Europe’s largest migrant camp, the notorious Moria facility in Greece, was destroyed by a fire early Wednesday, plunging the camp’s 12,000 desperate residents into a fresh humanitarian crisis.
The fires on the Greek island of Lesbos displaced thousands on to roads and fields around the squalid, massively overcrowded camp, carrying whatever possessions they managed to save. While there were no reports of casualties, some suffered from smoke inhalation and aid workers reported dire scenes as migrants fled the burning camp, then struggled without food, water and shelter beneath the hot sun Wednesday.
“The whole place was engulfed in flames,” said Marco Sandrone, a Doctors Without Borders field coordinator in Lesbos. “We saw an exodus of people fleeing from a burning hell with nowhere to go.”
Following an emergency meeting, the Greek government declared a state of emergency to mobilize forces to respond to the blaze, while riot police set up roadblocks to prevent the fleeing migrants from entering the nearby capital of Lesbos, Mytilene.
Aid agencies scrambled to convert a nearby facility into an emergency shelter for the most vulnerable, and the EU announced it would fund the urgent transport of 400 unaccompanied minors displaced from Moria to the Greek mainland.
Meanwhile, German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas called for European Union countries to take in migrants displaced by the fire, as North Rhine-Westphalia – Germany’s most populous state – said it would take in up to 1,000 people from the destroyed camp.
The cause of the blaze hasn’t been officially confirmed, but authorities are investigating arson as a cause.
Initial unconfirmed reports suggested the fires were started by residents protesting moves to place them in isolation after testing positive for coronavirus. Greek news agency ANA reported that the fires had broken out after some of the 35 COVID-positive residents protested being moved into isolation, while UNICEF said it understood that the fire “resulted after a clash between refugee and migrant communities”.
Local fire chief Konstantinos Theofilopoulos told Greece’s state-run ERT that the fires erupted in at least three places in a short space of time, and that protesters obstructed fire crews from tackling the blazes.
One camp resident, an asylum seeker who did not want to be named for fear of retaliation, told VICE News that the fires had been lit amid protests. “Some of them started burning some parts, then the fire became bigger and bigger,” he said.
Beyond the urgent challenge to feed and shelter the thousands of displaced migrants, the disaster has also fuelled fears of a further spread of COVID-19. The camp, already considered extremely vulnerable to infection due to its overcrowding and lack of sanitation, recorded its first confirmed case last week, prompting Greek authorities to place it under a strict quarantine.
Thirty-five cases have since been confirmed – although the true number of infections could be higher, as contact tracing was still underway at the time of the blaze. Observers fear the virus could spread further among the camp’s population now that their shelters and access to sanitation have been destroyed.
There are also fears the disaster could inflame already simmering tensions between migrants and local residents who are opposed to the camp’s presence. The UN refugee agency said in a statement Wednesday it was aware of the tensions and urged all parties to “exercise restraint”, calling on the camp’s displaced residents “to restrict their movements and stay near [the site], as a temporary solution is being found to shelter them”.
“The situation is just tragic,” Martha Roussou, senior advocacy officer for International Rescue Committee Greece, told VICE News.
“You’ve got 12,000 people who are desperate, afraid – with no food, shelter, nothing – so there may be security concerns as well,” she said. “We hear that large numbers of police are being sent to the island, and we really want to stress that everybody should refrain from violence to avoid further harm.”
Aid groups, which have repeatedly called for the camp to be emptied, say there was an inevitability to the disaster, given the dire conditions and hopelessness in camp, which was built to accommodate 2,800 people but housed four times that number.
“We’ve always been afraid about safety and security there, because people are very frustrated,” said Roussou.
She added that there had been a number of fires in the camp previously, including one in March when a young girl was killed, and another a year ago when a woman and her child died. Concerns have also been growing in recent months over a spike in brutal violence in Moria, blamed on the lawlessness and widespread despondency in the camp.
“There’s this series of dangers and indignities that migrants face living in Moria. It’s like living in a matchbox,” said Roussou.
Marco Sandrone also blamed the dire conditions for the fire, exacerbated by the controversial coronavirus lockdown that had been imposed over the camp, restricting the movement of residents and making their situation “unbearable”.
“There is no question as to the cause of this fire: the years-long orchestration of human suffering and violence produced by European and Greek migration policies are to blame,” he said.