Thousands of asylum seekers were left homeless after a fire gutted Greece’s largest migrant camp on Lesbos, plunging the island into crisis and provoking an outpouring of sympathy from around Europe and calls for reform of the refugee system.
The blaze, which began hours after 35 people tested positive for coronavirus at the Moria camp, sent thousands fleeing for safety into surrounding olive groves — but nobody was seriously hurt.
While European countries from Germany to Norway — along with EU chiefs — have responded with offers of help and sympathy, Greek officials have sought to blame migrants for the fire.
Stopping short of alleging arson, Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis said the blaze was down to a “violent reaction” in the camp to virus testing, and migration minister Notis Mitarachi said asylum seekers started the fire because of quarantine measures imposed after the positive tests.
Mitarachi said that of 3,500 migrants made homeless, the most vulnerable will spend Wednesday night on a ferry at a nearby port, while two Greek navy vessels would provide more places to sleep on Thursday.
Most of the migrants were sitting on the roadside between the camp and the port of Mytilene late on Wednesday, forming long queues without knowing where they were going.
“What are we going to do now? Where can we go?” said Mahmout, an Afghan, as his compatriot Aisha searched for two of her children.
“Two of my children are there, but I don t know where the others are,” she said.
Another fire broke out in part of the camp that was not badly damaged late on Wednesday, with fleeing migrants shouting “Moria finished”.
Officials have declared a four-month emergency and flown in riot police after reports emerged of security forces blocking migrants from fleeing the fire to Mytilene.
Since becoming one of the main gateways into Europe for migrants and asylum seekers in 2015, Greece has built dozens of detention centres on its islands, but people often face long waits in the camps and overcrowding is common.
The fire at the camp — which houses more than 12,000 people despite being designed for just 2,800 — immediately raised questions about Europe s asylum system, with Germany leading the way in calling for an overhaul.
“We urgently need a common refugee intake programme among as many EU countries as possible and finally a common asylum and migration policy for the EU,” said minister for Europe Michael Roth.
People are supposed to apply for asylum in the first EU country they arrive in before being relocated if they are successful, but the system has been widely derided as some countries barely accept any refugees and others like Greece and Italy bear the brunt.
NGOs have been urging reform for years, with the International Rescue Committee saying after the fire it was “high time” for other EU countries to work with Greece to relocate migrants and the Council of Europe blaming a lack of solidarity for the catastrophe.
Norway has offered to take 50 Syrians from Moria even though Greece and the EU have promised to pay for 400 unaccompanied youngsters to be transported to the mainland.
EU chief Ursula von der Leyen said she was “deeply sorrowed” by the fire at the camp, adding: “Our priority is the safety of those left without shelter.”
The official part of the camp — housing roughly 4,000 people — was destroyed by the fire, ministers said.
Some 8,000 people live in tents and makeshift shelters outside the official camp and many of these were badly damaged in the blaze.
Officials have been trying for months to build a new camp on Lesbos to replace Moria but locals have resisted, clashing with riot police earlier this year to prevent construction from going ahead.
The camps have been largely locked down for months over fears that the cramped, dirty conditions would be ideal for the coronavirus to sweep through.
Moria registered its first infection only last Wednesday and testing revealed 35 more cases on Tuesday.
Government spokesman Stelios Petsas warned that it would be a “titanic” task to shelter the homeless and track down those infected.
“There are 35 positive cases and they need to be isolated… to prevent an outbreak among the local population,” Petsas told ERT.
The government has in recent months moved thousands of refugees from Lesbos and other islands to the mainland.
But many refugees have been unable to find places to live or jobs after leaving the camps, with housing and cash benefits recently scaled back by the government.
Moria s first confirmed infection — a 40-year-old man from Somalia — was one of these cases, according to the migration ministry.