Fire guts Greek refugee camp, thousands flee amid Covid-19 worries

Refugees and migrants walking among destroyed shelters yesterday, following a fire at the Moria camp on the island of Lesbos, Greece. The whereabouts of 35 camp occupants who tested positive for Covid-19 this week were unknown, raising concerns that
Refugees and migrants walking among destroyed shelters yesterday, following a fire at the Moria camp on the island of Lesbos, Greece.PHOTO: REUTERS

LESBOS (Greece) • Thousands of migrants roamed homeless around the Greek island of Lesbos yesterday after fleeing overnight fires that gutted their overcrowded camp, and the authorities are worried some asylum seekers who tested positive for Covid-19 could spread the virus.

A migration ministry official said the Moria camp, which hosts more than 12,000 people, was "probably totally destroyed".

Athens put Lesbos under a state of emergency and sent police reinforcements to the island, which lies just off Turkey, to help keep order.

Deputy Migration Minister George Koumoutsakos said about 3,000 migrants and refugees would be temporarily housed in tents as the government struggles to find alternative shelter for the migrants, some of whom were now camped out in fields nearby.

The cause of the fires is not yet known. The authorities are investigating whether they were deliberately started. The fire broke out just after midnight. By dawn yesterday, most of the camp was a smouldering mass of burnt containers and tents, with a few people going through the debris to look for their possessions.

The whereabouts of 35 migrants who tested positive for Covid-19 this week were unknown. The camp was placed under quarantine last week after an asylum seeker tested positive.

"There was not just one but many fires in the camp. Migrants threw stones at firefighters trying to put out the fires. The cause is under investigation," Mr Constantine Theophilopoulos, fire brigade chief for the northern Aegean, told ERT TV.

Initial reports suggested the fires broke out at different locations in the sprawling camp after the authorities tried to isolate some individuals who had tested positive for Covid-19.

"The camp has been evacuated. All these people are on the national road towards (the town of) Mytilini," said Mr Panagiotis Deligiannis, a witness from Moria. "There are police out who are not letting them through. These people are sleeping left and right in the fields."

Aid groups have long criticised conditions at the camp, which hosts more than four times its stated capacity. They say it is impossible to implement social distancing and basic hygiene measures there.

The United Nations refugee agency, UNHCR, said it had received reports of tensions between people in neighbouring villages and asylum seekers who were trying to reach Mytilini town.


"Events in Moria last night are unthinkable but tragically predictable as the dire situation on the islands has gone on for far too long," said Ms Dimitra Kalogeropoulou, International Rescue Committee Greece director.

Lesbos was put under a state of emergency for four months for public health reasons, the civil protection service said, which allows it to mobilise all forces to support the island and asylum seekers.

Mytilini Mayor Stratis Kytelis said migrants would have to be moved or housed on ships to prevent the spread of Covid-19.

Mr Argyris Syvris, a policeman, told Open TV that police had been forced to release some 200 people who were due to be repatriated to their countries.


Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis held an emergency Cabinet meeting on the situation, and the migration and interior ministers headed to Lesbos.

Government spokesman Stelios Petsas said camp residents would not be allowed to leave Lesbos due to the pandemic, though EU Home Affairs Commissioner Ylva Johansson said the European Union had agreed to fund the immediate transfer of 400 unaccompanied children and teenagers to the Greek mainland.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 10, 2020, with the headline 'Fire guts Greek refugee camp, thousands flee amid Covid-19 worries'. Subscribe