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Greece's overcrowded migrant camp on Lesbos hit by more deliberate fires

Little remained of Greece's notoriously overcrowded Moria refugee camp on the island of Lesbos Thursday after a fire overnight destroyed nearly everything that had been spared in an earlier blaze, leaving thousands more people in need of emergency housing.

There have been no fatalities, but thousands have been displaced by week's unrest

A couple sits covered with a blanket as refugees and migrants camp on a road following a fire at the Moria camp on the island of Lesbos, Greece Thursday. (Alkis Konstantinidies/Reuters)

Little remained of Greece's notoriously overcrowded Moria refugee camp Thursday after a second fire overnight destroyed nearly everything that had been spared in the original blaze, leaving thousands more people in need of emergency housing.

Early morning saw former residents of the country's largest camp, which had been under coronavirus lockdown, return to the area to pick through the charred remains of their belongings, salvaging what they could. Many spent the night sleeping in the fields, by the side of the road or in a small graveyard.

New, small fires also sprang up in the remains of tents set up outside the camp, fanned by strong winds Thursday morning.

Authorities said both fires in the camp on the island of Lesbos were deliberately started, with the first one Tuesday evening set by residents angered by quarantine measures imposed to contain a COVID-19 outbreak after 35 people tested positive.

That blaze had left about 3,500 of the more than 12,500 people living in and around Moria homeless, and authorities flew in tents and were providing a ferry and two navy ships as emergency temporary housing.

Migrants flee from the Moria refugee camp during a fire Wednesday night on the northeastern Aegean island of Lesbos, Greece. Discontent over COVID-19 quarantine measures may have led to deliberate fires being set, authorities said. (Petros Giannakouris/The Associated Press)

But new fires sprang up in the undamaged parts of the camp Wednesday evening, destroying the greater part of what was left and sending thousands more streaming out of the facility.

Greek government spokesperson Stelios Petsas said the second fire was also deliberately set and had now left the vast majority of the camp's residents homeless.

"Some people do not respect the country that is hosting them, and they strive to prove they are not looking for a passport to a better life," Petsas told reporters in Athens.

He said those who had set the fires "did so because they considered that if they torch Moria, they will indiscriminately leave the island. We tell them they did not understand. They will not leave because of the fire."

Unaccompanied minors sent to northern Greece

Petsas said the only Moria residents who would be allowed to leave Lesbos were the 406 unaccompanied children and teenagers who were flown to northern Greece overnight.

In the meantime, thousands of camp residents were sleeping rough on a roadside near the gutted camp.

On a baking-hot stretch of highway about a kilometre-and-a-half from the Moria camp, Leonie Raymon, a refugee from Cameroon, said he had not received any help or food since fleeing the fires early Wednesday.

"Under the stars, I'm going to sleep under the stars like all these people here," he said. "(I've) nowhere to go since everything burned, so we slept outside and we'll continue here."

WATCH l  A look at the camp after the 1st fires:

Drone visuals show extent of damage after migrant camp fire in Greece

2 years ago
Duration 0:48
Thousands of migrants and refugees are without shelter after a fire broke out and destroyed the Moria camp on the island of Lesbos, Greece.

Apart from the main camp, Moria also consisted of a sprawling tent city that had sprung up in olive groves outside the main perimeter fence due to overcrowding. Much of that was burned beyond repair by Thursday morning, with just the blackened frames of tents remaining among charred olive tree trunks.

Aid agencies have long warned of dire conditions at Moria, a facility built to house just over 2,750 people. The camp accommodates those fleeing conflict and poverty in the Middle East, Africa and Asia who arrive clandestinely on Lesbos from the nearby Turkish coast. It has become a symbol of what critics say is Europe's failure to humanely handle the migration and refugee situation.

"Greece has been left alone to deal with thousands of people coming in our country. Lately we have applied a policy of strict control of the borders, with the help of European forces, and this policy has worked," Greek European Affairs Minister Miltiadis Varvitsiotis told members of the European Parliament's foreign affairs committee in Brussels Thursday.

Varvitsiotis said Europe's new migration policy should focus on giving shelter to those who need asylum, prevent unauthorized migrants from entering, and repatriate people stuck in camps back to their homes.

LISTEN l The Current: On the ground report from Lesbos:

Europe, he said, should send a message to islands and other outlying areas that they are not doomed to live on the borders of the European Union. "They shouldn't have to tolerate behaviour that is unacceptable."

In Athens, the migration ministry said that when the second fire struck Wednesday, work was being carried out in Moria to ensure no families remained homeless overnight. But the new blaze forced the work to stop.

On Thursday, the ministry said that "all necessary actions will be taken to house initially the vulnerable and families in specially designated areas."

Meanwhile, a group of locals angered by the situation and the presence of the camp in their area blocked a secondary road leading to the camp in an effort to prevent access to equipment that could be used to rebuild.

Moria has long been considered a sad and embarrassing symbol of European migration policy failures.

(CBC News)

In coming weeks, European Commission Vice-President Margaritis Schinas, who is responsible for migration affairs, and EU Migration Commissioner Ylva Johansson are due to unveil a new "pact on migration," aimed at ending years of dispute over which countries should be responsible for managing migrant arrivals and whether their partners should be obliged to help.

French President Emmanuel Macron said he had spoken with Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis and German Chancellor Angela Merkel on Wednesday.

"There is a terrible reality with these fires. Many children, women, men are in these camps in absolutely terrible conditions. We want to show solidarity with Greece that lives up to European values," Macron said.

Refugees and migrants carrying their belongings flee a fire burning at the Moria camp on the island of Lesbos late Wednesday. Aid organizations have expressed alarm over the conditions at the camp for several years. (Alkis Konstantinidis/Reuters)

France, he said, was aiming to propose to take in some of the minors in the camps.

"The coming hours will allow us to finalize the needs, in co-ordination with the Greeks, and a first, co-ordinated French-German response, in hopes of bringing along a maximum of other European Union countries in this solidarity."

Since well over one million people entered Europe in 2015 — most of them refugees fleeing conflict in Syria and Iraq — the row over responsibility and solidarity has blown up into one of the EU's biggest ever political crises.

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