Greek police are ramping up efforts to rehouse thousands of homeless asylum seekers on the island of Lesbos as fears of revenge attacks by militant migrants surged Friday among locals.
Concerns stem from a rash of fires and attacks on farms, agricultural businesses and a refinery which authorities suspect could be related to last week’s fire at the Moria refugee camp on Lesbos.
“You’d think we would be relieved seeing this camp in our backyards destroyed after so many years,” said Stelios Panagopoulos, a coffee shop owner at the town of Moria, about a mile north of the dreaded camp.
“But no, we are so much more scared now because hot-headed migrants remain at large, and they are out there hiding in the fields and surrounding mountains, taking revenge on us, slaughtering our livestock and destroying our properties.”
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More than half of the camp’s 12,500 people are believed to be unaccounted for since a devastating fire ripped through the facility’s sprawling grounds and surrounding jungle of tarpaulin tents and crooked containers.
The UN refugee agency on Friday warned Greece that a new camp hastily built to house thousands of migrants left homeless by a fire last week can only be temporary.
Refugees are worn out from being on the street for over a week after the fire, aid agencies warn, with many struggling to access food and water. As of Sunday, only 1,000 of Moria's former residents have been taken in to the new camp.
Inside Moria, cleanup crews found hundreds of dead rats, rotting food and metal debris claimed by scavengers. Some asylum seekers are reportedly still trying to find shelter there.
Since the initial blaze, at least four additional fires have hit the island of Lesbos, including a key refinery south of the notorious camp.
Fears of migrant reprisals have surged after some men torched the barn of a leading local farmer.
“I saw them lurking in the background throughout the day, wearing black masks and black T-shirts,” Stelios Kafiotis, told The Telegraph. “I waited until late at night, watching over my flock of sheep.
“But just 30 minutes after I left to go into town, the fire brigade called to say my barn was on fire.”
The blaze destroyed more than 3 tons of clover feed and about 150 sheep – the latest toll of what locals call “incalculable collateral damage” suffered for allowing the nearby camp to operate.
A former military base, Moria was set up at the height of Europe’s refugee crisis in 2015 to house around 2,300 asylum seekers. Since then, successive waves of illegal immigration left nearly 13,000 people were crammed inside, trying to eke out an existence with poor sanitation, food and healthcare.
Local groups say they have long felt threatened by some of the migrants.
Earlier this year, the town’s 1,000 residents set up unprecedented checkpoints as thousands of asylum seekers stormed out of the neighbouring camp to protest forced deportations, abysmal living conditions and delays in asylum procedures.
“We were spared an insurrection then,” said Yannis Tsitris, 43, an officer in the Greek army. “But now, who knows what more is in store for us with thousands of them at large, armed and disrespectful to our people for hosting them for so many years.”
He said discrete police surveillance had increased in recent days but locals remain scared and vigilant.
“This is the thank you we get for rushing to help them, give them food and shelter for so many years?” asked Mr Kafiotis.
Earlier this year, Mr Kafiotis, 57, was imprisoned and barred from leaving the country for threatening a migrant intruder with a hunting rifle. He has since then been released but the migrant was subsequently detained, held in Moria, pending deportation. He is among dozens of migrants who managed to escape custody during the fire.
“I am certain he came back with others in seek of revenge for the arrests,” Mr Kafiotis said. Authorities last week said they suspect the migrant fugitive to be among the ringleaders of the Moria blaze.
At least seven refugees, including two minors, have been arrested in connection with the fire, stoking fears among asylum seekers dreading being rehoused in the new camp in Kara Tepe.
Only recognised refugees can move to another EU member state, which the government has told Lesbos’ homeless asylum seekers that they can only obtain as residents of the new camp.