GREECE – A wildfire raged near a camp for refugees and migrants on the Greek island of Lesbos on Saturday, the latest challenge to the health and safety of thousands living in squalor there.
An estimated 9,000 migrants live in the official camp, known as Moria, and in the makeshift settlement that has sprung up around it. The fire came a day after Greek authorities began relocating people from the island, away from conditions described by aid groups as overcrowded, unsanitary and dangerous.
Videos posted to social media by people in Moria showed a large plume of smoke rising in the distance. In one of the clips, children could be heard shrieking as helicopters flew overhead with water to douse the flames.
No casualties were immediately reported.
The Greek Ministry of Migration Policy said it planned to relocate 2,000 asylum seekers in the camp — many of whom are elderly, sick or children — by the end of the month, according to The Associated Press.
From there, the migrants will be sent to a camp near Thessaloniki in northern Greece, where they will be kept while awaiting word on their asylum claims. The first 100 asylum seekers were moved on Friday.
Moria was one of several camps set up in the midst of the 2015 migration crisis, in which hundreds of thousands of migrants made their way across the Mediterranean into Europe. At the time, the primary route into Europe was from western Turkey across the Aegean to one of the nearby Greek islands.
Under a 2016 agreement between the European Union and Turkey, those arriving on the Greek islands are held in detention camps while they await the approval of asylum applications. Those whose claims are rejected face deportation to Turkey.
But a backlog of claims has far outstripped the resources of Moria and other camps. And while the 2016 agreement slowed the flow of people from Turkey into Greece, hundreds still arrive at the Greek islands daily, according to the United Nations refugee agency.
More than half of all new arrivals to Greece during the first eight months of 2018 went to Lesbos, the agency said. The majority are from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan. In the first two weeks of September alone, according to Doctors Without Borders, more than 1,500 people arrived on Lesbos.
Doctors Without Borders, which has been working with migrants on the island for the past three years, says that conditions in the camp and access to medical care have significantly deteriorated. Conditions are unsafe and unsanitary, the group said, and outbreaks of disease are high.
The group, also known by its French initials M.S.F., had urged the Greek government to conduct the relocations that began this week.
“This is the third year that M.S.F. has urged the Greek authorities and the E.U. to take responsibility for their collective failures and to put in place sustainable solutions to avoid this catastrophic situation,” Louise Roland-Gosselin, the head of mission in Greece for Doctors Without Borders, said earlier this week.
A doctor from the organization described increasing cases of self-harm and attempted suicides among the youngest migrants.
“These children come from countries that are at war, where they have experienced extreme levels of violence and trauma,” Declan Barry, the medical coordinator in Greece for Doctors Without Borders, said. “Rather than receiving care and protection in Europe, they are instead subjected to ongoing fear, stress and episodes of further violence, including sexual violence.”