Thousands homeless as blaze guts Greece's main migrant camp

Over 12,000 men, women and children had overnight fled in panic out of their containers and tents into nearby olive groves and fields as the fire destroyed most of the overcrowded, squalid camp.

Children walk over a bridge in the Moria migrant camp on the Greek Aegean island of Lesbos on March 5, 2020. Picture: AFP.

ATHENS – Greece's Lesbos island was plunged into crisis Wednesday after thousands of asylum seekers were left homeless from a huge fire that gutted the country's largest and most notorious migrant facility, Moria camp.

The civil protection agency declared a four-month emergency for the island of 85,000 people and Germany urged EU states to take in the camp's survivors.

"With the European Commission and other EU member states that are ready to help, we need to quickly clarify how we can help Greece," German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas, whose country holds the presidency of the bloc, said on Twitter.

"That includes the distribution of refugees among those in the EU who are willing to take them in," he added.

EU home affairs commissioner Ylva Johansson said the bloc would finance "the immediate transfer and accommodation on the mainland of the camp's remaining 400 unaccompanied children and teenagers."

Norway on Wednesday offered to take in 50 Syrians from Moria -- though Greece has currently banned the camp's former residents from leaving the island.

An exception will be made for the 400 minors, a migration ministry source told state agency ANA.

Over 12,000 men, women and children had overnight fled in panic out of their containers and tents into nearby olive groves and fields as the fire destroyed most of the overcrowded, squalid camp.

The blaze started just hours after the migration ministry said that 35 people had tested positive at the facility, among 2,000 tests conducted on residents and staff.

The UN refugee agency said it had deployed staff to assist Greek authorities, noting that there were over 4,000 children among the displaced in addition to pregnant women and elderly people.

"We have been informed about reports of tensions between people in neighbouring villages and asylum seekers who were trying to reach Mytilene’s town. We urge all to exercise restraint," the UNHCR said, calling on the camp's former residents to stay in the area with efforts to find them shelter underway.

Citing anonymous police sources, Greek news agency ANA reported that the fires had started after a revolt by people who were to be placed in isolation, but there was no official confirmation.

A local town official said the perpetrators had taken advantage of strong winds and deliberately set tents on fire.

"It was premeditated. The tents were empty," Michalis Fratzeskos, deputy mayor for civil protection, told state television channel ERT.

Firemen said there were no known casualties so far, although a number of people were suffering minor respiratory problems.

Dozens of people were milling among charred containers, some carrying away belongings, others snapping cellphone pictures.

'THERE IS NO MORIA'

"There is no Moria, it has been destroyed," deputy regional governor Aris Hatzikomninos told ERT, as additional riot police were hurriedly flown to the island.

The Moria camp, built to hold fewer than 2,800 people, has been routinely criticised by rights groups and the UN refugee agency for a lack of sanitation and overcrowding.

From January to the end of August, five people were stabbed in more than 15 attacks, according to camp officials.

"It is high time that EU countries work with the Greek government to urgently relocate refugees and asylum-seekers not only to the Greek mainland but also to other EU countries," the International Rescue Committee said in a statement.

Since becoming one of the main gateways into Europe for migrants and asylum seekers in 2015, Greece has built dozens of detention centres where overcrowding is common.

The government has for months been attempting to build a new camp on Lesbos to replace Moria.

But locals have resisted the move, clashing with riot police earlier this year to prevent construction from going ahead.

INFECTION FEARS

Greek spokesman Stelios Petsas warned that authorities faced a "titanic" effort to shelter asylum seekers rendered homeless by the blaze, as well track down and isolate dozens of confirmed coronavirus infections among them.

Moria had already been placed in quarantine until 15 September with only security personnel granted access after temperature tests.

"There are 35 positive cases and they need to be isolated... to prevent an outbreak among the local population," Petsas told ERT.

Hundreds of asylum seekers attempted to flee on foot towards the port town of Mytilene during the night, but were blocked by police vehicles, while others took shelter in the hills surrounding the camps.

Unable to pass, scores bedded down and slept on the ground.

MONTHS OF LOCKDOWNS

Moria camp had reported its first coronavirus case last Wednesday.

Migrant facilities 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.

The government has in recent months moved thousands of refugees from Lesbos and other islands to the mainland.

But 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.