A Greek minister has confirmed that a fire which destroyed the country’s largest migrant camp was started by migrants amid protests by asylum seekers who had tested positive for coronavirus and were refusing to go into isolation.
The Moria camp, home to 12,000 refugees on the island of Lesbos, was completely destroyed by a blaze which began in the early hours of Wednesday. A second fire struck again tonight in the notoriously overcrowded refugee camp.
Greek Migration Minister Notis Mitarachi has said the fire was started by asylum-seekers, but did not confirm if it was a deliberate act of arson.
‘Many fires broke out in the camp overnight from Tuesday to Wednesday… the incidents in Moria began with the asylum-seekers because of the quarantine imposed’ after 35 cases of coronavirus were detected in the camp, Mitarachi said, adding that no-one was seriously hurt in the blaze.
It comes after Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis blamed the blaze on a ‘violent reaction’ to virus tests, echoing an earlier report that said several fires had been lit deliberately by migrants angry at being placed into isolation after testing positive.
Since a Covid outbreak was detected at the camp last week, 35 have been confirmed positive.
The race is now on to track those people down after hundreds fled into nearby towns and villages in the early hours, seeking shelter after theirs was destroyed. A state of emergency has since been declared over the island.
Moria was home to almost 13,000 people – more than four times its official capacity – before the fire. Emergency services are now working to evacuate some of those people from the island, and find shelter for others elsewhere.
Police have yet to confirm whether the fire was started deliberately, but have confirmed that an arson investigation is underway.
Fire has almost completely destroyed Moria, the largest migrant camp on the Greek island of Lesbos, leaving more than 12,000 asylum seekers without shelter
The blaze broke out around 2am Wednesday amid reports that it was started by a group of coronavirus-positive migrants who refused to move into isolation
Refugees and migrants survey the destroyed remnants of what few possessions they had after the Moria camp was gutted by fire in the early hours of Wednesday
Fire rips through makeshift tents at the Moria camp on the Greek island of Lesbos, as police launch an arson investigation
Migrants flee the flames at the Moria camp in the early hours of Wednesday. The fire almost completely destroyed the camp, but there were no immediate reports of casualties
People walk along a perimeter wall on the outskirts of the Moria camp as flames burn in the background after a blaze broke out around 2am Wednesday
Firefighters, who said they were initially blocked from going into the camp by protesters, managed to extinguish the flames but only after the majority of shelters had been destroyed
Greece is now scrambling to find shelters for almost 13,000 migrants who called the camp home, despite it only having capacity to fit 2,750 people
A boy surveys the wreckage of his shelter that the Moria migrant camp on Lesbos after it was gutted by fire
A destroyed bed is seen next to charred pots and pans as Greece tries to find accommodation for almost 13,000 migrants, dozens of whom are infected with coronavirus
Men, women and young children are seen sleeping in a pile next to a road after flames gutted Greece’s largest migrant camp
Separately, firefighters said they were blocked from entering the camp and pelted with rocks by groups of migrants, and had to call for police support.
Wednesday night’s fires broke out inside the parts of Moria camp that had not burned in the first blaze, sending people streaming from the camp with their belongings, according to an Associated Press photographer in the area.
Moria had been under a coronavirus lockdown when the first fire gutted a large section of it, and health officials said some of those who had tested positive for the virus had fled.
‘The combination of migration and the pandemic in these conditions is creating an exceptionally demanding situation,’ Alternate Migration Minister Giorgos Koumoutsakos said. Civil protection authorities declared a four-month state of emergency for public health reasons on Lesbos.
Officials said the original fire was started by camp residents angered by the lockdown measures and isolation orders imposed after 35 people tested positive for COVID-19. The cases were found during broad testing and contact tracing after the illness of a Somali man who had been granted asylum and had left the island in July but later returned.
The exact cause of the first blaze was being investigated, but ‘what is certain is that the fire was started, because of the quarantine, by asylum-seekers in the facility,’ said Migration Minister Notis Mitarachi, who flew to Lesbos with Greece’s interior minister and the head of the public health organization.
‘Instances of unlawful behaviour such as the ones we experienced yesterday will not be left unpunished,’ Mitarachi said. ‘Such behaviour is not acceptable, and also respect for law and order is a necessary precondition for the asylum process.’
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.
Government spokesman Stelios Petsas warned that authorities face a ‘titanic’ effort to shelter the asylum seekers, as well as track down and isolate dozens of confirmed coronavirus infections among them.
‘There are 35 positive cases and they need to be isolated… to prevent an outbreak among the local population,’ Petsas told state TV ERT.
A thousand of the migrants will be relocated to Germany, the leader of the country’s most-populous state has announced, as Foreign Minister Heiko Maas called on European states to help.
Norway has already offered to take 50 Syrians from Moria even though Greece has currently banned the camp’s former residents from leaving the island.
Meanwhile the EU promised to pay for 400 unaccompanied youngsters to be transported to the mainland.
In dramatic night-time scenes, camp inhabitants fled fires that broke out at multiple points and were fanned by gale-force winds, gutting much of the facility and surrounding hillside olive groves.
Protests also broke out involving migrants, riot police, and firefighters. There were no reports of injuries.
Aid agencies have long warned of dire living conditions at Moria, where more than 12,500 have been living in and around a facility built to house just over 2,750.
Officials have been trying for months to build a new camp on Lesbos to replace Moria but locals have resisted, clashing with riot police earlier this year to prevent construction from going ahead.
By dawn on Wednesday most of the camp was a smouldering mass of burnt containers and tents, with a few people searching through the debris for their possessions.
‘There was not just one but many fires in the camp. Migrants threw stones at firefighters trying to put out the fires,’ Constantine Theophilopoulos, fire brigade chief for the northern Aegean, told ERT TV.
Greek news agency ANA said the fires had started after a revolt by asylum seekers who were to be placed in isolation after testing positive for coronavirus or coming into close contact with an infected patient.
A man picks his way between the destroyed remains of tents inside the Moria camp, after the fire had burned out
A woman packs up her possessions as she leaves the Moria camp after it was destroyed by fire on Wednesday
The whole of Lesbos has been placed under a state of emergency amid fears that migrants fleeing the camp – including dozens who have coronavirus – could cause an outbreak on the island
Destroyed tents and shelters smoulder in the early morning sun after a fire gutted the Moria migrant camp, on Lesbos
A woman and a girl make their way through the remains of the Moria camp, as Greek authorities scramble to find shelter for more than 12,000 people who called it home
Migrants sit alongside a road outside the Moria camp after it was destroyed by fire in the early hours of Wednesday
Regional fire chief Konstantinos Theofilopoulos told Greek public broadcaster ERT that the fire started in more than three places in quick succession, and that firefighters were hampered by protesting residents.
Before dawn, riot police set up cordons along a highway near the camp to restrict the movements of the camp’s residents.
Migration minister Koumoutsakos said initial reports indicated there had been no loss of life in the blaze.
He said the more than 400 unaccompanied children and teenagers who had been living in the camp were now in hotels or other safe areas on the island.
New temporary accommodation would be set up for residents left homeless by the fire, ‘preferably not near the Moria area and, necessarily, obviously not all together,’ he said.
Firefighters also said they had been blocked from entering the camp to battle the blaze by a group of refugees and had asked for police assistance.
The camp has seen a spike in coronavirus patients since reporting its first case last Wednesday, with 35 confirmed infections so far.
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.
Rights groups including the UN refugee agency have urged Greece to reduce congestion in its migrant camps.
The Moria camp, which was built to hold fewer than 2,800 people, had been routinely criticised for its lack of hygiene and overcrowding.
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.
A child walks among destroyed shelters following a fire at the Moria camp for refugees and migrants on the Island of Lesbos
Migrants sit inside the burnt Moria Camp on the Greek island of Lesbos after a fire gutted the settlement overnight
A man carrying his possessions in a bin bag makes his way through the ruins of the Moria camp on the island of Lesbos
A migrant boy rides a destroyed bicycle next to the burned debris in the Moria refugee camp on the island of Lesbos
An aerial view of destroyed shelters following a fire at the Moria camp for refugees and migrants
Damaged buildings can be seen in the Moria migrant camp after a huge fire ‘completely destroyed’ it overnight
A migrant looks the burned Moria refugee camp on the northeastern Aegean island of Lesbos, Greece
Two men walk amid smoke inside the burnt camp of Moria on the island of Lesbos after a major fire broke out
Lesbos was put under a state of emergency for four months for public health reasons, the civil protection service said, which allows it to mobilise all forces to support the island and asylum seekers.
Mytilini mayor Stratis Kytelis said migrants would have to be moved or housed on ships to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
‘The situation was out of control,’ policeman Argyris Syvris told Open TV, adding that police had been forced to release some 200 people who were due to be repatriated to their countries.
Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis held an emergency cabinet meeting on the situation, and the migration and interior ministers headed to Lesbos.
Government spokesman Stelios Petsas told state TV ERT those living in the Moria camp would not be allowed to leave the island due to the coronavirus outbreak.
EU Home Affairs Commissioner Ylva Johansson said the European Union had agreed to fund the immediate transfer of 400 unaccompanied children and teenagers to the Greek mainland.
German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas described the fires as ‘a humanitarian disaster’, and said EU member states should be ready to take in some of the refugees from the camp.
Lesbos was on the front line of a mass movement of refugees and migrants to Europe in 2015-2016.
Fire burns container houses and tents in the Moria refugee camp on the northeastern Aegean island of Lesbos
Two men walk amid smoke inside the burnt camp of Moria on the island of Lesbos after a major fire broke out
People walk in the burnt camp of Moria on the island of Lesbos after a major fire broke out
A man walks amid smoke inside the burnt camp of Moria on the island of Lesbos after a major fire broke out
The whole camp was placed under quarantine last week after a coronavirus outbreak was detected inside, with 35 positive cases reported so far (file image)
The fire reportedly broke out after 35 migrants who tested positive for coronavirus were being moved into isolation within the camp, sparking protests (file image)