Lesbos camp filling up as UN warns on migrants' future

Athens (AFP) –


The UN refugee agency on Friday warned Greece that a new camp on Lesbos island hastily built to house thousands of migrants left homeless by a fire last week can only be temporary.

"This new site is currently functioning as an emergency shelter facility," UNHCR spokesperson Shabia Mantoo said in Geneva.

"UNHCR supports its use as temporary solution but cautions that what may be deemed adequate in terms of shelter and services during emergency situations is not appropriate for the longer-term."

Hundreds of asylum seekers including elderly people and small children were queueing on Friday to enter the coastal tent camp, which was hastily built to replace Europe's largest camp of Moria that burned down on September 8.

Six young Afghans have been arrested in connection with the fire.

Moria was notoriously overcrowded and unsanitary, and its destruction has strengthened calls for the migrants to be moved off the island from both local residents and humanitarian organisations.

"Greek authorities are yet to clarify the future use of (the new) site. We stand ready to support discussions on possible long-term solutions, including the continuation of safe and orderly transfers to the mainland and EU-supported relocations," Mantoo said.

A Greek migration ministry spokesman said some 7,000 people had entered the camp since the relocations began this week, with 174 testing positive for the novel coronavirus.

The number now in shelter is more than half the 12,000 people who have been sleeping by roads, in parking lots and even inside a local cemetery for over a week.

Relocating the remaining asylum seekers who have so far stayed away would take "a few days," Migration Minister Notis Mitarachi said Thursday.

- No cruise ships -

A European Commission representative on Thursday dismissed a suggestion by some German politicians to use cruise ships to help accommodate the migrants as too expensive.

"The cruise ship option is not cost-effective compared to other options -- many more people could be accommodated at the same cost," the commission spokesperson told the RND newspaper group.

The UN refugee agency in Geneva said it was "assisting with site planning and mapping to facilitate the shelter allocation, provision of information and distribution of relief items for all those who enter the site."

"We understand the operation proceeds smoothly and no use of force or incidents of violence were reported," the agency said.

Some reporters have complained of police obstruction whilst covering the relocations this week. One said he was handcuffed and thrown to the ground by police.

- Refugees 'relieved': UN -

"Refugees seem relieved to have found basic assistance but still worn-out from being on the street for several days and worried about the future," UNHCR said.

Inside Moria, cleanup crews found hundreds of dead rats, rotting food and metal debris claimed by scavengers. Some asylum seekers are still trying to find shelter there, a local town official told AFP.

Many asylum seekers have told AFP that they are wary of entering the new camp, or are doing so out of necessity as they are no longer able to sleep on the street with limited access to food and water.

But once inside, many say they have found little beyond ill-equipped tents.

"The tents are totally empty, without mattresses, blankets, nothing," one African asylum seeker told the Refugee Support Aegean group.

"There is no water in the toilets and bathrooms. We get food and water once a day," he said in a statement released by the organisation.

Other groups providing legal advice have complained that they have been given no access to the new camp, leaving asylum claimants to attend interviews without legal representation.

Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis on Friday said he had discussed a "new, permanent facility" to be built on Lesbos with European Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen and German Chancellor Angela Merkel via teleconference.

Athens has said it wants the EU to adopt a more active role in managing the new camp.

Lesbos authorities strongly oppose the prospect of a permanent facility on the island. In February, locals clashed with riot police to prevent construction from going ahead on a new camp that would have replaced Moria.