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Thursday April 15th, 2021 7:16AM

Greece: Fire sweeps through refugee camp on virus lockdown

By The Associated Press
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ATHENS, Greece (AP) — A major fire swept through a notoriously overcrowded refugee camp on the Greek island of Lesbos early Wednesday, burning through container housing and leaving thousands of people in need of emergency shelter.

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 prime minister added: “The situation in Moria cannot continue because it constitutes simultaneously a question of public health, humanity and national security.”

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. The camp has become a symbol of what critics have said is the European Union's failure to humanely handle the migration and refugee situation.

Under a 2016 deal between the EU and Turkey designed to stem the flow of hundreds of thousands of Europe-bound migrants and refugees, those arriving on Greek islands like Lesbos from the nearby Turkish coast are held there pending either deportation back to Turkey or the acceptance of their asylum claims.

Although the deal dramatically reduced the number of arrivals, delays in processing asylum claims and the continued arrivals of hundreds of asylum seekers led island camps to quickly exceed their capacity. Successive Greek governments have called on other European countries to share the burden of housing asylum-seekers.

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.

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.

Greece is not the only country dealing with the migration challenges in the time of COVID-19.

In Spain’s Canary Islands, authorities are scrambling to build new migrant centers after an increase of arrivals turned the western Atlantic route into this year's deadliest for migrants trying to reach Europe from Africa by sea. But the facilities won’t be ready for months, leaving hundreds sleeping in tents.

Nearly 4,000 people arrived in the archipelago near West Africa between Jan. 1 and the end of August, up from 584 in the same period of 2019. More than 250 have died, according to the International Organization for Migration.

In Moria, protests against living conditions and fires have broken out in the past, but Wednesday's was by far the largest blaze.

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, offered 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.

German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas described what occurred in Moria as “a humanitarian catastrophe."

“In cooperation 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," Maas said. "This includes the distribution of refugees among those in the EU that are willing to take them.”

Germany currently holds the EU's rotating presidency. A spokesman for German Interior Minister Horst Seehofer said Berlin was in talks with the Greek government over what assistance Germany could provide.

Pressed on whether Seehofer would reconsider his objection to individual German states or cities taking in refugees voluntarily, spokesman Steve Alter said it was important first to see what was needed urgently and the current situation “is no reason to call into question our current legal order.”

Dutch Development Cooperation Minister Sigrid Kaag on Wednesday pledged 1 million euros in emergency aid (about $1.2 million) 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.

Greece’s interior and migration ministers, along with the head of the country’s public health organization flew to Lesbos following an emergency meeting convened Wednesday morning by Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis. The commander of Greece’s intelligence service, the civil protection head and the chief of defense general staff participated in the meeting.

The United Nations' refugee agency said it had deployed its staff on the ground and offered assistance to Greek authorities.

European Commission Vice President Margaritis Schinas, who is responsible for migration matters, tweeted he had been in touch with Mitsotakis and “assured him that the European Commission is ready to assist Greece immediately at all levels at this difficult time.”

Migrant arrivals in Europe have declined consistently since their peak in 2015, when more than 1 million people entered irregularly, primarily from Turkey to Greece. According to the U.N. 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. ___

Kirsten Grieshaber in Berlin, Aritz Parra in Madrid and Mike Corder in The Hague contributed.

___ Follow Gatopoulos at http://www.twitter.com/dgatopoulos

___ Follow AP coverage of the pandemic at https://apnews.com/VirusOutbreak and https://apnews.com/UnderstandingtheOutbreak

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