MORIA, Greece — Greece’s prime minister demanded Sunday that the European Union take a greater responsibility for managing migration into the bloc, as Greek authorities promised that 12,000 migrants and asylum-seekers left homeless after fire gutted an overcrowded camp would be moved shortly to a new tent city.
Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis blamed some residents at the Moria camp on the Greek island of Lesbos for trying to blackmail his government by deliberately setting the fires that destroyed the camp last week. But he said this could be an opportunity to improve how the EU handles a key challenge.
“It (the burning of Moria) was a tragedy. These images were bad. It was a warning bell to all to become sensitized. Europe cannot afford a second failure on the migration issue,” Mitsotakis told reporters Sunday in the northern city of Thessaloniki.
Human rights activists have long deplored the squalor at the Moria refugee camp, which was built to house 2,750 but was overflowing with some 12,500 people who fled across the sea from Turkey.
Mitsotakis said he has been in touch with French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel over the reallocation of at least some migrants from Moria, but he said there will be a new, permanent refugee camp on Lesbos.
Since the fires, which came after the camp faced a coronavirus lockdown, thousands of people have camped out in the open on a highway near Moria under police guard. Many have protested the Greek government for refusing to allow the homeless migrants to leave Lesbos for the Greek mainland. Greek residents are also unhappy that their island is being used as a dumping ground for migrants.
“This area is financially devastated due to this issue,” said islander Makis Kouklaras. “For residents, it’s not really a solution to have them moved just 3 or 4 kilometers down the road. It doesn’t really solve anything.”
The Greek army has been setting up tents at a former artillery range, about 4 kilometers (2.5 miles) from the old camp.
Migration Minister Notis Mitarakis said an estimated 1,000 Moria residents would be relocated to the army-built tent city by late Sunday and that getting everyone housed at the new site would take several days. He said all those entering would be tested for coronavirus and that five new cases have been found so far.
The Greek prime minister also touted his government’s more proactive policy in guarding its borders. Greece is currently building a fence on its land border with Turkey.
At the burned-down camp, some former residents on Sunday were still using showers and water outlets and trying to salvage possessions.
″I know that Greek people and Greek government are tired of refugees. I know. I respect all of them. But we don’t have any way to go to other countries (except coming to Greece first),” Afghan refugee Mahdi Azimi told The Associated Press.
At the Vatican, Pope Francis expressed solidarity Sunday with the homeless migrants on Lesbos and called for “dignified” welcome for them. Francis had visited the Moria camp in 2016, bringing 12 Syrian refugees with him to Rome.
Demetris Nellas reported from Athens, Greece. Vangelis Papandonis in Moria, Greece, Costas Kantouris in Thessaloniki, Greece and Nicole Winfield from Rome contributed.