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Lesbos Moria Refugee Camp Fire Set in Anger Over Quarantine

September 10, 2020

Two fires in less than a day destroyed the notorious Moria refugee and migrant detention camp on the island of Lesbos, leaving nearly 12,500 people homeless after officials said the first blaze was set in protest over a COVID-19 lockdown.

The camp was put into quarantine after an outbreak of the Coronavirus and 35 more cases being found, adding to the plight and misery of people inside, some waiting two years or more for asylum applications to be processed.

The vastly overcrowded camp had already been unfit for humans, said activists and human rights groups and volunteers there and was so bad the BBC called it “the worst in the world,” but curiously it had been largely unaffected during the pandemic despite people not being able to keep safe social distances.

Authorities say the original fire was deliberately started by residents angered by the quarantine measures, the facility already having had a number of fires and the scene of frequent violence between ethnic groups and with riot police.

The camp is the biggest on five Greek islands near the coast of Turkey which has allowed human traffickers to keep sending more during an essentially-suspended 2016 swap deal with the European Union.

Turkey was flooded with some four million refugees and migrants who fled war, strife and economic hardships in their countries, especially Syria, Afghanistan and sub-Saharan Africa and went there hoping to reach the EU.

But after the bloc closed its borders to them and other countries reneged on promises to help take some of the overload of more than 100,000 in Greece, including on the mainland, they were left only to seek sanctuary.

That blaze had left about 3,500 instantly homeless as the New Democracy government and municipalities wrangled over what to do and the EU, which had let the camp fester for five years, suddenly said it wanted to help more.

Authorities flew in tents and were providing a ferry and two navy ships as emergency temporary housing while more than 400 unaccompanied children and teenagers were flown to mainland facilities.

BLAZE TWO

A second fire that broke out as firefighters and crews were trying to deal with the aftermath of the first added to the ruin of Europe's biggest refugee camp and left thousands more without shelter.

The morning after saw former residents return to the area to pick through the charred remains of their belongings, salvaging what they could. Many had spent the night sleeping in the open by the side of the road.

Small new fires also sprang up in the remains of tents set up outside the camp, fanned by strong winds on Sept. 10, reports said, after the second fire tore through what was left of the facility, the cause not given.

Aid agencies have long warned of dire conditions at Moria, a facility built to house just over 2,750 people and at times holding more than 18,000, with inadequate water, sewage or infrastructure.

The Migration Ministry said that when the second fire struck the night of Sept. 9 that work was being carried out in Moria to ensure no families remained homeless overnight. But the new blaze forced the work to stop.

The next day the ministry said that “all necessary actions will be taken to house initially the vulnerable and families in specially designated areas,” but they were left to sleep wherever they could, including in fields and parking lots.

“Obviously blackmailing behavior will not be tolerated,” the ministry said in reference to the fire being set with detainees long wanting to get to the mainland and out of the camp.

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 due to overcrowding. Much of that was burnt beyond repair, with just the blackened frames of tents remaining among charred olive tree trunks. 

With no report of how much or if any aid was being sent to help those left on the street, the government said it was, however, sending more riot police and law enforcement teams.

Citizens Protection Minister Michalis Chrysochoidis also traveled to the island, but there was no report that Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis, who major opposition Radical Left SYRIZA leader Alexis Tsipras said was “personally responsible” would go.

The additional police units were sent after three had been dispatched to keep migrants and refugees from reaching the capital Mytilene. That lifted the permanent police presence on the island to 900, including 240 newly-hired border guards who try to keep boats arriving from Turkey.

(Material from the Associated Press was used in this report)

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