Fires on the Greek island of Lesvos have destroyed the country’s largest migrant camp, leaving almost 13,000 people without shelter. Moria —as it is known—is an overcrowded facility on the eastern side of the island. Despite being designed for fewer than 3000 people, over 13,000 fled the camp on Tuesday, September 8th. Many suffering from smoke exposure attempted to flee to nearby towns; however, Greek police blocked roads from the camp to such places, in particular to the port town of Mytilene, around 8km away. Although it is unknown where many of these people went, it is thought that the majority slept in fields after the fire, according to local reports. Greek migration minister, Notis Mitarachi, has not said much on the issue, claiming that the fires “began with the asylum seekers” but is yet to offer any factual evidence for such a claim.
The local fire chief, Konstantinos Theofilopoulos, told television reporters the main fire was put out by Wednesday morning, but as a result of high winds and protesting migrants preventing firefighters tackling the flames, there were still some small fires burning around the camp later on in the day. One local resident also reported that although some tents made it, the majority of the camp was burnt out. “Now with the first light I can see that there is a few tents that make it, they are okay, but the rest of the camp, as I can see from this distance, is burnt out,” Thanasis Voulgarakis said. He also reported that some locals began attacking migrants, preventing them from passing through nearby villages. One migrant from Afghanistan, named Yaser, told reporters from Reuters news agency that the fire had forced everyone to run, with none of them knowing where to go.
In the wake of this, accommodation is urgently required for over 400 unaccompanied minors. EU home affairs commissioner, Ylva Johansson, has agreed to finance the transfer of these teenagers and children to mainland accommodation. However, the relocation of over 13,000 migrants is a concern for authorities, who placed the Moria camp under quarantine last week following a positive result for the coronavirus of a Somali migrant. Before the fire, there were consequently 35 confirmed cases linked to the site. The mayor of Mytilene, Stratis Kytelis, added to this, saying that it was “a very difficult situation because some of those who are outside will include people who have the virus.”
Although it is unclear exactly how the fires started, the Migration Minister believed these were in protest to the quarantine imposed on the camp, as those with the virus refused to move into isolation with their families. He did not say, however, that these fires were deliberate nor were they aimed at destroying the camp. Michalis Fratzeskos, the deputy mayor for civil protection, believed something more sinister might have occurred. He told television reporters, “the blaze was premeditated. Migrants tents were empty, and arsonists had taken advantage of the particularly strong winds.”
The migrants seemed to tell a different story, as BBC Persian reported that, according to them, the fire had broken out after scuffles between Greek forces and migrants at Moria. Marco Sandrone, the Lesvos project coordinator for Médecins Sans Frontières, acknowledged it was hard to say what caused the blaze, with several different fires and protests erupting across the camp. As a result of the inhumane conditions of the camp, he stated that “it’s a time bomb that finally exploded.”
The national and international reaction has mainly been hopeful. Greek migration ministry secretary, Manos Logothetis, told ANA news agency, “the disaster at Moria is total.” Roughly 3000 people were temporarily housed in tents on the island until a better shelter could be found on Wednesday, according to officials. Moreover, the Greek Prime Minister, Kyriakos Mitsotakis, called an emergency meeting the same morning, discussing the fire and sending several ministers to assess the situation. It seems at the high level, accommodation is the top priority, as the European Commission President, Ursula von der Leyen, said the main priority was finding shelter for those who were currently unsafe. Additionally, German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas described the blaze as a “humanitarian disaster,” tweeting that the “distribution of refugees among those willing to accept admission in the EU.” Prime minister of the German state of North Rhine-Westphalia later offered to take 1000 refugees.
There is some acknowledgement that despite these offers, tensions between locals and migrants may cause some difficulties, according to a statement supported by the UN refugee agency. They said, “we urge all to exercise restraint,” asking anyone who’d been at the camp “to restrict their movements and stay near the site, as a temporary solution is being found to shelter them.” Two years ago, the agency urged the Greek government to move asylum seekers away from the camp, describing conditions as at boiling point. At the time there were only 8000 people living in the Moria camp – 5000 less than current numbers.
Although migrants from over 70 different countries make up these numbers, it is believed that about 70% of people in the camp are from Afghanistan. The Kara Tepe Refugee Camp has since been built as an overflow site, but there is still not enough space to accommodate all arrivals. One reason for this is that for years, thousands of people arriving in Lesvos were placed in the camp and were unable to leave until their asylum application had been processed. This happened on the mainland and was normally a slow process. While the EU has tried to resettle migrants among different member states, governments have rejected countless proposals, causing migrants to remain in such terrible conditions.
Criticisms of such conditions have been made, particularly recently. In April, Human Rights Watch said that the Greek authorities had not done enough to tackle “acute overcrowding” at the site and warned it was not prepared for an outbreak of coronavirus. In response to this, the Greek government planned to build detention sites to house migrants on all the islands. But in Lesvos, in February, protesters attacked authorities who were bringing construction equipment to the island for fear of a more permanent migrant community.
Although some states and bodies such as the EU have offered to help Greece with this issue, it is suspected that local tensions will continually rise with the now outpour of migrants around the island. In addition to this, fears over the spread of coronavirus on the island will only worsen what relationship was left between the two communities.
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