Fire rips through Greek refugee camp

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Police kick at refugees in the Moria camp on the Greek island of Lesbos

A FIRE has ripped through one of Greece’s largest refugee camps after the death of an Iraqi woman sparked an uprising.

The blaze late on Saturday at the Vial refugee camp on Chios island destroyed the facilities of the European asylum service, a canteen, warehouse tents and many housing containers, Greek refugee ministry secretary Manos Logothetis said.

Police arrested two Afghans and an Iraqi in the unrest, which erupted after a 47-year-old asylum seeker from Iraq died in the camp earlier on Saturday.

‘We managed to restore order at around 1.00am … there were many people who took part in the incidents,’ said the police in a statement.

The Iraqi woman had been taken with a fever to a hospital earlier this week. At the time, a test for coronavirus had ‘returned negative’.

A report from Athens said: ‘This woman did not die of coronavirus, but perhaps the hospital should have done a more thorough examination of her, because she was sent back to the camp and she died there of other causes that are still being investigated.

‘It appears that the fear that what she did die of may have been coronavirus is what triggered the rampage, and the riots overnight.’

Refugee camps in Greece have been under quarantine in recent weeks.

The virus has so far killed 110 people in Greece with 67 more in intensive care.

According to official figures there have been coronavirus cases in two camps on the mainland but no cases have been reported in island camps so far.

Like all Greece’s island camps, Vial is overcrowded with more than 5,000 people living in a space intended for only around 1,000.

The conditions are atrocious, akin to the trenches in the First World War.

Around 100,000 asylum seekers are stranded in Greece after other European states closed their borders in 2016.

There are more than 36,000 people in camps on islands close to Turkey that were originally built for just 6,100.

The refugee ministry has said it will begin moving hundreds of elderly out of the island camps to protect them from coronavirus.

A scheme to gradually relocate unaccompanied minors from war-torn countries to other European nations also began this week.

The European Union (EU) actually promised to evacuate as many as 1,600 of the unaccompanied underage refugees currently stuck in Greece. But then came the coronavirus and receiver countries, including Germany, decided to stop all refugee entries in mid-March.

So far, only 47 unaccompanied refugee children have been flown to Germany from Greece.

One of the few planes allowed to depart last Saturday flew into Hanover. Though the flight was originally scheduled to transport 58 unaccompanied underage refugees, it only carried 47. The others were deemed too ill to fly.

Officials say the illnesses were not coronavirus-related and that those unable to board would be flown to Germany at a later date. On Wednesday, another 12 minors were flown to Luxembourg, despite strict travel restrictions due to the coronavirus.

Vasilis Papadopoulos, president of the Greek Council for Refugees (GCR) said: ‘The current situation is hitting children hardest. More than 1,000 unaccompanied minors don’t have a permanent roof over their head, not to mention a total lack of schooling or long-term perspectives. 300 of those minors are currently in police custody.’

Meanwhile, non-governmental organisations (NGOs) are accusing Italy and Malta of using the coronavirus pandemic as a pretext for closing ports to private rescue vessels. They say the lives of migrants are being put at risk.

Italy and Malta are officially closing ports to operators of private rescue vessels who patrol the Mediterranean Sea saving the lives of refugees.

The coronavirus pandemic is being used as an excuse by Italy and Malta to close the ports worsening an already bad situation.

The Maltese government, for its part, said that it had ‘no choice but to close its ports because it simply lacks the capacity to operate them,’ as most of the country’s energies are currently focused on combating the Covid-19 pandemic.

At the moment, most EU member states have closed their borders. EU migration expert Raphael Bossong, of the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP), says that is a legitimate course of action during a crisis such as that presented by the coronavirus.

But that doesn’t mean states can simply turn away those seeking help, he says. ‘If a vessel is carrying asylum-seekers at sea, then an exception must be made and the ship be allowed to enter port.’

Maritime law stipulates that people rescued at sea must be taken to the closest safe harbour. Private rescue ships, like the Alan Kurdi, operated by the organisation Sea-Eye, already had difficulties gaining entrance to safe harbours before the coronavirus began, but now it has become nearly impossible for them to get in.

Currently, the Alan Kurdi is anchored off the coast of Sicily, where its crew and 149 refugees have been waiting for a resolution to their dilemma for more than a week.

Dark scenes are playing out in Maltese waters, too.

Last Wednesday, five drowned bodies were recovered at sea. The dead were said to have been passengers on a rubber boat full of refugees. According to the International Organisation for Migration (IOM), 51 of those refugees were picked up by a passing merchant ship and handed over to the Libyan coast guard. Authorities say the rescued are currently in a camp in Tripoli, returned to the capital of a country in the grips of a civil war.

Malta and Italy have repeatedly attempted to curtail freedom of movement for private rescue ships in the past. Now, NGOs are accusing Rome and Valletta of misusing the coronavirus pandemic for political purposes.

Oliver Kulikowski of the organisation Sea Watch says that although Italy has been hard-hit by the crisis, this does not give politicians there an excuse to ignore human rights and maritime laws.

‘Regardless of the situation in Europe, people are still trying to escape Libya – where torture and human rights abuses are the order of the day – in vessels not fit for the journey,’ says Kulikowski.

The European Union has been trying to keep refugees and migrants from making the dangerous journey to its shores for years. To do so, it has counted heavily on cooperation from Libyan authorities. One tactic employed has been to task the Libyan coast guard with picking up refugees headed to Europe and returning them to Libya. Those taken back are often tortured and blackmailed.

Tripoli has also been the scene of repeated clashes between Libya’s Government of National Accord (GNA) and General Haftar’s force the National Liberation Army (NLA). Many regions in the country are unsafe.

The Libyan government recently acknowledged that fact when it refused to let refugees disembark in the port of Tripoli a few days ago because it simply was too dangerous for them to do so. Recent skirmishes in the capital led the government to declare the port unsafe.

Tom Garofalo of the International Rescue Committee (IRC) agrees with the assessment that returned migrants and refugees are not safe in Libya.

‘It’s definitely the case that it can be too dangerous to bring people back into Tripoli port because of the current fighting, but there is no other alternative,’ Garofalo said.

‘The European ports are not accepting them. There’s no place for them to go. And they are brought back to Libya.’

It is estimated that as many as 600,000 refugees are in the North African country at the moment, though not all of them want to continue on to Europe, Garofalo says. He says many of them came to Libya to earn money to live on, with many hoping to return home as soon as possible. He says those people are now in an impossible situation in which they don’t know when they will be able to leave the war-torn country and are now simply trying to survive.

Garofalo warns that increasing violence paired with the coronavirus could lead many refugees and migrants to flee yet again.

In an attempt to keep them from setting out for Europe, Malta has proposed an EU aid package to assist Libya. The plan would provide at least 100 million euros ($109 million) worth of food, medicine and medical equipment.

‘It’s important to support the Libyan government and to … build on the strong points to help them to deal with this crisis,’ Garofalo says.

‘But a much better option would be for the international community, including Malta, Italy, UK, France, Germany, everybody to look more pragmatically at how to provide safe haven and to open up this to these vulnerable people … particularly at a time when we’re trying to foster international solidarity to deal with this epidemic.’

Sea Watch’s Kulikowski says the current situation has handcuffed private rescue organisations, adding, ‘The European Union is refuses to rescue people, preferring to let them drown if they cannot reach the European coast on their own.’

In October 2019, a clear majority of European parliamentarians rejected a proposal that would have granted rescue organisations more rights. That, combined with a lack of international solidarity in the face of increasingly drastic measures by Mediterranean countries, has only made a dangerous journey deadlier still in the age of the coronavirus pandemic.