Thousands of migrants on the Greek island of Lesvos were left homeless on Wednesday after a huge fire that ravaged Moria, Greece’s largest and sordid refugee camp, where they were crowded in the early hours of the morning.
The main entry point for migrants to Greece opposite neighboring Turkey, the Aegean island of Lesbos, with a population of around 85,000, has been plunged into an unprecedented crisis and the Greek Civil Protection has declared the island “in emergency state “.
Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis “expressed his sadness for the incidents in Moria”. He suggested that the origin of the disaster could be attributed to “backlash against health checks” carried out since last week after the detection of 35 cases of COVID-19 in the camp.
“I recognize the difficult conditions (in Moria) but nothing can serve as an excuse for violent reactions against health checks”, and “especially for disturbances of this magnitude”, he declared.
According to the Greek agency ANA, which quotes anonymous sources, multiple fires have been started by migrants who have rebelled against isolation measures intended to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.
The first case of coronavirus was detected in Moria last week and the camp was immediately placed in isolation for two weeks.
The President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen expressed her “deep sadness”, stressing that the EU stood “ready to help”.
Thousands of men, women and children came out in panic overnight from Tuesday to Wednesday from the tents and containers, some taking refuge in the surrounding olive groves.
“The main part of the identification registration center has been completely destroyed and many people are homeless,” Deputy Minister of Migration Georges Koumoutsakos told a press conference.
In addition to this main part of the camp housing nearly 4,000 people as well as administrative and asylum premises, the Moria camp extends into the neighboring olive groves, where nearly 8,000 people lived in tents who also suffered extensive damage.
“Where can we go? ”
The majority of the refugees and migrants were seated Wednesday afternoon by the road between the camp and the port of Mytilene, forming long queues of three kilometers, according to an AFP journalist on the spot.
“What are we going to do now?” Where can we go? »Lamented Mahmout, originally from Afghanistan.
Next to him, his compatriot Aisha was looking for his children. “Two of my children are there, but I don’t know where the others are,” she lamented.
Tuesday evening, “around 11:00 p.m. (8:00 p.m. GMT), multiple fires broke out in the camp and the flames surrounded us very quickly, it was a very difficult operation,” said Konstantinos Théofilopoulos, commander of the fire brigade.
“It was premeditated. The tents were empty, ”Michalis Fratzeskos, deputy mayor for civil protection, told public broadcaster ERT.
Germany, which holds the rotating presidency of the European Union, has asked EU countries to take in migrants from the camp. The European Commission has announced that it is supporting the immediate transfer to mainland Greece of 400 children and adolescents.
Norway has indicated that it will welcome 50 occupants of the camp, primarily “families from Syria”.
“There is no more Moria”
According to firefighters, the incident did not claim any victims, “but a few minor injuries with respiratory problems due to the smoke”.
Several hours after the fire, black smoke continued to rise from the camp, which housed some 12,700 asylum seekers, four times its capacity.
Dozens of people wandered among the charred containers, some picking up belongings, others taking pictures using their cell phones.
“There is no more Moria, it has been destroyed,” Deputy Regional Governor Aris Hatzikomninos told ERT, adding that reinforcements from the riot force have been dispatched to the area.
Strict measures have been imposed in migrant camps since mid-March, despite criticism from human rights NGOs who deem the measures “discriminatory” when the decision was taken to deconfin the country in early May.
The Moria camp has in recent years been repeatedly criticized for its lack of hygiene and its overcrowding by NGOs, which regularly call on the Greek authorities to transfer the most vulnerable asylum seekers to the mainland.