ATHENS, Greece (AP) — A major fire swept through a notoriously overcrowded refugee camp on the Greek island of Lesbos early Wednesday, leaving thousands of people in need of emergency shelter. No injuries were reported.
Complicating matters, the Moria camp was under a coronavirus lockdown when flames gutted much of it overnight. Authorities scrambled to find a way to house camp residents left homeless while also preventing the spread of the virus.
“The combination of migration and the pandemic in these conditions is creating an exceptionally demanding situation,” Alternate Migration Minister Giorgos Koumoutsakos said. Civil protection authorities declared a four-month state of emergency for public health reasons on Lesbos.
Koumoutsakos said it appeared the blaze broke out “as the result of the discontent” of some camp residents over the lockdown measures and isolation orders imposed after 36 people tested positive for COVID-19.
The positive cases were detected in broad testing and contact tracing after a Somali man who returned to the camp after being granted asylum fell ill with the virus.
“I recognize the difficult circumstances,” Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis said, expressing sorrow over the fire. “However, nothing can become an excuse for violent reaction to health checks. And, more so, for unrest of this extent.”
The prime minister added: “The situation in Moria cannot continue because it constitutes simultaneously a question of public health, humanity and national security.”
In dramatic scenes, men, women and children fled fires that broke out during the night at multiple points and were fanned by gale-force winds, gutting much of the facility and some of the surrounding hillside olive groves. Protests also broke out involving migrants, riot police, and firefighters.
Police set up road blocks restricting access to the island’s main town of Mytilene.
Mitsotakis said those left homeless would be temporarily housed in tents, and all unaccompanied children and teenagers — just over 400 — would be transferred from the island. No other migrants or refugees, however, would be allowed to leave.
Aid agencies have long warned of dire conditions at Moria, where more than 12,500 people live in and around a facility built to house just over 2,750. The camp has become a symbol of what critics say is Europe’s failure to humanely handle the migration and refugee situation.
Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights Dunja Mijatović noted similarly overcrowded conditions on other Greek islands and said the situation could degenerate there too.
The fire shows the urgency of rethinking Europe’s approach to migration, “which has led to the overcrowded, inhumane and completely unsustainable situation in Moria and elsewhere on the Aegean islands,” Mijatovic said.
Under a 2016 deal between the European Union and Turkey designed to stem the flow of hundreds of thousands of migrants and refugees, those arriving on Greek islands like Lesbos from the nearby Turkish coast are held there pending either deportation back to Turkey or the acceptance of their asylum claims.
Although the deal dramatically reduced the flow, delays in processing asylum claims and the continued arrival of hundreds of asylum seekers led island camps to quickly exceed their capacity. Successive Greek governments have called on other European countries to share the burden.
“The problem of the handling of migration flows is, after all, mainly a European one,” Mitsotakis said, noting Athens was in constant contact with European authorities on the issue. “Greece has already borne a far heavier burden than its share.”
European authorities, who have often come under criticism for not doing enough to ease the migration burden on southern countries such as Greece, Italy and Spain, offered assistance.
“We will not leave Greece alone with this situation -- and above all -- we will not leave the people in this camp alone,” German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said.
“We have already offered the Greek government support … and we will also make this an issue during our (EU) Council Presidency,” Maas added. “I believe that the European Union as a whole has a responsibility.”
Germany holds the EU’s rotating presidency. A spokesman for German Interior Minister Horst Seehofer said Berlin was in talks with Athens over what assistance Germany could provide.
Pressed on whether Seehofer would reconsider his objection to individual German states or cities taking in refugees voluntarily, spokesman Steve Alter said it was important first to see what was needed urgently, and the current situation “is no reason to call into question our current legal order.”
Dutch Development Cooperation Minister Sigrid Kaag pledged 1 million euros (about $1.2 million) in emergency aid for Greece to help provide accommodation, housing and care to migrants, while EU Home Affairs Commissioner Ylva Johansson said she had agreed to finance the transfer and accommodation of the 400 unaccompanied children from Lesbos to the mainland.
In Spain’s Canary Islands, authorities are scrambling to build new migrant centers after an increase of arrivals turned the western Atlantic route into this year’s deadliest for migrants trying to reach Europe from Africa by sea. But the facilities won’t be ready for months, leaving hundreds sleeping in tents.
Nearly 4,000 people arrived in the archipelago near West Africa between Jan. 1 and the end of August, up from 584 in the same period of 2019. More than 250 have died, according to the International Organization for Migration.
In Moria, protests of living conditions and fires have broken out before, but Wednesday’s was by far the largest blaze.
Greece’s interior and migration ministers, along with the head of the country’s public health organization, flew to Lesbos with emergency aid.
European Commission Vice President Margaritis Schinas, who is responsible for migration matters, tweeted he had been in touch with Mitsotakis and “assured him that the European Commission is ready to assist Greece immediately at all levels at this difficult time.”