A fire set by frustrated asylum seekers at the sprawling Moria camp on Lesvos late on Tuesday destroyed most of the camp, leaving thousands homeless on Wednesday, amid increasingly tense conditions in the facility, initially due to overcrowding and then due to a lockdown imposed following an outbreak of the coronavirus there.
Government officials said the fire appears to have been set intentionally by migrants protesting the lockdown decision and efforts by the authorities to transfer 35 camp residents who tested positive for Covid-19 to another facility.
Sources from the police and fire service told Kathimerini that the protests erupted when the infected inmates refused to be relocated, prompting a broader fracas during which camp residents set fire to trees in the adjacent olive grove and then inside the camp. The first fire engines that arrived at the scene were pelted with stones by angry migrants.
As authorities on Wednesday scrambled to find alternative accommodation for at least 3,000 migrants left homeless due to the blaze, which caused major damage but no injuries or deaths, a new fire broke out late on Wednesday night in a part of the camp which had been unscathed by the initial blaze.
Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis said he was “deeply saddened” by the fire at Moria. Despite the difficult conditions at the camp, however, he said, “there can be no excuse… for the violent reactions to strict health protocols and checks due to Covid.” “What happened there cannot go on any longer, as it is also a public health, humanitarian and national security matter,” he said, adding that “this unfortunate event can become an opportunity to deliver better conditions and a new reality in Lesvos.”
Mitsotakis said a state of emergency had been declared on the island and underlined that the migration problem is “primarily” a European one. “Greece has already shouldered a much heavier burden than its fair share,” he said, adding that European Commission Vice President Margaritis Schinas will be visiting Lesvos on Thursday.
During a press conference on Lesvos, Migration Minister Notis Mitarakis said that 408 unaccompanied minors would to be transferred from the island to the mainland immediately. Another 1,000 people from vulnerable groups are to be temporarily housed on a ferry and on another two vessels being sent to the island by the Hellenic Navy. The rest of some 3,500 people left homeless will be provided with tents.
Moria will be replaced by a new “closed, controlled facility” in line with government plans, he said.
Of the 35 migrants that tested positive for Covid-19 and had been unaccounted for after the fire, eight have been traced.
European Commissioner for Migration Ylva Johansson said the EC would help with the relocation of the unaccompanied minors, first to mainland Greece and then onward to new homes in EU member-states. She added that the EU would also pay for a ship that would accommodate hundreds of displaced camp residents.