Angelos Tzortzinis/AFP via Getty Images
Several swift fires gutted Europe’s largest refugee camp on the Greek island of Lesbos, sending 12,000 asylum-seekers scrambling for emergency shelter.
The camp, named Moria, after a nearby village tucked into olive groves, was already notorious because of its horrific conditions, which included severe overcrowding, poor sanitation and lack of soap and water taps. Asylum-seekers at the camp often lined up for hours for food that was often spoiled.
A state of emergency has been declared on the island. No deaths have been attributed to the fire but some people experienced breathing problems because of smoke inhalation.
It’s unclear what sparked the fires but Migration Minister Notis Mitarachi told reporters that they “began with asylum seekers” after at least 35 COVID-19 cases were confirmed at the camp. He said some asylum-seekers who tested positive for the virus did not want to be quarantined.
In a televised address, Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis said that he understands the “difficult conditions” at the camp but that there’s no excuse “for the violent reactions to strict health protocols and checks due to COVID.”
Asylum-seekers who fled Moria camp told NPR that while there was some resistance to quarantine, “we would not set fire to our own homes,” said Omid Alizadah, a 30-year-old pharmacist from Afghanistan who lived in a tent with his wife and four-year-old son. “We would not endanger our own lives and the lives of our children.”
Alizadah leads the Moria Corona Awareness Team, a refugee-led group that educates camp residents about how to best protect against COVID-19. He and his family pitched their tent in an overflow area at an olive grove next to the camp, which was designed for fewer than 3,000 people but now holds more than 12,000.
The family fled as soon as the first fires broke out on Tuesday night and didn’t returned because police blocked off access. A neighbor told him that his tent was largely spared. He’s now sheltering with relatives.
“I would like to think that the Greek government will put us somewhere human after this, but I don’t know,” he said. “If the only option for me is to go back to a tent surrounded by burnt trees, I will go. I don’t have a choice.”
Amelia Cooper of the Lesbos Legal Center, which assists refugees with asylum issues, told NPR that many of the center’s clients — including several unaccompanied minors — ended up spending the night outside — along the road or in a nearby forest. She said they had no access to food, water or hygiene facilities.
“There’s also lack of information about the response, about what comes next,” she said. “The overwhelming sentiment that has been shared with us is that this was inevitable, that the residents are subjected to a slow death every day, and that this fire was far from a surprise.”
Ra’ed Alabed, a 45-year-old Syrian, is now sheltering with friends along with his daughter, son-in-law and four-month-old granddaughter. The fires destroyed their tents.
“We don’t know what will happen to us,” Alabed said. “We are hoping that the European people will show some humanity and help us. We are not animals.”
Alabed runs the Moria White Helmets, a group of independent volunteers in the camp that specialize in safety issues. He helped his neighbors escape during the fire.
Cooper of the Lesbos Legal Center said Moria camp did not have a fire evacuation plan.
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen tweeted that she is “deeply sorrowed” by the fires at the refugee camp and is sending a vice president, Margaritis Schinas, to Greece as soon as possible.
Meanwhile, EU Home Affairs Commissioner Ylva Johansson says Brussels will pay for the transfer of 400 unaccompanied minors to shelter in mainland Greece. EU member-states have agreed to eventually take in those minors. Johansson says the EU will also pay for a ship to house refugees displaced by the fire.
Moria camp has been the European Union’s main refugee camp since 2015, when more than 850,000 asylum-seekers — most of them from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan — crossed the sea from Turkey to the Greek islands in the Aegean Sea. Some 300,000 have arrived even after EU borders closed and Brussels partnered with Turkey to keep migrants from crossing. As the EU closed its doors to migrants, those who crossed got stuck in camps like Moria, which sometimes held more than 21,000 people — more than seven times its capacity.
“There is no place in the world worse than Moria camp,” says Omid Alizadah, the Afghan pharmacist who fled the camp during the fire. “It is the worst place I have seen in my entire life. Anyone who comes out alive from Moria camp is a hero.”