Sunday 9/27/20
ASYLUM SEEKERS

Huge fire destroys Europe's largest refugee camp

Located in the island of Lesbos, Moria is infamously overcrowded. Thousands of people lived there in woeful conditions, sometimes in huts or under plastic sheeting.

Norway's government has announced that the country will take in 50 people from the camp.

Smoke rises in Moria refugee camp on the north-eastern Aegean island of Lesbos, home to thousands of migrants. Photo: Arne Büttner/dpa.
Smoke rises in Moria refugee camp on the north-eastern Aegean island of Lesbos, home to thousands of migrants. Photo: Arne Büttner/dpa.

A huge fire has almost completely destroyed the Moria refugee camp on the Greek island of Lesbos, home to thousands of migrants living in already dire conditions, dialing up the pressure on European countries to respond to the crisis.

Fire safety officials reported the near-total destruction of the site to the ERT state broadcaster on Wednesday.

The overnight blaze had been brought largely under control by early that morning, according to the government.

Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis has called an emergency meeting in Athens for Wednesday morning with his chief of staff, the minister for migration and the chief of Greek intelligence service EYP, government spokesperson Stelios Petsas told state broadcaster ERT.

The Moria camp had been almost completely ablaze as strong winds of up to 70 kilometres per hour fanned the flames, local media reported.

Authorities had already evacuated most of the camp residents in the night.

Petsas said that the cause of the fire was suspected to be arson.

He also said that camp residents had thrown stones at firefighters and tried to prevent them from putting the fires out, adding that Athens has sent additional riot police units to the island.

No casualties have so far been reported.

Moria is infamously overcrowded. Thousands of people lived there in woeful conditions, sometimes in huts or under plastic sheeting.

According to the latest figures, some 12,600 people were living in or around the camp, the largest of its kind in Greece. It has an official capacity of 2,757.

Coronavirus

The first case of coronavirus infection was reported at the camp last week. As of Tuesday, 35 cases had been confirmed.

Some migrants wanted to leave the camp as infections increased, while others who had been infected and their contact persons had refused to be put in isolation, the ANA-MPA news agency reported.

Videos on social media painted a picture of devastation, with people seen wandering around the camp looking frightened, while others sang "bye bye, Moria!"

Greek media reported that many residents had fled the burning camp to nearby forests and hills, while others set off towards the island's main town of Mytilene.

Aid organizations and the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) have been calling for Moria to be closed and replaced with better accommodation for years.

There have always been tensions around Moria, but the coronavirus has caused the situation to really explode, Mytilene's mayor Stratos Kytelis told Greek broadcaster ERT.

It is not clear where people should be housed, and thousands are now homeless, he said. It is an enormous burden for the locals as well, he added.

Transfer of children and teenagers

Lesbos emergency services have also been fighting a large forest fire about 25 kilometres north-west of Moria since Tuesday evening.

EU Home Affairs Commissioner Ylva Johansson said her thoughts and sympathies were with the people of Lesbos, especially with migrants and staff based at the Moria camp.

The European Union's senior migration official tweeted that she was in contact with Greek authorities and had offered to finance the transfer and accommodation of 400 unaccompanied children and teenagers who remained at the camp to the Greek mainland.

Norway's government has announced that the country will take in 50 people from the camp.

"We have activated the process," Prime Minister Erna Solberg said, adding that the focus would be on families with children.

EU Oxfam spokesperson Florian Oel told dpa that "this tragedy could have been prevented if Greece and all other EU governments would not have turned their backs on people seeking safety in Europe."

"The announced transfer of all unaccompanied children in Moria to the Greek mainland is a first important step. EU governments must now support Greece in moving all people seeking asylum from all island refugee camps [to] the mainland as well as to other safe places across Europe," he added.

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