Greece is facing mounting demands from refugees displaced by the devastating Moria refugee camp fire to either let them leave Lesbos or deport them.

The Greek authorities are struggling to persuade former residents of the camp to move to a new temporary site, and many people continue to sleep on the streets of the island.

The latest protests in Lesbos, where police have fired teargas at refugees, came as Greek prime minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis said he hoped plans to build a new reception centre to replace Moria would be an opportunity to reset policy on handling migrant arrivals.

The fire at the overcrowded camp, engulfed in a blaze last week, has left more than 12,000 people – from 70 different countries, although many from Afghanistan – without shelter or proper sanitation.

Blazes broke out last week in several locations across the camp after 35 residents tested positive for Covid-19, prompting a lockdown by Greek authorities that in turn triggered protests by residents during which fires were lit.

The disaster has served to underline chronic problems surrounding the conditions for residents and the wider EU policy surrounding those in the camp – which was originally built to house 3,000 people – many of whom are now demanding to be resettled in Europe.

A group of unaccompanied minors en route from Lesbos to camps in northern Greece.
A group of unaccompanied minors en route from Lesbos to camps in northern Greece. Photograph: Louisa Gouliamaki/AFP/Getty Images

Although the EU initially said 10 countries had agreed to take 400 unaccompanied minors, it was criticised for doing too little and too late. Germany – which had originally pledged to take 150 child refugees – announced on Monday that it was in talks to take more families.

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Reflecting the views of many of those sleeping rough, a crowd of women and children protesting again on Monday, some holding banners asking the EU to save them.

“We have been here for more than one year,” said Maryam, a 25-year-old mother. “There is no rescue. No freedom. If they can’t support us then they should deport us all together.

“We are asking for the European community to help. Why are they not listening to us? Where are the human rights? We took refuge in the European Union but where are they? There are no toilets, no showers, no water. Nothing. Not any security or safety. We die here every day.”

While a temporary camp was set up after the fire, both islanders and former residents oppose the Greek government’s plan for a new camp. Some former residents were arrested at the weekend for reportedly encouraging others not to enter the new camp.

Moria has long been a symbol of the deep political divisions in Europe over Mediterranean migration, as it initially featured as a transit point for hundreds of thousands of people – many from Syria and Afghanistan – heading for Europe.

After the closure of Europe’s borders to refugees four years ago, Moria has become largely a dead end, plagued by mental health issues and a pervasive sense of desperation.

The Guardian also met Zahara, another member of the group of women protesting. She cried as she produced a doctor’s note dated the end of August stating she is pregnant and depressed, and requesting a move to new accommodation in the now burned out camp.

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“This lady is depressed and suicidal,” the doctor’s note said. A friend patted her arm and tried to reassure her.

Another woman said: “Is it similar in Athens? Is it similar on the mainland?”

Marina Papatoukaki, a midwife with a field clinic run by charity Médecins Sans Frontières, said she was deeply concerned about some of the pregnant women they had been treating, but who they have been unable to locate since the fire.

“Europe and the state need to understand that these women shouldn’t have been on the island in the first place. They need to be transferred on the mainland,” she said.

Papatoukaki said pregnant women and babies they were treating in the clinic were not getting enough food and water. “Babies are sleeping on the street where they can’t be washed, they are getting skin rashes and other conditions. These are vulnerable people and Europe and the Greek government need to move them.”

Women and children protest against the proposed new camp on Lesbos.
Women and children protest against the proposed new camp on Lesbos. Photograph: Dimitris Tosidis/EPA

Germany’s intention to take in more children from the camp was announced by Angela Merkel’s spokesman Steffen Seibert in Berlin, who said that the move to take minors was a first step, but that more needed to be done.

“Talks are now ongoing in the federal government about how else Germany can help, what other substantial contribution our country can make,” he said.

A second step would focus on families with children from the camp, Seibert said. Seibert’s comments follow remarks by development minister Gerd Müller, who criticised the initial quota of 150 minors and called for Germany to take 2,000 people.

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