LESBOS, Greece: In this Sept 9, 2020 file photo, a woman carries a child past flames after a major fire broke out in the Moria migrant camp on this Greek Aegean island. - AFP

LESBOS: The new camp for migrants on the Greek island of Lesbos was supposed to be a temporary solution for the thousands who escaped a fire that destroyed the infamous Moria camp over two months ago. Now however, many of them will have to stay on through the winter in harsh conditions, as well as facing the threat of the coronavirus, officials say. A fire gutted the sprawling, overcrowded and unsanitary migrant camp of Moria, Europe's largest, on September 8-9, leaving nearly 13,000 homeless. Arson has been blamed.

Some 7,300 migrants, including vulnerable groups, live in the new camp in Kara Tepe a few kilometers away on the same Aegean island of Lesbos, located close to the Turkish coast. They live in tents that are not adapted for winter conditions, without heating or hot water, or enough showers or toilets. This year, as well as the cold and the rain, they also face the risk of catching the coronavirus - and in the camp it is impossible to maintain social distancing, wash hands frequently, or have immediate and proper access to medical care.

Even during the months when the virus restrictions were lifted for Greek citizens, they remained in place at migrant camps throughout the country. "We can only leave the camp once a week for a few hours and we try to manage everything that needs to be done in that short time," said 30-year-old Jean-Pierre from Cameroon. "Everybody is terrified in the camp. I'm also afraid of the pandemic, it's deadly."

Conditions 'rapidly worsening'
"The toilets are cleaned only in the morning and within two hours you cannot reach them," said Arezoo, a 15-year-old from Afghanistan who said he had been stuck on Lesbos for a year. "It is disgusting. "There is no running water in the showers, so people carry water from their tents in bottles or wash themselves in the sea. "Since the tents are far away from the toilets, people make makeshift ones with blankets, cloths and wood."

There is supposed to be electricity for two hours in the morning, two hours at noon and at seven in the evening, he added. But it was intermittent and there was no wifi connection to communicate with friends and family or facilitate work on asylum applications. The improvised schools for the children took place in tents. "The worst part is that you have nothing to do all day," Arezoo said. The Greek authorities set up the Kara Tepe reception centre in just a few days in early September. It was initially intended as a temporary solution to house the thousands left with little or nothing after the Moria blaze.

Now however, the migration ministry says the permanent camp intended to replace Moria will not be ready before the summer of 2021. "As with the onset of winter, weather conditions are rapidly worsening, the remaining gaps need to be swiftly addressed, something which UNHCR has offered to help expedite," said Astrid Castelein, head of the UN refugee organization's team in Lesbos. She said they had already asked the authorities in the Lesbos capital of Mytilene to allow them to transfer the most vulnerable asylum-seekers to a local accommodation centre that has empty prefabricated containers.

Vulnerable cases 'getting worse'
Nasos Galis, a doctor from the National Health Organization based on the island, has also argued for urgent action. "Vulnerable people or patients with chronic diseases must leave the camp immediately for the mainland," he said. The conditions are also difficult for those working in the camp: the doctors, the civil servants handling the reception of arrivals and those working with the various NGOs. "Last week, the tent where we had to work was blown away by the wind and fell in the sea and we were chasing it," said one reception centre worker who asked to remain anonymous.

"They put us 35 workers all in one tent, as the coronavirus is spreading," he added. "We are afraid to go to work, the tents are moving up and down from the strong winds. What should we do? Put stones in our pockets so the wind does not take us away?" "People light fires to keep warm, as there is no heating and then come to visit us with breathing issues," said a doctor working at the camp, who also requested anonymity. "All vulnerable cases are getting worse day by day due to the low temperature and humidity."- AFP