This past week a devastating fire ripped through Europe’s largest camp for asylum seekers, leaving about 13,000 migrants on the Greek island of Lesbos with no place to go. For years, thousands of refugees and migrants who arrived on Lesbos and placed in the ominous camp, known as Moria, have had to endure the hardships of living in dangerous and unsanitary conditions with limited access to healthcare, food, and safety while their asylum application was processed on the mainland – a slow process with no end in sight.
A camp that is intended to be a source of solace as most of the migrants and refugees are running away from war and economic difficulties have proved to be otherwise. It is a place where families wait three hours in food lines to receive ten cucumbers for dinner. A place where children shiver through the cold nights with wet blankets that never dry. It was cited by international aid groups as unsafe and inhumane but continued to operate because of apparent indifference and lack of political will. There were warnings that these squalid conditions would eventually cause a humanitarian disaster, which is exactly what happened. The calamitous fire is a representation of Europe’s moral failure to safely operate and care for the increase of migrant arrivals on the continent.
Living under such dire conditions through a pandemic only intensified the stress on asylum seekers when officials detected the first positive coronavirus case there. Thirty-four additional positive cases were revealed, and the camp was put under lockdown. The aid confederation Oxfam noted that social distancing and good hygiene were impossible at the camp, given its cramped and rundown conditions. Although it is unclear exactly how the fires started, authorities have stated that it began due to a protest over these quarantine measures. The Greek police have charged four Afghan migrants with arson.
Although there were no reports of injuries or deaths from the fire, it had left refugees from the camp homeless and hungry, with many sleeping at roadsides and gas stations and nearby cemeteries. Police blocked roads from the camp to prevent migrants from entering nearby towns. Many tried to venture to the port town of Mytilene, but access was blocked off. Officials stated that about 3,000 people are being temporarily housed in tents on Lesbos until an alternative solution can be found. The EU has offered to help with European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen stating that the priority was “the safety of those left without shelter.” However, authorities state that none of the camp’s residents –aside from the 406 unaccompanied minors – will be allowed to leave Lesbos. The teens and children were flown to the Greek mainland last Wednesday, and several European countries will take some of them in.
Homeless migrants have begun protesting to leave the island and against a new camp being set up to replace the one destroyed by the fire, according to police. The rally, with many children and women in attendance, had turned severe when police officers started firing tear gas to disperse the protesters. Tensions continue to rise as migrants are demanding change and looking to the future. The future, however, is being met with tear gas and empty promises from countries that pledge to help as long as all their conditions are met.
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