AFP — Thousands of asylum seekers on the Greek island of Lesbos were left homeless Wednesday after fleeing for their lives as a huge fire ripped through the camp of Moria, the country’s largest and most notorious migrant facility.
Over 12,000 men, women and children ran in panic out of containers and tents into nearby olive groves and fields as the fire destroyed most of the overcrowded, squalid camp.
The blaze started just hours after the migration ministry said that 35 people had tested positive at the camp.
Citing anonymous police sources, Greek news agency ANA reported that the fires had started after a revolt by people who were to be placed in isolation, but there was no official confirmation.
A local town official said the perpetrators had “taken advantage of strong winds” and deliberately set tents on fire.
“It was premeditated. The tents were empty,” Michalis Fratzeskos, deputy mayor for civil protection, told state TV ERT.
Firemen said there were no known casualties so far, although a number of people were suffering minor respiratory problems.
Smoke was still billowing out of the camp hours after the fire started late on Tuesday, AFP TV footage showed.
Dozens of people were milling among charred containers, some of them carrying away belongings, others snapping cellphone pictures.
‘There is no Moria’
“There is no Moria, it has been destroyed,” deputy regional governor Aris Hatzikomninos told ERT, as additional riot police were hurriedly flown to the island.
EU home affairs commissioner Ylva Johansson on Wednesday said the bloc would finance “the immediate transfer and accommodation on the mainland of the camp’s remaining 400 unaccompanied children and teenagers.”
“The safety and shelter of all people in Moria is the priority,” Johansson tweeted.
The Moria camp, which was built to hold fewer than 2,800 people, has been routinely criticized by rights groups and the UN refugee agency for its lack of sanitation and overcrowding.
Prostitution, sexual assault, disappearances of minors, drug trafficking and fights have been documented in the camp, where dozens of people have been stabbed, burnt to death in their tents or have committed suicide.
From January to the end of August, five people were stabbed in more than 15 attacks, according to camp officials.
Since becoming one of the main gateways into Europe for migrants and asylum seekers in 2015, Greece has built dozens of detention centers where overcrowding is common.
The government has for months been attempting to build a new camp on Lesbos to replace Moria.
But locals have resisted the move, clashing with riot police earlier this year to prevent construction from going ahead.
Norway on Wednesday offered to take in 50 Syrians from Moria — though Greece has currently banned the camp’s former residents from leaving the island.
An exception will be made for the 400 minors, a migration ministry source told ANA.
“These are abominable images,” Norwegian Prime Minister Erna Solberg told TV2 Nyhetskanalen.
Greek spokesman Petsas warned that authorities faced a “titanic” effort to shelter asylum seekers rendered homeless by the blaze, as well track down and isolate dozens of confirmed coronavirus infections among them.
Moria had already been placed in quarantine until September 15, with only security personnel granted access after temperature tests.
“There are 35 positive cases and they need to be isolated… to prevent an outbreak among the local population,” Petsas told ERT.
Hundreds of asylum seekers attempted to flee on foot towards the port town of Mytilene during the night, but were blocked by police vehicles, while others took shelter in the hills surrounding the camps.
Unable to pass, scores bedded down and slept on the ground.
Refugee support group Stand by Me Lesvos said on Twitter it had received reports that Greek locals on the island had blocked fleeing asylum seekers from heading into a nearby village.
A force of over 20 firefighters, 10 fire engines and a helicopter has been deployed to the scene.
Firefighters also said they had been attacked by stone-throwing asylum seekers whilst attempting to battle the blaze, and had asked for police assistance.
Months of lockdowns
The camp had reported its first coronavirus case last Wednesday.
Migrant camps on the islands have endured months of lockdowns as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, with access severely restricted.
But at Moria, the restrictions have been harder to enforce because of the large number of asylum seekers sleeping outside the camp’s walls.
The government has in recent months moved thousands of refugees from Lesbos and other islands to the mainland.
But many refugees have been unable to find lodgings and jobs after leaving the camps, with housing and cash benefits recently scaled back by the government.