Tents and prefabricated homes went up in smoke at a refugee and migrant processing center on the eastern Aegean island of Lesvos on Monday night, leaving hundreds without shelter.
The fire forced the evacuation of the camp’s estimated 4,000 residents, who ran into fields in the vicinity, tried to seek shelter in the nearby village of Moria – where, according to some reports, they were thwarted by disgruntled residents – and even trekked 25 kilometers to the island’s capital of Mytilene.
Videos posted on social media on Monday night showed elderly men and women and families with children trying to flee the burning camp with little but the clothes on their backs, many squeezing through an opening in a fence as they scrambled to get away.
Authorities on the island said that the fire was most likely started by camp residents frustrated by cramped conditions and delays in processing. Clashes inside the camp between different ethnic groups prevented the fire service from bringing the blaze under control before it could spread. Its task was also made harder by strong winds fanning the flames.
Authorities also say that tensions have been running high at the Moria camp for some time now, but spilled over on Monday amid rumors of mass deportations to Turkey.
A protest over the rumor quickly evolved into a riot, with around 300 people leaving the camp in a bid to march into Moria. Riot police were dispatched to bring the migrants back into the facility, where the situation escalated even further, with some protesters setting fires inside the grounds and at an olive grove just outside.
The fire service was called in shortly before 8 p.m. but firefighters were unable to enter the premises for at least half an hour because of the rioting.
Police remanded 18 protesters into custody and on Tuesday arrested nine of them.
Tension was also high earlier in the day in Moria when some 500 residents organized a protest rally calling on the government to take immediate action to reduce numbers staying at the camp, which is stretched to more than double its capacity. Witnesses said that the rally was infiltrated by a few dozen suspected members of the far-right Golden Dawn party, who chanted anti-migrant slogans and are believed to be behind an attack on three young women who worked at volunteers for refugees on the island.
The fire at the Moria camp was put out by around midnight, with initial assessments saying that around 60 percent of the facility has suffered extensive damage. There were no reports of injuries, but as many migrants returned at first light on Tuesday morning, they were faced with the sight of their tents and meager belongings reduced to ashes, and pools of mud from the water firefighters used to extinguish the flames.