Little remained of Greece’s notoriously overcrowded Moria refugee camp Thursday after a second fire overnight destroyed nearly everything that had been spared in the original Tuesday night blaze, leaving thousands more people in need of emergency housing.
Early morning saw former residents of the country’s largest camp, which had been under coronavirus lockdown, return to the area to pick through the charred remains of their belongings, salvaging what they could. Many had spent the night sleeping in the fields, by the side of the road or in a small graveyard.
New, small fires also sprang up in the remains of tents set up outside the camp, fanned by strong winds Thursday morning.
Authorities say the original fire in the camp on the island of Lesbos was deliberately started Tuesday evening by residents angered by quarantine measures imposed to contain a COVID-19 outbreak after 35 people tested positive.
That blaze had left about 3,500 of the more than 12,500 people living in and around Moria homeless, and authorities flew in tents and were providing a ferry and two navy ships as emergency temporary housing.
But new fires sprang up in the unburned parts of the camp Wednesday evening, damaging the greater part of what was left and sending thousands of people streaming out of the facility.
Apart from the main camp, Moria also consisted of a sprawling tent city that had sprung up in olive groves outside the main perimeter fence due to overcrowding. Much of that was burned beyond repair by Thursday morning, with just the blackened frames of tents remaining among charred olive tree trunks.
Authorities said 406 unaccompanied children and teenagers were flown to northern Greece on three chartered flights overnight, and were being housed temporarily in other facilities.
Aid agencies have long warned of dire conditions at Moria, a facility built to house just over 2,750 people. The camp accommodates people fleeing conflict and poverty in the Middle East, Africa and Asia who arrive clandestinely on the island from the nearby Turkish coast, and has become a symbol of what critics say is Europe’s failure to humanely handle the migration and refugee situation.
“Greece has been left alone to deal with thousands of people coming in our country. Lately we have applied a policy of strict control of the borders, with the help of European forces, and this policy has worked,” Greek European Affairs Minister Miltiadis Varvitsiotis told members of the European Parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee in Brussels Thursday, defending against criticism of Athens.
Varvitsiotis said Europe’s new migration policy should focus on giving shelter to those who need asylum, prevent unauthorized migrants from coming in, and repatriate people stuck in camps back to their homes.
Europe, he said, should send a message to islands and other outlying areas that they are not doomed to live on the borders of the European Union. “They shouldn’t have to tolerate behavior that is unacceptable,” he said.
In Athens, the migration ministry said that when the second fire struck Wednesday evening, work was being carried out in Moria to ensure no families remained homeless overnight. But the new blaze forced the work to stop.
During the day Thursday, “all necessary actions will be taken to house initially the vulnerable and families in specially designated areas,” the ministry said.
“Obviously blackmailing behavior will not be tolerated,” the ministry said.
Meanwhile, a group of locals angered by the situation and the presence of the camp in their area blocked a secondary road leading to the camp in an effort to prevent access to equipment that could be used to rebuild.
Moria has long been considered a sad and embarrassing symbol of European migration policy failures.
In coming weeks, European Commission Vice President Margaritis Schinas, who is responsible for migration affairs, and EU Migration Commissioner Ylva Johansson are due to unveil a new “pact on migration,” aimed at ending years of dispute over which countries should be responsible for managing migrant arrivals and whether their partners should be obliged to help.
Since well over 1 million migrants entered Europe in 2015 — the vast majority of them refugees fleeing conflict in Syria and Iraq — the row over responsibility and solidarity has blown up into one of the EU’s biggest ever political crises.