Greece races to shelter thousands after Lesbos migrant camp fire

Thousands of asylum seekers on the Greek island of Lesbos languished on roadsides on Thursday, homeless and hungry after the country's largest camp burned down, with local officials stonewalling government efforts to create new temporary shelters.

Map of the island of Lesbos, locating the the Moria refugee camp, the largest in Greece, which was destroyeed by fire Wednesday morning.

Desperate families, many with young children, spent a second night out in the open, many without tents or even basic bedding.

"We've lost everything, we were abandoned, without food, water or medicine," said Fatma Al-Hani, a Syrian woman who barely had time to grab her identity papers before the flames engulfed the camp.

Some of the bleary-eyed homeless had to trek to the nearest villages for water and other supplies, AFP TV footage showed.

The fire late on Tuesday at Moria camp, Greece's most notorious migrant facility, sent thousands fleeing for safety into surrounding olive groves.

Gaelle Koukanee, a pregnant 21-year-old Congolese refugee, said the police had fired tear gas during the operation to extinguish the fire.

"We have children, old people, disabled among us. Why this lack of humanity," she asked, seeking shelter from the beating sun under an olive tree.

Germany and France on Thursday agreed on an initiative for EU states to share out some 400 minors from the camp, a source close to the talks told AFP.

The minors were flown out of the island overnight and rehoused in "safe" facilities in northern Greece, Athens said, adding that all had been tested for the virus.

But the Greek government had bigger problems close at hand, with local authorities resisting plans to temporarily set up campsites for the homeless.

Near the smouldering ruins of Moria, local residents set up roadblocks to prevent a cleanup operation to make room for new tents.

"Now is the time to shut down Moria for good," Vangelis Violatzis, a local municipal leader, told AFP.

"We don't want another camp, and we will oppose any construction work. We've faced this situation for five years, it's time for others to bear this burden," he said.

Another fire briefly broke out inside the camp Thursday.

Greek officials have declared a four-month emergency on the island and flew in extra riot police.

While nobody was seriously hurt, the Tuesday blaze destroyed the official part of the camp, which housed 4,000 people, ministers said.

A second fire late on Wednesday destroyed most of the remaining camp where another 8,000 lived in tents and makeshift shacks around the perimeter, the migration ministry said Thursday.

The ministry said a ferry had been sent to accommodate hundreds of people ahead of the expected arrival of European Commission vice-president Margaritis Schinas to inspect conditions on the island.

"Today all necessary actions will be taken to immediately shelter families and vulnerable persons to begin with," the ministry said.

Government spokesman Stelios Petsas said food  would be provided "in cooperation with humanitarian groups" at migrant gathering points.

Two Greek navy vessels would provide additional sleeping space, the ministry said.

Earlier this year, a plan to build a new camp on Lesbos stalled after locals clashed with riot police to prevent the construction.

Greek President Katerina Sakellaropoulou on Thursday said the situation had to be addressed without "delays, responsibility-dodging, war cries".

"And mainly, Europe cannot turn a blind eye. The refugee and migration issue is primarily a European problem," she said in a statement.

Migration minister Notis Mitarachi on Wednesday said asylum seekers had started the fire because of quarantine measures imposed after 35 people at the camp tested positive for coronavirus.

Greece's public health authority EODY said eight of the 35 positive cases had been located and isolated along with a significant number of their close contacts.

Medical staff from the World Health Organization were expected in Lesbos on Thursday to begin tests on asylum seekers and locals, EODY chief Panagiotis Arkoumaneas told reporters on Wednesday.

European countries from Germany to Norway -- along with EU chiefs -- have responded with offers of help as calls intensify for urgent reform of the bloc's asylum system.

Since becoming one of the main gateways into Europe for migrants and asylum seekers in 2015, Greece has built dozens of detention centres around the country.

But with other European nations accepting only a small trickle of refugees, thousands remain trapped in the Greek camps in usually dismal health conditions.

"I haven't seen a doctor in weeks," said the Congolese refugee.

"We lacked toilets, showers and as women, we were afraid to walk at night. But now I'm even more worried about my future," she said.

Greece's conservative government has also toughened its asylum restrictions, slashing cash benefits and accommodation provisions to discourage further migration.

"This is Europe?" asked Fatma, clutching her two-year-old son.

"I've had enough, I just want my baby to grow up in peace," she said, breaking down in tears.

mr-jph/pvh

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