ATHENS, Greece (AP) — A major fire swept through a notoriously overcrowded refugee camp on the Greek island of Lesbos early Wednesday, causing no injuries but leaving thousands in need of emergency shelter and sparking renewed criticism of Europe's migration policy.
Complicating matters, the Moria camp was under a coronavirus lockdown when flames gutted much of it overnight. Authorities scrambled to find housing for residents while also preventing the spread of the virus.
“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.
In dramatic scenes, men, women and children fled fires that broke out during the night at multiple points and were fanned by gale-force winds. Firefighters said protesting camp residents hampered their efforts to put out the blaze.
Aid agencies have long warned of dire conditions at Moria, where more than 12,500 people live in and around a facility built to house just over 2,750. The camp — housing those fleeing violence and poverty in the Middle East, Africa and Afghanistan — has become a symbol of what critics say is Europe’s failure to humanely handle the migration and refugee situation.
Officials said the fire was started by camp residents angered by lockdown measures and isolation orders imposed after 35 people tested positive for COVID-19. The cases were detected during broad testing and contact tracing sparked by the illness of a Somali man who had been granted asylum and had left the island in July but later returned.
Some who fled the flames had tested positive for the virus and had been in quarantine, said National Public Health Organization head Panagiotis Arkoumaneas, along with some of their close contacts who also had been transferred to isolation.
“We have located eight of them in cooperation with the migration ministry and Greek police, and we have also found a significant number of their close contacts,” Arkoumaneas said, adding they had been transferred to a new quarantine area.
The exact cause of the blaze was being investigated, but “what is certain is that the fire was started, because of the quarantine, by asylum-seekers in the facility," said Migration Minister Notis Mitarachi, who flew to the island with Greece's interior minister and the head of the public health organization.
“Instances of unlawful behavior such as the ones we experienced yesterday will not be left unpunished," Mitarachi said. "Such behavior is not acceptable, and also respect for law and order is a necessary precondition for the asylum process.”
The blaze left about 3,500 camp residents homeless, he 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.
Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis said he recognized the difficult circumstances in Moria. “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.”
Aid organizations and rights groups renewed criticism of Europe's migration policy, which they said led to situations like the dramatic conditions of Moria.
Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights Dunja Mijatović noted similarly overcrowded conditions on other Greek islands and said the situation could degenerate there too.
The fire shows the urgency of rethinking Europe’s approach to migration, “which has led to the overcrowded, inhumane and completely unsustainable situation in Moria and elsewhere on the Aegean islands,” Mijatovic said.
Amnesty International's migration researcher Adriana Tidona said “reckless EU policies” were to blame for the overcrowding in Moria.
"As the EU Pact on Migration and Asylum is finalized, this is a timely indictment of the current policy of camps and containment,” she said.
Under a 2016 deal between the European Union and Turkey designed to stem the flow of hundreds of thousands of 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 flow, delays in processing asylum claims and the continued arrival 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.
“The problem of the handling of migration flows is, after all, mainly a European one,” Mitsotakis said, noting Athens was in constant contact with European authorities on the issue. “Greece has already borne a far heavier burden than its share.”
European authorities, who have often come under criticism for not doing enough to ease the migration burden on southern countries such as Greece, Italy and Spain, offered assistance.
“We will not leave Greece alone with this situation -- and above all -- we will not leave the people in this camp alone,” German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said.
“We have already offered the Greek government support … and we will also make this an issue during our (EU) Council Presidency,” he added. “I believe that the European Union as a whole has a responsibility.”
Germany holds the EU’s rotating presidency. A spokesman for German Interior Minister Horst Seehofer said Berlin was in talks with Athens over what assistance Germany could provide.
Dutch Development Cooperation Minister Sigrid Kaag pledged 1 million euros (about $1.2 million) in emergency aid for Greece to help provide accommodation, housing and care to migrants, while EU Home Affairs Commissioner Ylva Johansson said she had agreed to finance the transfer and accommodation of the 400 unaccompanied children to the mainland.
European Commission Vice President Margaritis Schinas, who is responsible for migration matters, will head to Lesbos Thursday.
Spain has also been struggling with the migration issue. Authorities are building new migrant centers in the Canary Islands 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.
Associated Press writers Kirsten Grieshaber in Berlin, Aritz Parra in Madrid, Mike Corder in The Hague and Derek Gatopoulos in Athens contributed.
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