A massive fire destroyed Europe’s largest camp for asylum seekers on the Greek island of Lesbos on Wednesday (local time), leaving 12,500 migrants who were supposed to be under coronavirus quarantine with no obvious place to go.
While helicopters doused the final embers, authorities were trying to figure out any connection between the blaze and frustrations over the erupting coronavirus outbreak at the camp.
Three eyewitnesses said the fire was started as a protest against new mandatory quarantine measures, and a semiofficial Greek news agency said the blaze broke out after migrants who had tested positive or had been potentially exposed refused to go into isolation.
A government spokesman told ERT, a Greek public broadcaster, that arson as well as other potential causes were being investigated.
Video showed people fleeing the camp overnight, the sky orange and yellow, as the camp’s tents and shipping containers were engulfed in flames.
Some migrants, attempting to make their way to the island’s main town, were met by riot police.
By morning, the camp was little more than charred husks and collapsed buildings. One photo showed a razed olive grove, once lined with tents, where only two portable toilets remained standing.
The fire sets off the largest emergency to date at a camp that has long been the symbol of Europe’s failure to safely manage and care for people arriving on the continent.
Well before the pandemic, the camp, known as Moria, was a site for protests, fatal fires and chronic sickness. It was filled many times beyond capacity and was cited by international aid groups as unsafe and inhumane. It continued to operate only because Greece – and Europe – were unable to find alternatives.
“Events in Moria last night are unthinkable but, tragically, predictable as the dire situation on the islands has gone on for far too long,” said Dimitra Kalogeropoulou, the Greece country director for the International Rescue Committee.
Kalogeropoulou said the camp’s residents appeared to have safely fled but are “now left with nothing”.
“Already traumatized people have now lost what few belongings they had,” she said.
The pressures on asylum seekers at the camp built further last week when officials detected the first positive coronavirus case. A subsequent testing campaign has since detected another 35 positive cases, and the camp has been put under lockdown.
At the time of the order, the aid confederation Oxfam noted that social distancing and good hygiene were all but impossible at the camp, given its squalid and cramped conditions.