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Fire damages refugee center founded by Israelis on Greek island; arson suspected

Blaze at International School of Peace for Refugee Children in Lesbos comes amid tense standoff with Turkey over refugees; second fire in under a week at a migrant installation

The International School for Refugee Children on the Greek island of Lesbos after it burned down on March 8, 2020. (Courtesy)
The International School for Refugee Children on the Greek island of Lesbos after it burned down on March 8, 2020. (Courtesy)

A fire broke out at a refugee center on the Greek island of Lesbos built and run by Israelis, causing considerable damage to a warehouse but no injuries, the center and Greece’s firefighting service said Sunday.

It was the second fire at an installation built for migrants, after a reception center was burned down by unknown perpetrators last Monday.

The warehouse, which contained furniture and electrical appliances, was completely destroyed, a firefighting service spokesman told the Associated Press, on condition of anonymity, because an investigation into the fire is ongoing.

The International School of Peace for Refugee Children in Greece (ISOP) said in a statement that all the equipment that was on site was burned and destroyed, and that “there is suspicion of arson.”

The blaze at the refugee center came amid a tense standoff between between Turkey and the European Union over who is responsible for the millions of migrants and refugees on Turkish territory and the thousands who have massed at the Greek border.

The International School for Refugee Children on the Greek island of Lesbos. (Courtesy)

Thousands of migrants headed for Turkey’s land border with EU member Greece after Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s government announced earlier this month that it would no longer prevent migrants and refugees from crossing over to EU countries. Greece has deployed riot police and border guards to repel people trying to enter the country.

The Greek border area has since seen violent confrontations between the migrants and Greek security forces, with officers in Greece firing tear gas to block the migrants and Turkish police firing tear gas back at their Greek counterparts.

On Saturday, youths threw rocks at Greek police and tried to break down a border fence in a desperate attempt enter Greece. At least two migrants were injured in the skirmishes.

The International School for Refugee Children on the Greek island of Lesbos after it burned down on March 8, 2020. (Courtesy)

ISOP was established in 2017 in the midst of the refugee crisis from Syria by young Israelis, Jews and Arabs, alumni of the Hashomer Hatzair and Ajial youth movements. It had nine classrooms before the fire.

“The school was burnt down tonight, but its strong foundations, built from the tens of thousands of people who passed through its gates, shaped its image, built it together for a better future,” said school staff member Roni Huss.

“For three years we shattered walls of fear and hatred through the joint work of the refugees and the community in solidarity, and the never-ending belief that we are building a better world together,” she added. “We will continue our mission. The school will be rebuilt, a building of beating hearts, educators and students for whom peace is not just a word but an everyday reality.”

Erdogan will travel to Brussels on Monday to talk with top EU officials about a 2016 Turkey-EU agreement on containing the refugee flows to Europe which has now collapsed. The two sides have accused each other of failing to respect their commitments.

The deal called for Turkey to halt the flow of Europe-bound migrants and refugees in exchange for up to 6 billion euros ($6.7 billion) in aid for Syrian refugees on its territory, fast-track EU membership and visa-free travel to Europe for Turkish citizens.

Erdogan has demanded that Europe shoulder more of the burden of caring for refugees, accusing the EU of failing to disburse the money. He announced that Turkey, which already houses more than 3.5 million Syrian refugees, would no longer be Europe’s gatekeeper.

The decision has irked EU countries, which are still dealing with the political fallout from a wave of mass migration five years ago. EU foreign ministers have criticized Turkey, saying it is using the migrants’ desperation “for political purposes.”

Thousands of migrants have slept in makeshift camps near the border since the Turkish government said they were free to go, waiting for the opportunity to enter Greece.

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