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Fire Destroys Most of Europe’s Largest Refugee Camp on Greek Island of Lesbos

A fast-moving fire destroyed most of Europe’s largest refugee camp on the Greek island of Lesbos, leaving most of its 12,000 residents homeless just days after they were collectively quarantined because of a coronavirus outbreak there.

No deaths were initially reported. But vast stretches of the overcrowded camp and an adjacent spillover site were destroyed in the fire that began late on Tuesday night, leaving only a medical facility and small clusters of tents untouched.

By Wednesday, the blaze had already begun to prompt widespread soul-searching across Europe, where the Moria camp, and the neglect of its residents, has become synonymous with the continent’s increasingly unsympathetic approach to refugees.

Ursula von der Leyen, president of the European Union’s executive arm, the European Commission, said she felt “deep sorrow” about the fire, while the governor of a region in western Germany, Armin Laschet, said he was willing to admit up to 1,000 refugees from the camp as part of a wider European resettlement program that has yet to be developed.

Some residents of the camp managed to escape to the island’s main town of Mytilene, while others were able to remain in their tents in small areas of the camp that were unaffected by the blaze. But many were being held nearby on Wednesday morning while the Greek authorities decided where to house them.

Aid workers said the fire at Moria, which is named after a nearby village, began shortly after 10 p.m. on Tuesday following protests by residents over recent coronavirus restrictions and spread quickly because of high winds and the explosion of gas canisters.

Aid workers, activists and officials said a series of fires were started intentionally by a group of camp residents who were furious at being forced to quarantine after at least 35 people tested positive for coronavirus at the camp.

Stelios Petsas, a government spokesman, told Greek television on Wednesday that the fire “wasn’t accidental.”

“There was a very widespread protest front by the refugees and migrants when they were asked to go into quarantine,” he said.

The fire quickly destroyed much of the camp’s formal enclosure, including a facility for 400 unaccompanied children and much of its water infrastructure, before spreading to a spillover site in olive groves close to the camp’s fence.

Videos provided to The New York Times by aid workers at the camp showed residents hurrying from Moria in droves in the early hours of Wednesday morning. They carried their belongings in bags slung over their shoulders, some of them pushing infants in strollers, and others draped in blankets.

“It was absolute chaos,” said Jonathan Turner, an aid worker who been building water infrastructure in the camp on behalf of Watershed Foundation and Choose Love.

“There were just so many people trying to move, trying to escape,” said Mr. Turner, who rushed to the camp late on Tuesday night and tried to put out the fire.

By sunrise, footage showed that much of the camp’s formal infrastructure had collapsed, with many of the tents burned. Several metal portable cabins were blackened with soot, their walls having buckled in the heat. Trees on the nearby slopes had been charred.

“The whole camp has practically burned to the ground,” said Stephan Oberreit, head of mission in Greece for Doctors Without Borders, an aid group that has provided health care to residents of the camp for several years. “There is very little standing.”

Thousands of displaced residents were left with nowhere to go, with many simply sitting down a few hundred meters from the camp.

“There are thousands of people just sitting on the main road,” said Nick Powell, an Australian aid worker who witnessed the fire and its aftermath, and who was helping to provide food to the survivors on Wednesday.

It is still unclear where they will be taken. George Koumoutsakos, Greece’s deputy migration minister, said during a Wednesday news conference that efforts were being made to rehouse around 3,000 people in new tents.

The priority was to rehouse the most vulnerable, with some 400 unaccompanied minors being moved to “safe zones” and hotels, he said.

Since 2015, Moria has filled with an influx of migrants seeking to reach northern Europe. That year, more than 850,000 mainly Syrian and Afghan refugees and migrants made their way by boat from Turkey to nearby Greek islands like Lesbos, hoping to travel further north. A further 300,000 have arrived in the years since.

In 2015, they passed quickly through Moria camp when Europe largely tolerated the movement of migrants. But in 2016, Europe changed tack, blocking the onward movement of migrants to countries like Germany and leaving thousands stranded in squalid Greek camps like Moria, which soon became overcrowded.

Since then, Moria has been considered an emblem of Europe’s hardening approach to migrants in the aftermath of the 2015 crisis. Though the camp was built for 3,000 residents, its population has swelled at times to more than 20,000. Residents lived mostly in cramped and overcrowded tents with limited access to toilets, showers and health care.

Through the European Union, other European countries provided Greece with money to care for its refugee population. But European leaders refused to allow many of them to leave Greek camps like Moria for sanctuary elsewhere in Europe.

Stuck in Moria, migrants lined up for hours for food that was often moldy. And they became enmeshed in what for many of them seemed an interminably complex asylum application process, leading to what some doctors deemed a mental health crisis at the camp.

The situation has been no better in other camps on nearby Greek islands. Across the Greek islands before the fire, more than 23,000 people were crammed into camps built for just 6,000, according to recent statistics compiled by aid groups.

The dynamic has created deep hostility between migrants and Greek islanders who, once welcoming to their new neighbors, have grown increasingly resentful. It has also led the Greek government to immediately expel many new arrivals this year, abandoning more than 1,000 immigrants in rafts at sea.

Given these conditions, campaigners had long predicted a catastrophe at the camp.

“This fire was expected,” said Eva Cossé, who leads research in Greece for Human Rights Watch, an independent New York-based rights organization. “It’s not surprising. It’s a testament to the European Union’s negligence and Greece’s negligence.”

Human Rights Watch has been calling for the camp to be closed or its number of residents to be significantly reduced for years.

“E.U. member states need to have a serious discussion about reducing numbers on the island, and alleviate the pressure on Greece, because Greece cannot deal with this alone,” Ms. Cossé said.

Niki Kitsantonis contributed reporting from Athens and Matina Stevis-Gridneff from Brussels.

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