Left instantly homeless after two fires destroyed the overcrowded Moria refugee and migrant detention camp on the island of Lesbos, thousands of people had to sleep wherever they could – including fields, parking lots and roads.
They fled the blaze in the facility housing 12,500 people, in a place designed for one-sixth of that, and were kept by Greek riot police and law enforcement teams from trying to get to the capital Mytilene for food and shelter.
The conflagration left the camp, which human rights groups and activists said was unfit for humans, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic as more cases broke out, unlivable.
Officials said the first fire just after midnight Sept. 9 was deliberately started in angry protest over a lockdown imposed to prevent the spread of the Coronavirus, people fed up after already being confined for two years or more waiting for asylum applications to be processed.
Eight-year-old Congolese girl Valencia, who was barefoot, gestured to a Reuters reporter that she was hungry and asked for a biscuit. "Our home burned, my shoes burned, we don't have food, no water."
Both she and her mother Natzy Malala, 30, who has a newborn infant, slept on the side of the road. "There is no food, no milk for the baby," Natzy Malala said.
The Migration Ministry said it would take "all necessary steps" to ensure that vulnerable groups and families had shelter, but these were expected to be met with stiff resistance from locals, the news agency said.
Ironically, Lesbos residents and fishermen had been praised and even nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize for their compassion toward the refugees and migrants had turned on them, weary of trying to help after more than five years.
The islanders were fighting government plans to replace Moria with a closed reception center, which Lesbos residents fear would mean thousands of asylum seekers remaining their permanently.
Municipalities were at odds over the handling of the situation, said Costas Moutzouris, Governor of the Northern Aegean. "There is no decision. It's up in the air," he told Reuters.
A government official who declined to be named said that sheltering migrants on boats was not a safe solution and was sending the wrong message to migrants who would want to leave Lesbos.
The European Commission, which has left Greece mostly on its own and refused to take other countries to court for refusing to aid as pledged, was now ready to assist, President Ursula von der Leyen said.
“I am deeply sorrowed by last night’s events at the Moria refugees camp in Greece. My College was informed this morning,” she tweeted.
She added: “We stand ready to support, with member-states. Our priority is the safety of those left without shelter,” but didn't say what would be done beyond tweeting support.
She said she asked Commission Vice-President Margaritis Schinas, who is from Greece's ruling New Democracy and in charge of migrant affairs, to travel to his country “as soon as possible,” a three-hour flight from Brussels.