Police on the Greek island of Lesbos have launched an operation to rehouse thousands of refugees and migrants who have been sleeping rough after their camp was destroyed by fire.
Officers on Thursday morning woke people in their tents to take them to a temporary centre that was hastily set up after Europe’s largest camp for asylum seekers at Moria burned down last week.
The new Kara Tepe camp, near the island’s main town Mytilene, was made on a former military firing range and is close to the remains of the Moria site.
But many have refused to go, fearing living conditions would be as bad or worse than at Moria, which was notoriously unsafe, and worried they would be left waiting for months to have their requests for asylum processed and transferred to the Greek mainland or another European country.
Riot police and police vans were parked on either side of a street where thousands who fled the Moria camp have been living.
Quietly, with the sounds of children crying and under an already hot sun, people folded their blankets, picked up bags containing whatever belongings they had saved from the fire and dismantled their tents.
Women and children with bundles on their backs were seen gathering by a barricade police had set up on the road.
Some mothers pushed their babies in prams up the road as other refugees took shelter from the morning sun in the shade of a large building, or washed with water bottles on the roadside.
“The aim is to safeguard public health,” police spokesman Theodoros Chronopoulos told AFP news agency, confirming that “an operation is under way” which “responds to humanitarian aims.”
But Doctors Without Borders (MSF), which opened an emergency clinic in the area, said it was barred from accessing its facility during the night, as rumours of the police operation spread.
“A police operation is under way to take refugees to the new camp. This should not prevent medical aid,” MSF complained on Twitter.
More than 12,000 people including entire families with elderly and newborns were left homeless when fire tore through the overcrowded and unsanitary Moria camp – built five years ago at the height of Europe’s refugee crisis – on the night of September 8.
Thousands have been sleeping under tarpaulins or tents at roadsides and in the car parks of closed supermarkets since the blaze.
Late Wednesday, around 1,000 tents, each able to accommodate between eight and 10 people, had been erected at the new site.