ATHENS, Greece (AP) — Little remained of Greece's notoriously overcrowded Moria refugee camp Thursday after a second fire overnight destroyed nearly everything that had been spared in the original blaze, leaving thousands more people in need of emergency housing.
Former residents of the country’s largest camp, which had been under coronavirus lockdown, returned to the area in the early morning hours to pick through the charred remains of their belongings, salvaging what they could. Many spent the night sleeping in the fields, by the side of the road or in a small graveyard.
New, small fires also sprang up in the remains of tents set up outside the camp, fanned by strong winds.
Authorities said both fires in the camp on the island of Lesbos were deliberately started, with the first one Tuesday evening set by residents angered by quarantine measures imposed to contain a COVID-19 outbreak after 35 people tested positive.
That blaze had left about 3,500 of the more than 12,500 people living in and around Moria homeless, and authorities flew in tents and were providing a ferry and two navy ships as emergency temporary housing.
But new fires sprang up in the undamaged parts of the camp Wednesday evening, destroying the greater part of what was left and sending thousands more streaming out of the facility.
Greek government spokesman Stelios Petsas said the second fire was also deliberately set and had left the vast majority of the camp's residents homeless.
“Some people do not respect the country that is hosting them, and they strive to prove they are not looking for a passport to a better life,” Petsas said.
He said those who had set the fires “did so because they considered that if they torch Moria, they will indiscriminately leave the island. We tell them they did not understand. They will not leave because of the fire."
Petsas said the only Moria residents who would be allowed to leave Lesbos were the 406 unaccompanied children and teenagers who were flown to northern Greece overnight.
Apart from the main camp, Moria also consisted of a sprawling tent city that had sprung up in olive groves outside the main perimeter fence because of overcrowding. Much of that was burned beyond repair by Thursday, with just the blackened frames of tents remaining among charred olive tree trunks.
Aid agencies have long warned of dire conditions at Moria, a facility built to house just over 2,750 people. The camp accommodates people fleeing conflict and poverty in the Middle East, Africa and Asia who arrive clandestinely on Lesbos from the nearby Turkish coast.
“Greece has been left alone to deal with thousands of people coming in our country. Lately we have applied a policy of strict control of the borders, with the help of European forces, and this policy has worked," Greek European Affairs Minister Miltiadis Varvitsiotis told members of the European Parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee in Brussels Thursday.
Varvitsiotis said Europe’s new migration policy should focus on giving shelter to those who need asylum, prevent unauthorized migrants from entering, and repatriate people stuck in camps.
Under a 2016 deal between the European Union and Turkey designed to stem the flow of people into the EU, those arriving on Greek islands from the nearby Turkish coast would stay there pending deportation back to Turkey or the granting of their asylum request.
But a massive backlog in asylum requests and continued new arrivals, although dramatically fewer than before the deal, led to massive overcrowding in the island camps.
The overcrowding and dire conditions have led to increasing tension both within the camps, and with local residents.
On Thursday, a group of islanders angered by the situation blocked a secondary road leading to the camp to prevent machinery from clearing the area and setting up new tents.
Moria community head Yiannis Mastroyannis said the protest was peaceful and residents from the village and outlying areas wanted a return to normality — without new tents on the fire-ravaged site.
“In the past few days we’ve been living through unprecedented situations with daily fires," he said. "We’ve reached our limits. We’re anxious, we feel insecure, we’re fed up, we don’t know how to act anymore.”
Konstantinos Kourogenis, resident of the nearby Afalonas village, said Moria was a “disgrace” that shouldn't be rebuilt.
“We need facilities in which these people can live humanely, but also for there to be security for the surrounding villages,” he said.
Moria has long been considered a sad and embarrassing symbol of European migration policy failures.
In coming weeks, European Commission officials are due to unveil a new “pact on migration,” aimed at ending years of dispute over which countries should be responsible for managing migrant arrivals and whether their partners should be obliged to help.
French President Emmanuel Macron said he had spoken with Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis and German Chancellor Angela Merkel on Wednesday.
“There is a terrible reality with these fires. Many children, women, men are in these camps in absolutely terrible conditions. We want to show solidarity with Greece that lives up to European values," Macron said.
France was aiming to propose to take in some of the minors in the camps, he said.
“The coming hours will allow us to finalize the needs, in coordination with the Greeks, and a first, coordinated French-German response, in hopes of bringing along a maximum of other European Union countries in this solidarity,” Macron said.
Since well over 1 million people entered Europe in 2015 — most of them refugees fleeing conflict in Syria and Iraq — the dispute over responsibility and solidarity has blown up into one of the EU’s biggest-ever political crises.
Lorne Cook in Brussels, and Angela Charlton in Paris, contributed to this report.