Union closed its borders to them.
Luxembourg Foreign Minister Jean Asselborn told Germany’s ARD television that his country would take in up to 15 refugees but other countries have refused to take any and some reneged on pledges to take some of the overload.
Belgium has offered to relocate between 100 and 150 refugees, mainly families with children, mothers or single women, while it pledged last week to take in 12 of the unaccompanied minors.
The EU has tweeted support and issued press releases but done essentially nothing since the fire to help.
Greece is holding about 100,000 refugees and migrants, including some 34,000 on five islands near Turkey where they had first gone fleeing war, strife and economic hardship in their homelands hoping to reach prosperous EU countries.
Turkey has let human traffickers keep sending them during an essentially-suspended 2016 swap deal with the EU.
(Material from the Associated Press was used in this report)