Thousands of asylum seekers are homeless following a fire at Greece’s largest camp

11 September 2020

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GREECE – Thousands of refugees and migrants fled the flames that tore through the Moria camp under a coronavirus lockdown, on Greece’s island of Lesbos on Tuesday, 8 September 2020. Several fires erupted in the Moria reception centre leaving the camp almost entirely destroyed, forcing around 12 000 men, women and children to evacuate the site with no alternative place to stay. The fire, the second fire with days, broke out at the overcrowded Moira camp just after midnight, fire brigade officials reported. At least 25 fire fighters on 10 engines, aided by Police, battled the flames both inside and outside the facility, the fire brigade stated, adding that the fire fighters had been pushed back by camp residents during their efforts. One person has reportedly died, although further details of injuries are not clear at the moment. It comes after a coronavirus outbreak was first detected in the camp last week, with 35 cases now recorded. Migrants were told to self-isolate but many refused and began protesting about it shortly before the broke out. Regional fire chief Konstantinos Theofilopoulos said that the fire broke out at more than three places in quick succession and that fire fighters were hampered from battling the flames by residents who were protesting about having to self-isolate. Much of the camp has been gutted as have the surrounding hillside olive groves.

“Our teams saw the fire spread across Moria and rage all night long. The whole place was engulfed in flames. We saw an exodus of people fleeing from a burning hell with nowhere to go. Children are scared and parents in shock. We are relieved that there seem to be no victims and we are working now to address the immediate needs” stated Marco Sandrone, Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) field coordinator in Lesbos. By early Wednesday morning, most of Moria had been reduced to a smouldering, mangled mass of burned shelters, with a few people searching the debris for their possessions.

The fire destroyed the Dutch-donated COVID-19 medical facility and has interrupted all the medical services available for the refugee population, including the MSF paediatric clinic.

Officials have been trying for months to build a new camp on Lesbos to replace Moria but locals have resisted, clashing with riot police earlier this year to prevent construction from going ahead. Moria registered its first infection only last Wednesday and testing revealed 35 more cases Tuesday. Government spokesman Stelios Petsas warned that it would be a “titanic” task to shelter the homeless and track down those infected.

The second fire on Wednesday evening aggravated the crisis on the island, where the authorities have declared a state of emergency.

The first blaze, which began hours after 35 people tested positive for coronavirus at the Moria camp, sent thousands fleeing for safety into surrounding olive groves but nobody was seriously hurt. While European countries from Germany to Norway, along with EU chiefs, responded with offers of help and sympathy, Greek officials sought to blame migrants for the fire.

While stopping short of alleging arson, Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis said the blaze was down to a “violent reaction” in the camp to virus testing. Migration minister Notis Mitarachi said asylum-seekers had started the fire because of quarantine measures imposed after the positive tests.

‘High time’ for unity
The second fire, late on Wednesday, broke out in part of the camp that had not been badly damaged. “Moria finished!” shouted some migrants as they headed down the road towards Mytilene.

Officials have declared a four-month emergency and flown in riot police after reports that security forces had blocked migrants from reaching to Mytilene.

Since becoming one of the main gateways into Europe for migrants and asylum-seekers in 2015, Greece has built dozens of detention centres on its islands but people often face long waits in the camps and overcrowding is common.

The fire at Moria, housing more than 12 000 people while designed for just 2 800, raised questions about Europe’s asylum system, with Germany leading the way in calling for an overhaul. “We urgently need a common refugee intake programme among as many EU countries as possible and finally a common asylum and migration policy for the EU,” said Minister for Europe Michael Roth.

Sources: Médecins Sans Frontières, AFP, Al Jazeera

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