LESBOS, Greece (Reuters) – Thousands of migrants were left without shelter on Wednesday after overnight fires gutted their overcrowded camp on the Greek island of Lesbos, and authorities warned that some asylum seekers who tested positive for COVID-19 could spread the virus.
The Moria camp, which hosts more than 12,000 people, was “probably totally destroyed”, a Greek migration official said.
Authorities said they were investigating arson at the sprawling camp. Early Wednesday evening, a new fire broke out, sending those who remained on site fleeing.
A Reuters witness reported seeing a “huge” column of black smoke emerging from the camp. Live images showed people running down a road carrying children and infants, many using prams to transport possessions crammed into bin bags as a fire raged in a gully.
Before the fire, Moria was notorious for its poor living conditions. Pope Francis visited the facility in 2016, in an attempt to highlight conditions and show solidarity with refugees.
Athens declared a state of emergency on Lesbos and sent police reinforcements to the island to help keep order. Many were obstructed from reaching the island’s main town, Mytilene.
Congolese asylum seeker Julia Bukasa, 28, was among a group of 50 migrants obstructed by police, who parked buses along a main road leading to the town. She left with her two children and the clothes on her back.
“We don’t have a place to sleep. We don’t have anything to eat,” she told Reuters as she sat on the tarmac breastfeeding her 8-month-old infant.
Migration Minister Notis Mitarachi said about 2,000 people affected by the fires would be temporarily put on a ferry boat and two ships of the Greek navy. The location of the rest of the Moria population was not immediately known.
“The situation in Moria cannot go on (as it is) because it is simultaneously a public health and national security issue,” Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis said in a televised address, adding that managing migrant flows was a “European problem”.
Authorities were investigating whether Tuesday night’s fires were started deliberately after COVID-19 tests led to the isolation of 35 refugees. Authorities reported that eight of those who tested positive were located.
“There was not just one but many fires in the camp. Migrants threw stones at firefighters trying to put out the fires,” regional fire chief Constantine Theophilopoulos told ERT TV.
The camp was placed under quarantine last week after an asylum-seeker tested positive for COVID-19. As of late Monday 35 migrants had been confirmed as having the virus.
EU Home Affairs Commissioner Ylva Johansson said the European Union had agreed to fund the immediate transfer of 400 unaccompanied children and teenagers to the Greek mainland.
Aid groups have long criticised conditions at the camp, which hosts more than four times its stated capacity. Long before the COVID-19 pandemic, it was frequently singled out by rights groups for its squalid conditions of people stacked in tents, overflowing sewerage and fights over food.
The UN Refugee Agency, UNHCR, said it had received reports of tensions between people in neighbouring villages and asylum seekers.
“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 International Rescue Committee’s Greece director.
The UNHCR has previously said that nearly half of migrants now detained on the Greek islands are from Afghanistan and a further 19% are from Syria. Lesbos, which is just off the Turkish coast, was on the front line of Europe’s migrant crisis in 2015-16.
Greek authorities put Lesbos under a state of emergency for four months for public health reasons, allowing them to mobilise all forces to support the asylum seekers and island residents.
German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas described the fires as “a humanitarian disaster”, and said EU member states should be ready to take in some of the refugees from the camp.
Boris Pistorius, interior minister of the north German state of Lower Saxony and an influential figure in Germany’s Social Democratic Party (SPD), said it was time to shut the Moria camp.
“This overcrowded camp is the symbol of the failure of Europe’s asylum policy,” he said.
(Additional reporting by Elias Marcou and Giorgos Moutafis; writing by George Georgiopoulos, Renee Maltezou, Michele Kambas; Editing by Gareth Jones, Alexandra Hudson and Leslie Adler)