Exclusive: minister says island ‘has been through a lot’ as he welcomes new German offer.
The island of Lesbos will be emptied of refugees by next Easter, the Greek government has vowed, as it welcomed Germany’s offer to take in 1,500 people left without shelter.
Following the devastating fires that destroyed the notoriously overcrowded Moria facility last week, Greece’s top public order official said plans would be accelerated to decongest the outpost.
“They will all leave,” the civil protection minister, Michalis Chrysochoidis, told the Guardian. “Of the roughly 12,000 refugees here currently, I foresee 6,000 being transferred to the mainland by Christmas and the rest by Easter. The people of this island have gone through a lot. They’ve been very patient.”
About 70% of asylum seekers on Lesbos were Afghans who would be awarded refugee status and given travel papers, he said. Recognised refugees can move to another EU member state for up to three months using the documents.
Greek police detained five people on Tuesday in connection with the blazes at the camp, and are searching for one other. No more details were given but from the outset officials have attributed the fires to camp residents pressuring authorities to leave.
Chrysochoidis, who flew into Lesbos to help oversee relief efforts, welcomed reports that Germany was prepared to take in as many as 1,500 people from Moria.
The German coalition government on Tuesday agreed to take in a total of 1,553 people from 408 families whose protected status has been confirmed by Greek authorities, Angela Merkel’s spokesperson said.
Last Friday, Germany said it would take up to 150 out of approximately 400 unaccompanied minors from the camp, where more than 12,000 people were left homeless by the fire in the early hours of 9 September.
“It’s very generous, very brave,” Chrysochoidis said of the goodwill gesture. “All over Europe, countries have their own internal political problems around this issue but I also think they [EU states] can see we are protecting the bloc’s borders, we have greatly minimised flows.”
Merkel insisted on Monday any transfer of migrants to Germany would need to go hand-in-hand with a broader European initiative, emphasising her support for Greek plans for a new reception centre on Lesbos.
Apart from Luxembourg, no other country has so far showed a willingness to partake in a pan-European solution to the crisis in Moria.
Some countries, such as Austria, have categorically rejected taking in people from the destroyed camp. “If we give in to this pressure now, then we risk making the same mistake we made in 2015,” said chancellor, Sebastian Kurz, referring to Merkel’s decision to take in large numbers of refugees five years ago.
Germany’s leader faces domestic pressure from two sides on the issue. Members of her own party, the Christian Democratic Union (CDU), have warned that any resettlement programme must be carried out in a way as to avoid chaotic scenes akin to those at the height of the 2015 refugee crisis. “We must not go alone,” said CDU delegate Mathias Middelberg.
From the other side, Merkel faces calls from her coalition partner, the centre-left Social Democratic party (SPD), and a number of federal states and city mayors across Germany for Europe’s largest economy to step up its humanitarian efforts.
The leadership of the SPD, which will need to approve Merkel and Seehofer’s decision, has pressured its senior coalition to take in more than 5,000 people to alleviate the situation in Greece.
German calls for resettlement schemes have until now also faced resistance from Greece, where prime minister, Kyriakos Mitsotakis, accused some residents of Moria for trying to blackmail his government by deliberately setting the fires that destroyed their camp.
Chrysochoidis insisted it was crucial Moria’s erstwhile occupants move into a temporary camp, close to Mytilene, the island’s port capital, that the government, with the aid of the army had rushed to build. Opposition is such that seven days after the first blaze, only 1,000 had so far agreed to enter the new facility.
Athens’ centre-right government has enlisted NGOs and distributed multi-lingual notices in a bid to encourage relocation, saying the new site provides a safe place for asylum seekers to complete applications. Many have denounced the facility as “a new Moria, another prison.”
As tensions mounted, the Greek migration minister Notis Mitarachi alluded to the possible use of force if the displaced migrants refused to go voluntarily.
Nine riot police units and water cannon have been dispatched to the island. “If this is not possible through discussion, then the police will have to be used,” he told Mega TV. “It is their obligation to move to the new site,” he said acknowledging for the first time that families would likely spend the winter in tents.
The Greek government has pledged to build a new structure on the island that will be co-managed by EU agencies but says construction of the camp in a place that has yet to be decided will require at least six months.
Concerns over Covid-19 – more than 21 asylum seekers since the fires have tested positive for the virus in addition to 35 who were diagnosed with it before – have made resettlement even more pressing.
Close to 12,500 men, women and children have been living out in the open, often in makeshift tents of tarps and bamboo reeds. Some 406 lone migrant children, also in the camp, were flown to the mainland immediately before continuing on to European states that have agreed to accept them.
“There are groups of Afghans and I am afraid even some human rights organisations who are encouraging thousands of people not to go in,” said Chrysochoidis, who is seen as the face of the centre-right government’s tough public order policies. “It’s non-negotiable. They will leave the island but they have to go through this new facility and get the requisite legal documents first.”
Efforts will be launched in the coming days to clear the charred remains of what had once been Europe’s largest refugee camp. Designed to host no more than 3,000, Moria accommodated almost 10 times that number at its height and was regularly condemned by aid groups for its deplorable conditions.
“It was a camp of shame,” the politician admitted, denying that the government was also forcibly pushing back other refugees who were trying to get to Greece . “Now it belongs to history. It will be cleared up and replaced by olive groves.”