(Source: MJ/Linda Bordoni, Vatican News)

Tension is high on the Greek island of Lesbos with thousands of migrants sleeping rough after last week’s refugee centre fires and local residents worried about coronavirus fears and social strife. 

Authorities are building a temporary camp to shelter the men, women and children left without a roof over their heads. The migrants, however, are demonstrating as they fear a repeat of the untenable situation in the overcrowded and unsanitary Moria camp that held four times the numbers it was supposed to.

Pope Francis travelled to Lesbos in April 2016 to express his closeness to the men, women and children escaping conflict and poverty and urged European nations to agree on a common relocation policy that protects people and respects their dignity.

During the Angelus on Sunday, he recalled that visit and voiced his solidarity with the migrants.

Maria Alverti, the director of Caritas Hellas – the Greek office of the Catholic Church’s global confederation of relief, development and humanitarian agencies – told Vatican Radio that the Moria camp is almost completely destroyed, leaving 11 to 12,000 homeless and camped along the roads.

Alverti said the army has taken control of food distribution and is engaged in dealing with tension caused by some groups of local residents on the island who do not want the migrants in the towns.

“We believe these are minorities,” she said, but the tension is tangible and humanitarian workers have been instructed not to take action on their own initiative, at the same time that the government is coordinating all relief efforts.

Providing relief

Alverti said authorities have decided to create a new structure close to another camp on the island and are currently preparing to host about 1,000 people.

“They have already transferred some vulnerable families to stay there; all of them are waiting to be tested for COVID-19 before entering the new structure,” she said.

Meanwhile, Caritas has started distributing water and has about 1,000 sleeping bags that will be given to the refugee population.

Most urgent need

Caritas Hellas’ prime concern at the moment is the provision of aid where it is needed.

But Alverti said that she agrees that the incident has really highlighted the need for a common European policy for the relocation and integration of refugees and migrants.

“I am sorry to say that Moria was a ticking bomb for many years. It has been years that we were warning that accident or arson could happen there. So Moria should not have existed in the first place,” she said.

The relocation of people and the sharing of responsibility should definitely start taking place, Alverti explained.

She added that it is understandable that Greek authorities will not be relocating anyone to the mainland in the near future.

“It’s not easy to say you can transfer 12,000 people overnight to the mainland. I really believe that Europe should help in coming up with a common migration policy which would protect the rights of the people,” she said.

Recalling Pope Francis’ visit

Maria Alverti recalled Pope Francis’ visit to Lesbos in 2016, saying it was hugely encouraging for the people on the island.

She said that for Caritas Greece “it was important not only at a spiritual level but also knowing we are doing the right thing gives us strength.”

Alverti went on to reveal that the Holy See and the Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development “has been supportive of our work for many years: so it is very encouraging and very inspiring to know we are in the right position and doing the right thing.”

“The Holy Father’s words are always an inspiration and guidance,” she said.

Hopes for the near future

Regarding her hopes for the hours and days to come, Alverti underscored the fact that as Caritas Greece, her people are standing by ready to help in coordination with the Ministry covering the basic needs.

“Maybe it would be wishful thinking not to have new Morias to come,” she said, expressing her hope that this alarm will have an impact on the consciences of European leaders and on the mentality of politicians who should realise that the current system is not working.

It is also important, she pointed out, to take into consideration the challenges faced by some local communities: “that’s when you get some extremist elements of society coming forward and finding room and space in which to share hate-speech.”

In her final thoughts, Alverti noted that is up to political leaders to stop giving them grounds to fuel fear and antagonism.

Recalling the amazing solidarity the people of Lesbos demonstrated in 2015 at the peak of migrant arrivals, she noted that the mentality is not the same anymore and said it is important to “see how the local communities can be supported in this solidarity.”

More on Novena on the tragedy in the Moria refugee camp:

13/9: Angelus: In wake of Moria fires, Pope pleads for a “humane and dignified welcome” for refugees in Europe

Cardinal Krajewski leads Church outrage over Moria refugee camp fires, denounces “inhumane” EU migrant policy “killing” new arrivals

Jesuit Refugee Service Italy: “Time for the European Union to show solidarity” and evacuate refugees from Lesbos

Pope warns “no one can remain indifferent” to migrant “tragedies” day after tragic fire in Lesbos refugee camp

Cardinals, archbishop: “Europe should be ashamed” after devastating fire in Greek island migrant camp

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