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Australia’s connection with beleaguered migrants on Lesbos

16 September 20200 comments

News of asylum-seeker shelters being destroyed by fire on the Greek Island of Lesbos has sparked memories of a poignant connection with Australia.

The island was a staging post and hospital site for the Gallipoli landings in 1915.

Local officials have said the recent blazes were deliberately set by some residents of the island’s Moira camp angry over quarantine and isolation orders imposed after 35 people tested positive for COVID-19.

In the aftermath of the fires men, women and children were sleeping under improvised shelters made of reed stalks, blankets and salvaged tents.

And thousands protested peacefully demanding to be allowed to leave the island.

But leaving the island will require a relaxing of European Union rules, under which asylum-seekers reaching Greece’s islands from Turkey must stay there until they are either granted refugee status or deported back to Turkey.

The Moria camp was built to house around 2,750 people but was so overcrowded that the fires left more than 12,000 in need of emergency shelter.

The camp had long been held up by critics as a symbol of Europe’s failings in migration policy with Human Rights Watch saying the Moria fires highlighted the failure of the European Union’s ‘hotspot approach’ which has led to the containment of thousands of people on the Greek islands.

“European leaders should share responsibility for the reception and support of asylum-seekers. Also, Greek authorities should ensure that respect for human rights is at the centre of its response to this fire,” the rights group said in a statement.

Moria was put under a virus lockdown until mid-September after the first case confirmed there was identified in a Somali man who had been granted asylum and left for Athens but later returned to the camp.

The Greek military has begun building a massive new tent camp along the coast and testing kits for the virus were flown to the island for an extensive testing drive that would include asylum-seekers and islanders.

The World Health Organization said Greece had asked for the deployment of an emergency medical team. Two such teams, one from Belgium and one from Norway, have arrived.

Greek authorities have said none of the camp’s residents — except for 406 unaccompanied teenagers and children — would be allowed to leave the island.

The unaccompanied minors were flown to the Greek mainland on Wednesday, and several European countries have said they will take some of them in.

Australia’s connection with Lesbos (also spelled Lesvos) dates back to 1915 when the island was a staging post on the journey from Egypt to Lemnos in preparation for the launch of the Gallipoli landings.

It also hosted a hospital and many Australian troops remain there; more than 900 soldiers wounded at Gallipoli were buried at sea just off the island.  

A celebrated visitor to the island at the time was Australia’s official war correspondent and historian, C.E.W. Bean.

He records in his history of the campaign of coming to Lesbos for a “holiday” from the front, enjoyed its food and hospitality and making “good friends” amongst the locals.