Fire Displaces Thousands of People at Refugee Camp on Coronavirus Lockdown in Greece
"The combination of migration and the pandemic in these conditions is creating an exceptionally demanding situation," Alternate Migration Minister Giorgos Koumoutsakos said
Thousands of people under a coronavirus lockdown were displaced from a refugee camp early Wednesday after a massive fire ravaged the Greek island of Lesbos, according to reports.
Greek officials believe the blaze at the Moria camp was caused by residents who grew angry with the coronavirus measures, including the lockdown and isolation orders, after 35 people tested positive for COVID-19, the Associated Press and CNN reported.
Moria is considered Europe's largest migrant camp, with approximately 13,000 people — many who fled violence and poverty in the Middle East, Africa and Afghanistan — currently living there, according to CNN and the AP.
There has been a great deal of concern over its overcrowding, as the camp was designed to house a little over 2,750 people, and now the fires have prompted renewed criticism over Europe's approach to migration, the outlets reported.
While some residents desperately fled for safety from Wednesday's blaze, which spread rapidly due to the strong winds, others protested the firefighters' aid by hampering their efforts, according to the AP.
National Public Health Organization head Panagiotis Arkoumaneas also told the outlet that multiple people who escaped the fire tested positive for COVID-19 and had been in quarantine. Some have since been found and transferred to a new isolation area.
"We have located eight of them in cooperation with the migration ministry and Greek police, and we have also found a significant number of their close contacts," Arkoumaneas said, the AP reported.
No injuries were reported, but the camp was mostly destroyed, leaving authorities scrambling to find emergency shelter for the 3,500 displaced residents while also attempting to curb the spread of the virus, according to CNN and the AP.
In response to the disaster, Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis declared a four-month state of emergency on the island.
"I recognize the difficult conditions. However, nothing can become an alibi for violent reactions to health checks. And, much more, for riots of this magnitude," Mitsotakis said, according to CNN. "The situation in Moria cannot continue because it is a matter of public health, humanity and national security at the same time."
Added Alternate Migration Minister Giorgos Koumoutsakos, according to the AP: "The combination of migration and the pandemic in these conditions is creating an exceptionally demanding situation."
Migration Minister Notis Mitarachi vowed to find and punish the people behind the blaze, which he confirmed was "started, because of the quarantine, by asylum-seekers in the facility."
"Instances of unlawful behavior such as the ones we experienced yesterday will not be left unpunished," Mitarachi said, per the AP. “Such behavior is not acceptable, and also respect for law and order is a necessary precondition for the asylum process."
As a temporary measure, those displaced will be given tents to live in, which were flown or sent to Lesbos via airplane, ferry and naval ships, the AP reported. Approximately 400 children and teenagers who were living in the camp by themselves were being flown to other facilities in northern Greece, according to the outlet.
Photographer George Moutafis, who was on the scene, reportedly told Greek TV channel Mega that "many migrants and refugees are now back at the camp and looking for their belongings."
"The Moria camp no longer exists," Moutafis went on, according to CNN. "The camp has been completely destroyed. The containers and tents have been completely destroyed... There is nothing there. I am standing out on the street, near the camp, there are many people here."
"There is also police but they don't tell us where to go. We have no food or water," Moutafis added. "They say 'wait here.' It is very hot today and there are women and babies."
In a press release on Wednesday, the United Nations Refugee Agency said they had deployed staff to the ground and offered assistance to Greek authorities.
"UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, deplores the fire that largely destroyed Moria’s Registration and Identification Center (RIC) last night and thanks the local authorities, including the fire department and emergency services that helped to contain the fire and assisted the people," they wrote.
"We are concerned about the situation of some 12,000 asylum seekers, including more than 4,000 children as well as about other vulnerable groups, including 407 unaccompanied children, pregnant women and elderly people," the organization continued.
"We urge all to exercise restraint and ask all those who were previously staying at the RIC, which was under quarantine as some 35 people had tested positive with COVID-19, to restrict their movements and stay near RIC, as a temporary solution is being found to shelter them," they finished.