UN, Lesbos mayor urge migrant camp transfers after deadly fire

UN, Lesbos mayor urge migrant camp transfers after deadly fire

MORIA-Agence France-Presse
UN, Lesbos mayor urge migrant camp transfers after deadly fire

Greek officials on Sept. 30 confirmed the death of a woman on Sept. 29’s blaze at Moria, Europe's largest migrant camp, which houses around 13,000 people but has facilities for just 3,000.

However, Greek media reported that a burnt blanket possibly containing the charred remains of a baby had been found next to the woman, matching earlier police sources saying a mother and her child had died.

Another 17 injured migrants, two of them children, were transferred to a hospital on the island at Mytilene, the health ministry said on Sept. 30.

"Many refugees are so sad, they are stressed, they fear an accident can happen again," Farid, a young Afghan who did not give his last name, told AFP.

The incident came as migrant arrivals have been steadily climbing in recent months, creating dangerous conditions in the Greek island camps in the forefront of the influx.

The UN's refugee agency (UNHCR) on Sept. 30 warned the "critical" situation at Moria required "urgent" action.

"We are calling to accelerate the transfers and improve conditions in Moria," said Boris Cheshirkov, UNHCR's spokesman in Greece.

Lesbos mayor Stratos Kytelis also urged the "immediate decongestion of our islands".

Oxfam went further, arguing the fatal fire was a consequence of the EU's migration policy.

"People arriving in Greece should be relocated to safe accommodation across the EU, not crammed into dangerous spaces where their life is at risk," Renata Rendon, the aid group's head of mission in Greece, said on Sept. 30.

Greece said on Sept. 30 it wanted to start sending back thousands of migrants to Turkey.

The decision, taken at an emergency cabinet meeting, came as officials in Greece and abroad called for action to ease the pressure on the crowded migrant camps spread across the Aegean islands.

Athens wants to return 10,000 migrants to Turkey by the end of 2020, the government statement said. That would increase the rate from the "1,805 returned in the 4.5 years under the previous (left-wing) Syriza government", it added.

The conservative government of Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis has already announced more naval patrols in the Aegean, closed centres for migrants refused asylum, and plans to overhaul the asylum system, the statement added.

EU Migration Commissioner Dimitris Avramopoulos is to visit Greece and Turkey this week with the interior ministers of Germany and France to discuss the overcrowded Greek island camps.

"The increased arrivals in Greece over the past weeks have put an immense strain on an already flawed system and are creating unsustainable conditions as we have already had the opportunity to point out in the past," European Commission spokesman Mina Andreeva said on Sept. 30.

Moria camp has become like a small town, with UN refugee agency tents for around 8,000 people sprawling into the olive fields of nearby Moria village. Others are housed in containers.

A plane helped extinguish the fire, which reportedly started in a mobile vendor's stall. But police later fired tear gas to control an angry crowd who accused authorities of taking too long to respond to the incident.

Calm had returned to the camp by Sept. 30 but the UN and residents said there was still a strong police presence. 

Regional governor Kostas Moutzouris warned that "such a tragedy can happen anytime" at the cramped camp.                

Greece hosts some 70,000 mostly Syrian refugees and migrants who have fled their countries since 2015, crossing over from neighbouring Turkey.

But the number of arrivals has been rising again recently, with some 10,000 people landing on Lesbos in the past three months, according to the Greek government.

"We're in a different context compared to 2015... But this is by far the worst period we've been experiencing since the EU-Turkey deal was struck," the Deputy Minister of Citizen Protection Lefteris Economou told reporters on Sept. 30.

Around 250 migrants at Moria were scheduled to be brought to the Greek mainland on Sept. 30.

"We are trying to gradually transfer the migrants to empty the Moria camp," Economou said.

Some 2,510 migrants have been transferred from the Greek islands to the mainland between September 2 and 15, UN figures show.

But Oxfam said there were still more than 26,200 spread across the Aegean island camps.

The Greek government said on Sept. 29 it had plans for a new asylum law to deal with the crisis.

It has called on regional governors on mainland Greece to expand existing camps or revive some closed ones to relieve pressure on the overcrowded islands.