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State of Emergency on Lesbos After Refugee Detention Camp Fire

September 9, 2020

MORIA, Lesbos — The Eastern Aegean island of Lesbos was put under a State of Emergency Sept. 9 following a massive fire that tore through the notorious Moria refugee and migrant detention camp that was on lockdown over COVID-19 cases.

The cause of the fire was uncertain but authorities were looking at the possibility of arson after reports said firefighters met some resistance while trying to battle the blaze.

The fire came after growing frustration over long-delayed asylum applications in a camp still holding some 12,500 people who came to Greece from Turkey, which has let human traffickers keep sending them during an essentially-suspended 2016 swap deal with the European Union.

They had gone to Turkey fleeing war, strife and economic hardships in their homelands, especially wars in Afghanistan and Syria as well as from sub-Saharan Africa, hoping to more more prosperous EU countries before borders were shut.

That has left them only the option of being granted sanctuary in Greece, whih is holding nearly 100,000, including 34,000 on five islands near Turkey, Lesbos being the prime destination since the crisis began in 2015.

No injuries were reported from the blaze, but thousands of camp residents have fled to escape the flames.

The declaration of an emergency allowed the New Democracy government which had been tightening the country's borders and trying to keep refugees and migrants from reaching Greek islands to mobilize all its forces, an official said.

The State of Emergency will remain in place for the next four months, said Kathimerini, the decision coming after an emergency ministerial meeting led by Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis.

Interior Minister Takis Theodorikakos, Migration Minister Notis Mitarachi and the President of the National Organisation for Public Health (EODY) Panagiotis Arkoumaneas were headed to the island.

The blaze broke out at Greece’s largest migrant facility just after midnight, fire officials said and by early morning it was a smoldering mass of burnt containers and tents, while thousands of migrants and refugees had fled with their possessions to escape the flames and smoke, the paper reported.

Additional police forces were been sent to the island to prevent fleeing migrants from reaching the capital Mytilene and riot police were said to have formed two blockades while plans were being made to transfer the detainees to the mainland which is what they had long wanted.

European Commission Vice-President Margaritis Schinas, from New Demoracy, and in charge of refugee and migrant affairs for the bloc, said he spoke with Mitsotakis – his party boss – and said help would be coming after he had done little to aid.

“I assured him that the European Commission is ready to assist Greece directly at all levels during these difficult times,” he said in a tweet without explaining why his office didn't provide more assistance as human rights groups kept saying the camp was unfit for humans.

He also said that EU Commissioner for Home Affairs Ylva Johansson has contacted Greek ministers to discuss ways to help and she later agreed to fund the immediate transfer and accommodation on the Greek mainland of the 400 unaccompanied migrant children and teenagers that remained in the camp.

“My thoughts and sympathies are with the people of Lesbos and in particular the migrants and staff working in Moria. I am in contact with the Greece Minister and local authorities about the fire,” she tweeted.

She added that, “The safety and shelter of all people in Moria is the priority,” after critics earlier said it hadn't been as the EU mostly left the problem on Greece to fester during the lingering COVID-19 pandemic.

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