THE fires that destroyed a camp for migrants on the Greek island of Lesbos highlight the moral and political “failure” of European countries to address the plight of the thousands of refugees fleeing violence and persecution, the Bishop in Europe, Dr Robert Innes, has said.
Dr Innes said that the fires, which devastated the camp on Tuesday night last week, were a “tragedy waiting to happen”. The Greek government has accused migrants of starting the blaze at the overcrowded Moria camp, owing to their anger at isolation measures imposed to curb the coronavirus outbreak. Migrants are said to have disputed that, and to have blamed hostile local people for the blaze.
“It underlines our European failure, morally and politically to address the plight of refugee and migrants desperately fleeing conflict and oppression,” Bishop Innes said.
“If up to 20,000 people in a European town or city today lost their homes due to their living conditions, there would be political outrage; but this is Lesbos, overcrowded with refugees and migrants — in a Covid-19 world — and their situation, that lacks all human dignity, seems to be news only when there is raging fire on our TV screens.
“Refugees and migrants do not need to be held in militarised-style camps with razor wire, they need a helping hand to find homes, re-build shattered lives, and above all, they need to be given hope for the future. We are failing them.”
He praised the work of voluntary organisations supporting migrants on Lesbos, some of whom have encountered hostility from Greek residents.
paRefugees rest in a car park on Lesbos, on Monday
“I salute the efforts of voluntary organisations working on the ground in Lesbos, and I welcome commitments by several EU member states to receive child refugees. I join with Christian brothers and sisters who are urging the need for a more civilised, humane and just approach to European Union migration and asylum policies.”
More than 12,000 migrants were living in the vastly overcrowded camp at the time of the blaze, which started hours after reports that 35 migrants had tested positive for Covid.
The vast majority of migrants from the camps are now living rough on the streets or in the countryside, although about 800 have moved to a new camp on a former military firing range. Many migrants have protested at the building of the new camp, holding up signs calling for “freedom”. Police used tear gas to disperse the protesters. Residents on Lesbos have also protested at the building of a permanent camp for migrants, and have been blocking roads to stop deliveries.
Five young foreign nationals were arrested by Greek police this week in connection with the fire, and a sixth is being sought.
Germany has agreed to take in 1553 migrants from the camp, but it is the only European country to offer to take in hundreds of people. It has also said that it will take up to 150 unaccompanied minors.
Charities have called on European leaders to produce jointly a fair and permanent relocation system for migrants. The Humanitarian Director of the Roman Catholic charity Caritas Europa, Silvia Sinibaldi, said: “A European solution must be found: it is a matter of solidarity and shared responsibility.”
Speaking in the House of Lords on Monday, the Bishop of Durham, the Rt Revd Paul Butler, said: “While Germany, France, and other countries have already offered assistance to those affected by this fire, the UK appears yet to have done so”.
Baroness Trafford, Minister of State at the Home Office, replied that the Government was making arrangements with Greek officials “to facilitate transfers of people” from the camp. “I must make it clear that all arrangements to complete the transfer are the responsibility of the sending state.”