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Asylum seekers gather as they wait for food distribution along the roadside where thousands are living with out shelter and exposed to the elements following the burning down of their camp, near the Kara Tepe camp on the island of Lesbos on Sept. 13, 2020.

LOUISA GOULIAMAKI/AFP/Getty Images

The Greek government is promising to build new housing for more than 12,000 refugees and migrants displaced by a destructive fire that swept through Europe’s largest refugee camp.

Days after the fire Wednesday, most of the residents of the Moria refugee camp were still scattered on a contained stretch of highway on Lesbos island and sleeping rough as anxieties ran high that Athens would confine them to overcrowded and unsafe facilities with little hope of getting off the island.

On Sunday, Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis said a new permanent reception centre would be built on Lesbos and he called on the rest of Europe to play a greater role in management of the new facility. Both Greece and Italy have long complained that they have shouldered the burden of tens of thousands of refugees arriving on their shores in recent years. “We want to turn this problem into an opportunity,” he said.

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But aid groups and refugees say the real remedy to the crisis on Lesbos is to process asylum claims and allow people off the island.

In the wake of the fire, residents of Moria camp felt a small, tenuous sense of hope amid the destruction, observers said.

“When the camp burned down, I think residents honestly thought this meant they might be rescued,” said Annie Petros, a 23-year-old Canadian aid worker from Calgary working in Moria. But what happens next for residents of the camp is uncertain. After days without food and water and, for many, years trapped in Moria without any word on their asylum status, residents are desperate.

Yousif Al Shewaili, an Iraqi photographer who has been documenting the situation on his Instagram account, has been stranded in the camp for three years while he awaits asylum. He says that for many residents, the fire is the final straw. They don’t want to be hustled into a new camp, he said. They want to be free.

Moria camp was built in 2015 to shelter 2,750 asylum seekers attempting to enter continental Europe. In recent years, however, Moria’s population has exploded – housing close to 13,000 individuals, including 4,000 children, from across Central Asia, the Middle East and Africa, all of whom lost their shelters and most of their belongings in the fire. Moria has been described as filthy and chaotic by Human Rights Watch and Doctors Without Borders, and became a focal point for the harsh realities of Europe’s migrant deterrence policy long before the fire.

In early September, 35 residents were confirmed to have coronavirus, prompting stricter lockdowns in the camp. Ms. Petros said some people have masks, but after the fire, they have nowhere to wash them and disposable masks are limited. Conditions are highly unsanitary – according to Doctors Without Borders, the camp has one toilet for every 72 residents.

On Friday morning, Ms. Petros, who works for the Becky’s Bathhouse non-governmental organization, which distributes feminine hygiene products and baby supplies and provides a safe place for women to shower, received an alert seeking aid workers to help distribute emergency rations. When she arrived, she was one of about 10 volunteers to distribute food and water to a crowd of thousands of residents. No United Nations or European Union officials were present, she said, only Greek military dressed in riot gear to control the crowd.

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Even then, the crowds quickly became frustrated, and the volunteers were forced to shutter distributions and evacuate from the camp for their safety.

A successful food distribution finally occurred on Saturday morning, said Ms. Petros. Later that day, refugees and migrants on Lesbos demonstrating against the Greek response to the crisis clashed with police, who responded with tear gas canisters.

Reached by The Globe and Mail on Saturday, a spokesperson for Canada’s minister for international development said “Canada is closely monitoring the ongoing situation. We are in contact with humanitarian organizations on the ground and as additional information becomes available of needs and additional humanitarian funding requirements, we remain prepared to respond further, as appropriate.”

But many humanitarian groups said permanent resettlement of the residents, rather than aid, is the only solution.

Jason Nickerson, Doctors Without Borders' humanitarian affairs adviser, spent time in the Moria camp in 2018 and described it as “an open air prison.”

“We’re talking about Moria this week because of the fires, but this has been an unbearable set of circumstances for years. … It was overcrowded, unsanitary and a public-health disaster waiting to happen. These people are effectively trapped,” he said.

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“The key point is that simply continuing to house people in these unbearable circumstances is not a solution. These people need to be treated with humanity and dignity and have their asylum visas processed."

European countries including France, Germany and Switzerland have airlifted 406 unaccompanied children out of the camp, but families and adults remain in Moria.

“People have been here for years and years seeking asylum and waiting for their asylum visas to be processed so they can apply to immigrate to other countries,” said Ms. Petros of Becky’s Bathhouse.

Frustration about the long wait times and the current conditions seemingly have reached a boiling point.

Violent demonstrations are not new to Moria. Ms. Petros said standoffs between local anti-migrant groups and antifa have been taking place for the past year, including on Thursday evening. They were broken up by riot police, but she said she’s worried standoffs will escalate and become more violent in the coming weeks.

She says anti-migrant locals have attacked NGO volunteers and aid workers and slashed the tires of NGO vehicles in nearby towns.

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In February, violent demonstrations among the migrants occurred when the Greek government tried to bring in supplies to build permanent detention centres.

The Greek authorities had repeatedly asked the European Union for help to resettle refugees prior to the fires.

Ms. Petros has been calling on the Canadian government to expedite the applications of Moria residents who want to come to Canada and additionally evacuate people and bring them into Canada given the emergency situation.

Ms. Petros said Canadians need to wake up to the humanitarian situation in Moria. “As Canadians, so many of us have connections to Europe and Greece, whether it’s our heritage or where we vacation. So if we allow this to happen here, where else do we let it happen?”

With a report from Associated Press

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