By DEREK GATOPOULOS, ATHENS, Greece (AP):- A major overnight fire swept through Greece’s largest refugee camp, that had been placed under COVID-19 lockdown, leaving more than 12,000 migrants in emergency need of shelter on the island of Lesbos.
In dramatic night-time scenes, the migrants at the overcrowded Moria refugee camp, which was originally meant to house around 2,000 people, fled fires that broke out at multiple points and gutted much of the camp and surrounding hillside olive groves. Protests also broke out involving migrants, riot police, and firefighters. There were no reports of injuries.
“It has been a very difficult night,” government spokesman Stelios Petsas said, adding that a state of emergency was being declared on the island. He said all possible causes, including that of arson, were being examined.
Petsas said those who had been living in Moria would not be allowed to leave the island to prevent the potential spread of the coronavirus. The camp had been placed on lockdown after a Somali man was found to have been infected with the virus.
A major testing drive was ordered in the camp, and 35 people who had tested positive had been quarantined in a separate facility that was not affected by the fire, officials said.
Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis convened an emergency ministerial meeting Wednesday morning to examine the situation in Moria and decide on measures to be taken. The commander of Greece’s intelligence service, the civil protection head and the chief of defense general staff participated in the meeting.
Speaking after the meeting, Petsas said the interior and migration ministers, as well as the head of the public health organization, were to head to Lesbos to review the situation on the ground on Wednesday.
European Commission Vice President Margaritis Schinas, who is responsible for migration matters, tweeted that he had been in touch with Mitsotakis and “assured him that the European Commission is ready to assist Greece immediately at all levels at this difficult time.”
Home Affairs Commissioner Ylva Johansson said she had “already agreed to finance the immediate transfer and accommodation on the mainland of the remaining 400 unaccompanied children and teenagers” who had been living in the camp.
“The safety and shelter of all people in Moria is the priority,” Johansson tweeted.
Some 12,500 people were living at the Moria camp and the surrounding area, where additional restrictions have been imposed over the past week after a Somali man who had returned to the camp after being granted refugee status tested positive for the coronavirus.
The fires broke out overnight, police and fire officials on the island told The Associated Press, adding the cause of the blazes, as well as the full extent of the damage, remained unclear. They did not confirm local reports that the fires had been set deliberately in protest at the lockdown measures but said firefighters had “met resistance” from some camp residents.
Regional fire chief Konstantinos Theofilopoulos told state-run ERT television that the fire broke out at more than three places in quick succession, and that firefighters were hampered by protesting residents from battling the flames.
By Wednesday morning the main blaze was out, but the fire chief said some containers still had small slow-burning fires inside.
Before dawn, riot police set up cordons along a highway near the camp to restrict the movements of migrants.
Lesbos was Europe’s busiest crossing point in 2015-16 for illegal migration during a massive westward movement of refugees, many fleeing war in Syria and Iraq and traveling through Turkey. After that wave of migration, Greece set up camps on Lesbos and four other islands, helped with European Union funding, and more recently also set up a network of camps on the mainland.
Firefighters on Lesbos were also battling two other forest fires on the west of the island Wednesday.