Greece moving thousands of migrants after fatal fire at overcrowded camp

Greece aims to deport 10,000 migrants by the end of next year, the government said on Monday, following a deadly fire and clashes at its biggest migrant camp, which is massively overcrowded.

Woman killed in fire at Lesbos camp, which has been heavily criticized by rights groups

Migrants from the Moria camp embrace on the island of Lesbos before boarding a bus to the port of Mytilene from where they will be transferred to mainland Greece. (Alkis Konstantinidis/Reuters)

Greece aims to deport 10,000 migrants by the end of next year, the government said on Monday, following a deadly fire and clashes at its biggest migrant camp, which is massively overcrowded.

A woman was killed on Sunday in a blaze which broke out in the Moria camp on Lesbos island. The fire, the cause of which remains unknown, quickly escalated into clashes between asylum seekers and police. More than a dozen people were hurt.

Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis chaired a cabinet meeting Monday, with the government expected to accelerate efforts to move thousands of refugees and migrants from its eastern islands to the mainland.

As well, the government decided at the cabinet meeting to build what it called "closed centres" for undocumented migrants and rejected asylum seekers who are to be deported, government spokesperson Stelios Petsas said.

Migrants stand in front burnt containers on Sunday following the fire in Moria camp. (Giorgos Moutafis/Reuters)

Moria has mushroomed into the size of a small town of at least 12,000 people, four times its capacity, according to official figures. Violence has been common, but Sunday's clashes were the most serious in many months and came as Greece deals with a resurgence in migrant and refugee flows from Turkey.

"We are really going through a national crisis," Deputy Citizen's Protection Minister Lefteris Economou told reporters on Lesbos.

'Horrendous' conditions at camp: Doctors Without Borders

Economou said Greece was now dealing with "a problem of migration, rather than a refugee problem," citing the nationalities of new arrivals. According to United Nations data, the majority are Afghan families.

About 24,000 asylum seekers are stranded on Greek islands in "horrendous" conditions, according to the charity Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), also known as Doctors Without Borders.

Greece's five island camps have long struggled to accommodate the growing number of asylum seekers, which in August rose to the highest in over three years. New arrivals are not permitted to leave the islands until their claims are processed, under a 2016 European Union deal with Turkey.

A migrant carries a boy as they flee tear gas fired by riot police after the demonstrations that resulted on Sunday. (Giorgos Moutafis/Reuters)

On Sunday, plumes of black smoke rose above Moria, a collection of flimsy tents and containers in a disused military base, which has spilled over into an adjoining olive grove. Police fired tear gas to disperse crowds, which included children.

"No one can call the fire and these deaths an accident," said Marco Sandrone, MSF's field director. "This tragedy is the direct result of a brutal policy that is trapping 13,000 people in a camp made for 3,000."

Sandrone was quoted in response to an earlier report that a child had also died as a result of the fire.

The government has started moving asylum seekers to mainland camps in a bid to ease overcrowding and plans to transfer at least 3,000 people by the end of October, a government official said.

"If, upon arrival, foreigners do not comply with their transfer to other structures, they are presumed to not wish for protection and are referred to return procedures," Petsas said. "Our goal is to prevent people from entering the system if they do not comply from the outset."

The International Rescue Committee (IRC) charity on Monday called on the government to immediately evacuate all vulnerable people, including unaccompanied children, who are currently holed up in Moria in unsanitary conditions with few toilets and showers and few doctors.

"We are constantly bracing ourselves for a new tragedy," said Dimitra Kalogeropoulou, the IRC's Greece director.

"We cannot accept the deaths of more people in a place they thought they had finally found safety."