Greece's overcrowded migrant camp on Lesbos evacuated after major fire
Greece, EU looking at where migrants can be sheltered after Moria camp fire
A major overnight fire swept through Greece's largest refugee camp, which had been placed under COVID-19 lockdown, burning through container housing and leaving thousands of migrants in emergency need of shelter on the island of Lesbos on Wednesday.
Complicating matters, the Moria camp was under a coronavirus lockdown from an outbreak there when flames gutted much of it overnight. Authorities scrambled to find a way to house now homeless camp residents without creating more risk of the virus spreading.
"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.
Koumoutsakos said it appeared the blaze broke out "as the result of the discontent" of some of Moria's residents over lockdown measures imposed after a Somali man who returned to the camp after being granted asylum tested positive for the virus this month.
About three dozen COVID-19 cases were detected during subsequent broad testing of the camp population.
"I recognize the difficult circumstances," Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis said, expressing sorrow over the fire. "However, nothing can become an excuse for violent reaction to health checks. And, more so, for unrest of this extent."
"The situation in Moria cannot continue because it constitutes simultaneously a question of public health, humanity and national security."
In dramatic nighttime scenes, those at the camp fled fires that broke out at multiple points and were fanned by gale-force winds, gutting much of the camp 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 people have been living in and around a facility built to house just over 2,750.
No known fatalities
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 from battling the flames.
A state of emergency was declared on the island starting Wednesday for public health reasons and will be in effect for four months, Greece's civil protection authority announced.
The blaze left about 3,500 camp residents homeless, Greek Migration Minister Notis Mitarachi said, noting the fire destroyed administration buildings and a health facility, but only one section of living quarters.
Those left homeless will be housed temporarily in tents flown to the island, and aboard a ferry and two navy ships.
About 400 unaccompanied children and teenagers living in the camp were being flown to other facilities in northern Greece.
European authorities, who have often come under criticism for not doing enough to ease the migration burden on countries at Europe's southern borders such as Greece, Italy and Spain, were quick to offer assistance.
EU Home Affairs Commissioner Ylva Johansson said she had "already agreed to finance the immediate transfer and accommodation on the mainland of the remaining 400 unaccompanied children and teenagers" who had been living in the camp.
"The safety and shelter of all people in Moria is the priority," Johansson tweeted.
"What's happening in Moria is a humanitarian catastrophe," German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas tweeted. "In co-operation with the EU Commission and other EU member states willing to help, we need to sort out as quickly as possible how we can support Greece. This includes the distribution of refugees among those in the EU that are willing to take them."
Netherlands pledges assistance
Dutch Development Co-operation Minister Sigrid Kaag on Wednesday pledged one million euros in emergency aid (about $1.56 million Cdn) for Greece to help the country provide accommodation, housing and care to migrants.
"We are in solidarity with the refugees and migrants and with the Greeks," Kaag said.
The United Nations' refugee agency said it had deployed its staff on the ground and offered assistance to Greek authorities.
Lesbos was Europe's busiest crossing point in 2015-16 for illegal migration during a massive westward movement of refugees, many fleeing war in Syria and Iraq and travelling through Turkey.
After that wave of migration, Greece set up camps on Lesbos and four other islands, with help from European Union funding and more recently, also set up a network of camps on the mainland.
Migrant arrivals in Europe have declined consistently since their peak in 2015, when more than one million people entered irregularly, primarily from Turkey to Greece. According to the UN refugee agency, about 50,000 migrants have arrived in southern Europe so far this year, including 20,000 in Italy, 15,000 in Spain and 12,000 in Greece.