Thousands of stranded refugees demonstrated on the Greek island of Lesvos after the camp they were kept in burned down this week. They were met by riot police with teargas.
Some 13,000 refugees have spent five nights on the streets after a huge fire destroyed the Moria refugee camp on Tuesday night. They’ve been left on the roadside, with no shelter, food or water provided by the authorities—and penned in by riot police stopping them entering the island’s capital, Mytilene.
The refugees are demanding that the Greek government allow them off the island and to find safety in mainland Europe. Thousands of them marched on Friday chanting “We want to leave, let us go free.”
Riot cops responded with teargas, sticks and batons.
Michalis Tsorbatzoglu, a left wing activist from Lesvos, told Socialist Worker, “About 500 new riot police have been sent to the island. Refugees and anti-racists both marched on Friday and were attacked by police. More demonstrations are planned.”
The huge fire began after authorities placed the camp under lockdown when some refugees tested positive for coronavirus.
It meant the people forced to live in the camp were confined in overcrowded and unsanitary conditions created by the Greek government and the European Union (EU).
Most of the refugees arrived in Lesvos after making a dangerous sea crossing from nearby Turkey, hoping to move on to safety in mainland Europe. But EU border laws, designed to keep refugees out, trap them on the island for months until their claims are processed—with many deported.
In the wake of the fire the refugees have demanded that they finally be evacuated from the island. Instead the right wing Greek government says they must stay there and has already begun constructing a new camp on Lesvos.
Volunteer organisations and NGOs have attempted to distribute supplies, but are obstructed by police and the results are often chaotic.
A group of Syrian and Arab refugees called the Moria White Helmets reported on Friday, “Many of us are missing tents, blankets, sleeping bags. We have nothing to cover ourselves with, or even a jacket to put on to protect us from the night cold.
“Some of us have not eaten in days. Some food was dropped off yesterday, but with no plan on how to distribute this, people stormed to it and a lot of the food got destroyed.
“No place with toilets. No showers. People are still carrying the ashes from the fire because where would they wash it off? Wounded people who need medical treatment are not receiving enough medical attention.”
Some reports say gangs of fascists have attempted to attack the refugees. But local organisations have also organised to send supplies and demonstrate in solidarity.
Anti-racists protested on Friday and Saturday, and trade unions have called rallies and actions on Monday and Tuesday of this week.
The Lesvos workers’ centre said these are “To demand that all refugees and immigrants be released now and that Lesvos and the other islands not become prisons for human souls.”
Anti-racist organisation Keerfa also held a solidarity demonstration in Athens on Saturday.
An uprising on the island defeated the government’s attempts to build new, closed camps near Mantamados on the north of the island in March. Residents and organised workers forced out riot cops who had been sent to requisition land.
Michalis, who took part in the uprising, said there could be a “second round of state attack”.
The Mantamados Struggle Committee, which organised resistance, said it would resist attempts to build new camps.
“We support refugees who are living in the midst of a pandemic in miserable living conditions without being able to meet basic and basic needs,” it said. “A common request of locals, refugees and immigrants is their immediate release.
“We demand the immediate departure of refugees and migrants from the island and their safe relocation to their countries of destination.”