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Fires at Europe's largest migrant camp leave thousands without shelter
02:17 - Source: CNN
Lesbos, Greece CNN  — 

Riot police have been deployed to the site where a new refugee camp is being set up on Lesbos to accommodate those left homeless after fires ripped through the Greek island’s overcrowded Moria.

The site is at Kara Tepe, near an existing camp, according to Greece’s Migration Ministry. Army helicopters have been transporting tents and other supplies to the new temporary camp.

Migrants and refugees, now lining the main road connecting the island’s town of Mytilene and Moria, will be directed to the site by authorities.

A military helicopter atop a hill on the Greek island of Lesbos on Friday, as police were deployed to the site of a new refugee camp.

They will be required to register and undergo rapid coronavirus tests before being allowed to enter.

Greek authorities said the fires at Moria appeared to have been deliberately lit after quarantine rules were imposed on residents who had tested positive for coronavirus at Europe’s largest refugee camp.

Many do not want to go back to a refugee camp and want to leave the island, but the Greek government insisted it would “not be blackmailed.”

Officials said there were no plans to move any more migrants from Lesbos after it relocated 406 unaccompanied children to mainland Greece following the blaze that this week destroyed a large part of Moria.

Moria was home to an estimated 13,000 people – more than six times its capacity.

Migrants take part in a rally near the town of Mytilene, Lesbos on Friday after Moria, Europe's largest refugee camp, was destroyed by fires.

Refugees from the camp have been left homeless and hungry after the fires, with some sleeping at roadsides and gas stations while dozens of families took refuge in a nearby cemetery.

Director of the Greek Migration Minister’s office, Konstantinos Kostakos, said authorities would temporarily relocate about 1,000 migrants – particularly those in vulnerable groups – onto a ship that has docked at Sigri, on the western side of the island.

“This is the first ship that has docked on the island. If there is a need we will consider bringing more,” Kostakos said. But he warned that they will not be moved off the island.

Homeless refugees and migrants gather on the road on Friday after thousands were left homeless following the devastating blaze.

“The Greek government will not be blackmailed. What happened – this ‘burn and go’ tactic – will not be tolerated.”

Kostakos said Friday that officials were searching for the migrants who tested positive for coronavirus. “The 35 [who tested positive for Covid-19] have not been located yet,” he said.

“They are still missing. We are introducing rapid Covid tests and new isolation spaces are also being created. We expect the situation to be under control very soon.”

Migrants hold up a banner at a protest Friday as they call for assistance from Europe.

Several camp residents told CNN they believed Greek locals, rather than migrants, were responsible for the fires.

Lesbos residents have set up several roadblocks on the island to keep out army or other vehicles carrying materials to rebuild or clean the camp.

Locals were already at loggerheads with the government over plans to replace Moria, fearing this would mean thousands of asylum-seekers would remain on the island permanently.

France and Germany join forces

German Chancellor Angela Merkel last night confirmed a plan by France and Germany to take minors from the island, hoping other EU countries will also join.

“I asked the Greek prime minister how we can help and his request was that we take in the minors who were taken to the Greek mainland,” Merkel said.

“We have contacted France. Germany and France will participate in this.”

Merkel said the issue of migration was not just Germany’s problem, nor the problem of the country where people arrive, adding that it must become a “European responsibility.”

Her confirmation came after French President Emmanuel Macron said the two countries were coordinating to find a solution to welcome refugees from the camp.

He added that Europe had to stand in solidarity with Greece in face of the “terrible reality that is before us.”

‘Anger and despair’

It is still unclear exactly how the fires started at the sprawling encampment, which extends out of the main UN camp into olive groves where thousands live in makeshift wooden huts in squalid conditions. Residents say they wait for hours to use a bathroom, and sometimes spend an entire day queuing for food.

When CNN reported from the camp in March, a rank odor filled the air, the river was strewn with garbage and camp dwellers staged protests at the island’s main port on a nearly daily basis demanding transport to the Greek mainland.

German charity group Mission Lifeline said in a statement that “the anger and despair of the refugees who have been interned at Moria erupted” after a coronavirus lockdown was imposed.

“First there was a dispute at the Covid-19 station in the camp which spread to the entire area during the night. Security forces used tear gas,” the statement said. “A large part of the dwellings burned down. The homeless people fled into the surrounding olive groves.”

Axel Steier, co-founder of Mission Lifeline, said he had warned that the situation would “escalate” over the camp’s poor conditions.

“The people in Moria are exposed to extreme psychological stress. The lockdown of the camp has now been the final straw,” said Steier. “The refugees in Moria are not treated as humans.”

A man sits on a crash barrier as homeless migrants and refugees sleep on a roadside following the blaze.

Faris Al-Jawad, from Doctors Without Borders, told CNN: “I was here in 2018 as well, to 2019, and I thought at that time that it couldn’t really get much worse. I’m here now in 2020, and I was wrong: it’s worse, and for children as well. We’re talking about children who have potentially never known anything but war and now their futures are once again being ripped away from them.”

Congolese camp resident Paul Kadima Muzangueno told CNN a group of minors started the fire.

“They started fires everywhere,” said Muzangueno. “Everything deteriorated quickly. The police did not contain the situation.”

Another resident, who declined to disclose his full name for security reasons, said that “some people living in the camp were angry about the quarantine. They started a small fire. So police came and there was tear gas. And then the fire grew and we had to run.”

“There is nothing there. I am standing out on the street, near the camp, there are many people here. There is also police but they don’t tell us where to go. We have no food or water. They say ‘wait here.’ It is very hot today and there are women and babies,” he added.

“We lost everything, like clothes and medicines,” Mahtab, an Afghan migrant, told CNN.

Melissa Bell reported from Lesbos and Elinda Labropoulou and Chris Liakos reported from Athens, Greece. CNN’s Zahid Mahmood, Emma Reynolds, Stephanie Halasz and Tamara Qiblawi contributed to this report.