Future of Greek refugee centre in doubt after blaze

Thousands used centre before closure amid tensions following rise in migrants crossing from Turkey

Israel from Congo, a migrant who was also a teacher of the school for refugee children walks through the burnt facilities of the school of the "One Happy Family" NGO's project on the island of Lesbos on March 8, 2020.   A fire engulfed a refugee shelter on the island of Lesbos Saturday as Greece announced further restrictions towards asylum seekers in response to a migration surge enabled by Turkey.
The fire at One Happy Family, a Swiss-operated family care centre for refugees just outside the island capital, came after violence at the weekend directed at aid groups and journalists on Lesbos.

The future of a refugee centre on the Greek island of Lesbos that has helped thousands of people fleeing from war is in doubt after fire severely damaged its education centre.

The fire was the second in a week at a refugee centre on the island, situated just a few kilometres from the Turkish coastline, amid tensions over a surge in migrants that have reached Lesbos in the last week.

It was not yet clear how the blaze started, said officials from the Swiss-run One Happy Family facility, but comes amid an increase in attacks on aid workers helping the refugees.

epa08277921 Firefighters battle to put out a fire at a refugee shelter run by the Swiss non-profit 'One Happy Family' near the Kara Tepe camp on Lesvos Island, Greece, 07 March 2020 (issued 08 March 2020). The blaze was extinguished within a few hours of it breaking out. According to media reports, the cause of the fire and the number of victims remains unknown.  EPA/STRATIS BALASKAS

The facility — which provides food, haircuts, entertainment, exercise facilities and language lessons for residents of the island’s refugee camps — has been closed for a week amid turmoil on the island after Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said migrants and refugees would no longer be stopped from crossing into the European Union.

The National visited the centre last year, which provides respite for some of the estimated 20,000 refugees in camps on the island. One African refugee said: "This place is like my home. When I'm here, I'm happy."

Lesbos became a symbol of tolerance during the last migrant crisis of 2015 when refugees were offered food and hospitality and the island was nominated for the Nobel peace prize. Nearly a million refugees made it to Greek islands in the Aegean Sea and the majority trekked on to mainland Europe.

But Greece under conservative leader Kyriakos Mitsotakis has taken a tough line against migrants and has been backed by senior European Union leaders who fear a repeat of the political upheavals that roiled Europe during disputes over responsibility for new arrivals in 2015.

The Greek government closed border crossings and bolstered troops along its 200-kilometre land border with Turkey to try to prevent migrants crossing across the Evros river that marks the border between the two countries.

The Greek border area has since seen violent confrontations between the migrants and Greek security forces, with officers in Greece firing teargas to block the migrants and Turkish police firing teargas back at their Greek counterparts.

The UN said last week that the crackdown at the border had seen more seek to make the crossing from Turkey via boats to the Greek islands. Mr Erdogan on Saturday ordered the Turkish coastguard to stop migrants crossing the Aegean Sea on safety grounds.

But the new arrivals have already strained tensions on the island with residents feeling abandoned by both Athens and the European Union.

A group of anti-migrant extremists were arrested last month before the new crisis, according to local media. A German journalist was beaten up last week after photographing a group of migrants in a dinghy involved in a standoff with islanders who refused to allow them to land.

The centre was empty at the time of the blaze and nobody was hurt. One Happy Family said it was planning to rebuild the centre after talks with island authorities.

“We are planning to stay on the island but we have to assess the situation and make sure we can keep everyone safe, said One Happy Family spokesman Nicolas Perrenoud. “We will see what the investigation brings, what else happens in Turkey and with the right-wing movement.”

Mr Erdogan will travel to Brussels on Monday to talk with senior EU officials about the collapse of a 2016 agreement over the fate of 3.5 million Syrian refugees in Turkey.

The deal called for Turkey to halt the flow of Europe-bound migrants and refugees in return for up to six billion euros in aid for Syrian refugees on its territory, fast-track EU membership and visa-free travel to Europe for Turkish citizens.