A police operation has been launched to relocate more than 10,000 people living out in the open on the Greek island of Lesbos since fires last week razed its Moria refugee camp.
The operation began early on Thursday with police forcibly moving people into a temporary facility outside the port town of Mytilene on the island.
“The aim is to resettle these people as peacefully as possibly and as quickly as possible,” the police spokesman Lt Theodoros Chronopoulos said.
About 70 female police officers had been dispatched from Athens as part of the operation. “Women and children are being given priority. It’s much easier for female officers to persuade them that it is in their interest, to follow instructions,” Chronopoulos added.
Greek authorities faced staunch resistance from refugees who did not want to move to the new site, a sprawling collection of 700 tents hastily erected with the help of the army in a former firing range overlooking the sea. Many had expressed fears the temporary installation would become “a new Moria”.
Nine days after the fires forced nearly 13,000 people into the surrounding countryside – and with coronavirus cases rising on the Aegean island – officials said it had become a matter of public health to rehouse the displaced refugees.
Without shelter, the asylum seekers had been battling increasingly unhygienic conditions under makeshift coverings of tarpaulin and bamboo reeds along a stretch of road leading into Mytilene and in olive groves and fields. Some had even sought refuge in churches and a local cemetery.
“It has become an issue of protecting public health but also a humanitarian issue too,” Chronopoulos said. “The new accommodation facility was built in record time but right now only 2,000 are in it.”
Many police were seen putting on personal protective equipment as the operation got under way. Prior to the fires at least 35 refugees had been diagnosed with Covid-19 only to go missing when the emergency unfolded.
On Thursday, health officials said they had recorded a further 56 cases among people being given rapid Covid-19 tests before they entered the new site. Fears of a surge of infections among islanders have also grown in the wake of the blazes blamed on a group of young Afghans arrested earlier this week on charges of deliberately setting fire to the holding centre in an attempt to put pressure on authorities to leave the island.
The six men, who have denied the accusation, will be brought before a public prosecutor at the weekend.
“The situation on the island is absolutely dreadful,” said Panagiotis Paparisvas, the head of the local trade association. “Commerce has literally come to a standstill because the part of the island most affected is where all the transport companies, big supermarkets, warehouses and petrol stations are located.”
Moria, Europe’s largest refugee camp, had been the subject of global outrage, with aid and human rights groups condemning what had quickly become appalling conditions in an installation originally designed to accommodate no more than 3,000.
At the beginning of the year it was hosting close to 25,000 migrants and refugees who had landed on the shores of Lesbos in rickety boats from Turkey.
Greece’s top public order official, Michalis Chrysochoidis, told the Guardian on Tuesday that the centre-right government planned to empty the outpost of all refugees by next Easter in what would be a new page for the island, long on the frontline of Europe’s refugee crisis.
A new, much smaller facility, built with EU oversight and aid, will be erected on Lesbos to cater for what officials predict will be reduced flows from Turkey.
Greece, backed by the EU’s border agency, Frontex, has reinforced sea and land frontier patrols since the Turkish president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, threatened to “open the gates” to Europe for hundreds of thousands of migrants earlier this year.
But Chrysochoidis said asylum seekers living rough since the fires would have to resettle in the temporary facility first before being transferred to the mainland “if their status allows and they are recognised as refugees”.
On Thursday, the civil protection minister described the relocations as a “humanitarian duty”, saying families could not continue camping out in the open. “It is self-evident in any democratic and civilised society that they should be moved from the streets into a new structure,” he told reporters at the site. “They are being transferred from [a situation of] abandonment to care.”
The new reception centre will be under permanent police guard. Chrysochoidis has instructed a 300-strong unit to be brought in from Athens to monitor the facility amid fears of fires breaking out again.
Although Greek authorities are keen to accelerate asylum requests – furnishing refugees with documents that would allow them to travel abroad for up to three months – the government has acknowledged the vast majority will spend the winter in the camp because of the time it will take to build a new facility.
Greek police said they were in a race against the clock to rehouse the refugees because of a bad weather front, including hurricane-like storm systems, predicted to hit the country as of Thursday.
Echoing government officials, Philippe Leclerc, the UN refugee agency’s permanent representative in Greece, encouraged asylum seekers to make their way to the installation. “It is from here that their process will continue, that solutions can be found, that people can leave the island because the idea is not that [refugees] remain for ever on the island of Lesbos.”