Two suspected arsons in overcrowded Greek migrant camps have raised concerns of further copycat blazes by asylum seekers desperate to escape the dire conditions in the facilities.
In the first fire, Moria, the notoriously overcrowded migrant camp on the Greek island of Lesvos, was destroyed by a suspected arson earlier this month, rendering its 12,000-odd residents homeless until they could be housed in an emergency facility.
Police placed six Afghan teenagers from the camp in pre-trial detention on Monday, charged with arson and membership of a criminal organisation. Authorities believe the blaze in Moria, Europe’s largest migrant camp, was deliberately lit after strict restrictions were imposed over the facility in response to residents testing positive for coronavirus.
A week later, a fire broke out in the overcrowded Vathy camp on the Aegean island of Samos, another hotspot for irregular immigration into Europe via smuggler boats departing the Turkish coast. On Friday, police said two migrants, a Syrian and a Gambian, faced charges of inciting the fires, after having sent messages to fellow camp residents on social media urging them to burn down the facility.
Martha Roussou, senior advocacy officer for International Rescue Committee Greece, told VICE News that the fire at the Vathy camp – which firefighters eventually brought under control – underlined the risk of copy-cat arsons by asylum seekers desperate to escape the wretched conditions in the Aegean island camps.
“The police narrative is that the suspects tried to repeat the events of the previous week in Moria,” she said.
“It’s not a surprise that this may be something that refugees on other islands may be thinking. People in other refugee camps are looking at Moria and thinking what could get them out of their terrible situation they’re living in.”
Roussou said that destroying the camps was an illogical act, as it wouldn’t lead to better conditions for their residents. Following the fire in Moria, although countries like Germany and France agreed to take in some families and unaccompanied children from the gutted camp, the vast majority of residents were reduced to sleeping in fields or on the roadside until they were housed in an emergency camp hastily erected nearby, while most of their belongings were destroyed.
She said authorities had deliberately not carried out mass transfers of displaced asylum seekers off Lesvos following the fire in part to avoid incentivising copy-cat arsons in other camps.
But the arsons reflected the sense of desperation among some of the camps’ residents, she said, which had only intensified with the confirmation of coronavirus in the facilities.
“The conditions are so desperate that people don’t even think straight,” said Roussou. “Anything that could get them out of these camps at this point is seen as an option.”
Under EU immigration policy, asylum seekers are forbidden from leaving the islands and heading to destination countries in northern Europe until their asylum applications are processed, turning the island camps into de facto holding pens for migration into the Continent.
The result has been severe overcrowding, unsanitary conditions, and growing lawlessness in the camps, and a growing desperation among their residents to leave the islands and travel on to Continental Europe.
Vathy, which has capacity for 650 people, had about 4,500 residents at the time of the fire. Many residents live in tents in the surrounding forest; when Roussou visited the camp earlier this month, migrants told her about the appalling conditions they faced, including pests such as snakes and rats, long lines for showers and water, and fights regularly breaking out.
Three Syrian minors from Vathy were arrested after another fire broke out in the camp on Sunday night, although reports indicate it was caused by negligence. After a major fire tore through the camp in April, the Greek government announced plans to close the facility by the end of the year.
On Lesvos, Greek authorities have now managed to house nearly all the displaced asylum seekers from Moria into a newly built camp, after facing significant reluctance from migrants who feared the facility would become “a new Moria.”
But in the chaos of the fire’s aftermath, aid workers fear many more migrants may have contracted the coronavirus that was already circulating in the camp. Government spokesman Stelios Petsas said Monday that rapid testing of about 7,000 people who had entered the new facility had returned 243 positive tests.
Aid workers on Lesvos told VICE News that while authorities and humanitarian groups were working hard to get the new facility up and running in emergency circumstances, there were concerns about conditions in the camp, and that it could replicate the situation in Moria.
Among the concerns over the camp, built next to the sea with little protection from the elements, was the security of the isolation zones set up behind chicken wire to house the hundreds of confirmed coronavirus cases. Roussou said she had heard reports of quarantined patients handing their phones to contacts in the main section of the camp to be charged, raising the risk of transmission to others in the camp.
Greece is currently battling a surge in COVID-19 infections, and introduced a raft of restrictions Monday to slow the spread of the virus.
Christos Christou, international president for Doctors Without Borders, said in a statement to VICE News that the suffering on the Greek islands would continue until European leaders agreed on a radical new approach to immigration.
“We will believe in a ‘fresh start’ when we stop having to treat so many people who are suffering unnecessarily,” he said.
“For years, the European Commission has made new announcements, promises and commitments but what we see in the Greek islands and in the central Mediterranean is people seeking safety being systematically subjected to more misery, suffering, humiliation and violence… Nothing seems to lead to a desperately needed radical policy change.”
The EU is set to reveal its new strategy for managing migration into the Continent Wednesday, which senior officials have promised will put an end to the bottlenecks on the Greek islands.