Fire destroys Greek camp leaving 13,000 without shelter in Moira Some people were injured from smoke exposure as they evacuated the Moria camp
Fires have destroyed Greece’s largest migrant camp, an overcrowded facility on the island of Lesbos
40 firefighters battled the blaze at the Moria camp
Nearly 13,000 people without shelter at the camp which was designed for fewer than 3,000 people
Migrants, many suffering from smoke inhalation, fled
The camp has reportedly been completely destroyed by the fire – Migrants have evacuated the camp but have not been allowed to enter the nearby town
Refugees posted photographs of canisters they claim were used by “far-right Greeks” to set the Moria camp on fire
Human Rights Watch warned in April that Greek authorities had not done enough to tackle “acute overcrowding” at Moria, that it was not prepared for an outbreak of coronavirus
Fires have overnight destroyed the largest migrant camp in Greece, an overcrowded facility on the island of Lesbos. The blaze left nearly 13,000 people without shelter.
Before the blaze conditions at the camp were already dire at the site designed for fewer than 3,000 people.
Human Rights Watch warned in April that Greek authorities had not done enough to tackle “acute overcrowding” at Moria, that it was not prepared for an outbreak of coronavirus.
Some 40 firefighters battled the blaze as migrants, many suffering from smoke exposure, fled. Police blocked roads from the camp to prevent migrants entering nearby towns with many attempting to flee with their belongings to the port town of Mytilene, but access was cordoned off.
Reports suggest many slept in fields after the fire.
European Union home affairs commissioner Ylva Johansson has said she has agreed to finance the transfer of 400 unaccompanied teenagers and children to accommodation on the mainland.
While the whole camp was engulfed in flames, witnesses reported that some local residents attacked and prevented migrants from passing through a nearby village after they fled the flames.
Greek authorities placed the Moria camp under quarantine last week after a Somali migrant tested positive for the coronavirus, with 35 confirmed cases linked to the site.
It is unclear how the fires began, with some blaming the migrants and others blaming Greek locals. Fires broke out in more than three places in a short space of time, local fire chief Konstantinos Theofilopoulos told local media. Protesting migrants hindered firefighters who tried to tackle the flames, he added.
The main blaze, which was initially fanned by high winds, was put out by Wednesday morning, although Theofilopoulos said there were still some small fires burning inside some containers at the site.
Unconfirmed reports from Greek news agency, ANA, said the blaze started after some of the 35 covid-positive refugees had refused to move into isolation with their families.
Despite those reports, wildfires were also burning elsewhere on Lesbos.
Michalis Fratzeskos, deputy mayor for civil protection, told ERT the blaze was “premeditated”. Migrant tents had been empty, he said, and arsonists had “taken advantage of strong winds”.
However some of the refugees from the camp claim the fire had broken out after scuffles between migrants and Greek forces at the camp.
Several blamed “far-right Greeks” for the blaze after the announcement of coronavirus cases, and took photos of what they said were canisters used to ignite the flames.
In the words of Marco Sandrone, Lesbos project coordinator for Médecins Sans Frontières [MSF], “It’s a time bomb that finally exploded”.
People had been kept in “inhumane conditions” at the site for years, he said and it was difficult to say what had caused the blaze, with several different fires and protests erupting in the camp.
With the fire forcing refugees to flee the razed site and seek temporary shelter anywhere possible, Mytilene’s mayor, Stratis Kytelis, observed noted that authorities were facing “a very difficult situation because some of those who are outside will include people who are positive [for coronavirus]”.
About 3,000 people are being temporarily housed in tents on Lesbos until alternative shelter can be found, officials said.
Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis called an emergency meeting to discuss the fire on Wednesday morning, and several ministers have been sent to Lesbos to assess the situation.
“The disaster at Moria is total,” Greek migration ministry secretary Manos Logothetis said, as he announced that he was going to inspect the scene.
The EU has offered to help with the response. The main priority was “the safety of those left without shelter,” European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said.
Offers of aid is also coming from individual EU member countries with German foreign minister Heiko Maas who described the blaze as a “humanitarian disaster”, tweeting about “the distribution of refugees among those willing to accept admission in the EU”.
Prime Minister of the German state of North Rhine-Westphalia, Armin Laschet, later offered to “take in 1,000 refugees”.
As innuendos of tension swirl, a statement issued by UNHCR, the UN refugee agency, said it was aware of “tensions” between locals and migrants.
“We urge all to exercise restraint,” it said, and asked anyone who had been at the camp “to restrict their movements and stay near [the site], as a temporary solution is being found to shelter them”.
The Moria Refugee Camp lies north-east of Mytilene, the capital of Lesbos. It has been overwhelmed by huge numbers of refugees for years.
For years, thousands of people who arrived on Lesbos were placed in the camp and could not leave until their asylum application was processed on the mainland – a slow, bureaucratic process.
In 2018, UNHCR urged the Greek government to move asylum seekers away from Lesbos, describing conditions as at “boiling point”.
At the time, there were 8,000 people living in the Moria camp. Today the camp houses almost double that number.
According to InfoMigrants, about 70% of people in the camp are from Afghanistan but migrants from more than 70 different countries live there.
Since, an overflow site, the Kara Tepe Refugee Camp, has been built, still waves of new arrivals means that there is still not enough space to accommodate the refugees.
The EU has tried to resettle migrants among different member states but governments across the bloc have rejected different proposals, and migrants have waited in squalid conditions.
After the statement in April by Human Rights Watch that the authorities had not done enough to tackle “acute overcrowding” at the site, the government has laid out plans to build closed detention sites to house migrants on the Greek islands.