Tear gas fired at migrant protesters on Greek island of Lesbos

Greek riot police fired tear gas at protesting asylum seekers on Lesbos island on Saturday as tensions simmered following the catastrophic fire that ripped through Europe's largest migrant camp this week.

Migrants throw back tear gas canisters fired by riot police during clashes  near the city of Mytilene on the Greek island of Lesbos, on September 12, 2020, a few days after a fire destroyed the Moria migrant camp.
Migrants throw back tear gas canisters fired by riot police during clashes near the city of Mytilene on the Greek island of Lesbos, on September 12, 2020, a few days after a fire destroyed the Moria migrant camp. AFP - ANGELOS TZORTZINIS

Thousands of asylum seekers have been sleeping rough on Lesbos since Wednesday when the Moria camp was destroyed in apparent arson attacks, with families huddling under blankets and sleeping in doorways or by roads. 

Clashes occurred on Saturday near a new temporary camp built by Greek authorities where hundreds of young men gathered to protest, some throwing stones at riot police who responded with tear gas.

A fire set there earlier in the day near a police blockade had to be extinguished by the fire brigade. 

"Freedom!" said one handwritten sign held up by a protester. "We want to leave Moria," said another. 

"We were protesting peacefully against the new camp and the police threw tear gas against us. My baby had the gas in her eyes!", Zola, a Congolese woman carrying her 5-month-old baby, told AFP. 

"In Moria we could come and go but this (new camp) will be like a prison".

Some people suffering from respiratory problems because of the tear gas were taken away in ambulances, according to the migrants. 

"Three people have fainted and were taken to the hospital", Papouch, a Congolese man, told AFP.


Round-the-clock efforts to find temporary shelter for over 11,000 people made homeless by the destruction of the Moria camp were still inadequate, rights groups said.

"As thousands are now left sleeping rough in the hills around Moria or on the streets, tensions between local residents, asylum seekers, and police are increasing," Human Rights Watch warned in a statement on Saturday.

The Moria camp, which had been regularly criticised by the UN and rights groups for overcrowding and its dismal sanitary conditions, burned down in successive fires on Tuesday night and Wednesday.

Officials have blamed migrants for the blazes, the first breaking out shortly after 35 people tested positive for coronavirus and were facing isolation measures.

Many of the mostly Afghan asylum seekers have spent months in desperate conditions on the island, hoping in vain to be allowed to cross tightly shut European borders.

Greek Migration Minister Notis Mitarachi on Saturday said the new camp, a few kilometres (miles) from Moria at a location near the sea, would open later on Saturday with capacity for 3,000 people. 

"Rapid tests for coronavirus will be conducted at the entrance," Mitarachi told Skai TV.

Alexandros Ragavas, a spokesman for the migration ministry, said vulnerable asylum seekers would be the first to be housed.

"We will give priority to families. It will be tents of six and the camp will be separated by ethnicities. The process of moving people will start today," he told AFP.

Local objections

Local volunteer groups have faced difficulty in supplying asylum seekers with food and water.

"We are sleeping in the dirt or on the road under the open sky," a group of migrants from the former camp said on Facebook, noting that some people had even found shelter under the trees of the local Greek cemetery.

Sleeping on the roadside and in parking lots, men, women and children have made use of whatever they can find in nearby fields, pinning tarpaulins on tree branches and reeds in a bid for privacy and protection from the beating sun. 

The local mayor has rejected efforts to build new temporary camps as "unrealistic" and residents have tried to stop the construction of new camps by setting up roadblocks.

Army and fire service helicopters have been used to bypass the barriers.

"Any thought to rebuild this sort of thing should be forgotten," Mytilene Mayor Stratis Kytelis told Antenna TV on Friday.

"The island's society cannot take any more... for reasons of health, social cohesion, national security," Kytelis said.

The plight of the stranded families has prompted other European countries to offer to take in hundreds of asylum seekers, particularly unaccompanied youngsters.

But Greece has long complained that, aside from providing funds, its EU partners have done too little to help.

Efforts in the past to create a quota system, which would have seen all European countries agree to take in refugees from Greece, have floundered due to opposition from right-wing governments, in particular in Poland and Hungary.

"The fires highlight the failure of the European Union's 'hotspot approach' on (Greek) islands, which has led to the containment of thousands of people... with the aim of returning them to Turkey, from which they transited," HRW said.


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