Thousands homeless after fire guts migrant camp on Greek island

APTOPIX Greece Migrant Camp Blaze

By Angeliki Koutantou and Alkis Konstantinidis

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", one Greek migration official said.

Athens declared a state of emergency on Lesbos and sent police reinforcements to the island to help keep order.

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Fire destroys migrant camp in Greece
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Fire destroys migrant camp in Greece
Refugees and migrants run as fire burns in the Moria refugee camp on the northeastern Aegean island of Lesbos, Greece, on Wednesday, Sept. 9, 2020. Fire Service officials say a large refugee camp on the Greek island of Lesbos has been partially evacuated despite a COVID-19 lockdown after fires broke out at multiple points around the site early Wednesday. (AP Photo/Panagiotis Balaskas)
Two migrant women stand at the burned Moria refugee camp on the northeastern Aegean island of Lesbos, Greece, on Wednesday, Sept. 9, 2020. A major overnight fire swept through Greece's largest refugee camp, that had been placed under COVID-19 lockdown, leaving more than 12,000 migrants in emergency need of shelter on the island of Lesbos. (AP Photo/Petros Giannakouris)
Fire burns container houses and tents in the Moria refugee camp on the northeastern Aegean island of Lesbos, Greece, on Wednesday, Sept. 9, 2020. A fire swept through Greece's largest refugee camp that had been placed under COVID-19 lockdown, leaving more than 12,000 migrants in emergency need of shelter on the island of Lesbos. (AP Photo/Panagiotis Balaskas)
Fire burns container houses and tents in the Moria refugee camp on the northeastern Aegean island of Lesbos, Greece, on Wednesday, Sept. 9, 2020. A fire swept through Greece's largest refugee camp that had been placed under COVID-19 lockdown, leaving more than 12,000 migrants in emergency need of shelter on the island of Lesbos. (AP Photo/Panagiotis Balaskas)
A migrant looks the burned Moria refugee camp on the northeastern Aegean island of Lesbos, Greece, on Wednesday, Sept. 9, 2020. A major overnight fire swept through Greece's largest refugee camp, that had been placed under COVID-19 lockdown, leaving more than 12,000 migrants in emergency need of shelter on the island of Lesbos. (AP Photo/Petros Giannakouris)
A fire burns as a migrants walks at the Moria refugee camp on the northeastern Aegean island of Lesbos, Greece, on Wednesday, Sept. 9, 2020. A major overnight fire swept through Greece's largest refugee camp, that had been placed under COVID-19 lockdown, leaving more than 12,000 migrants in emergency need of shelter on the island of Lesbos. (AP Photo/Petros Giannakouris)
Fire burns container houses and tents in the Moria refugee camp on the northeastern Aegean island of Lesbos, Greece, on Wednesday, Sept. 9, 2020. A fire swept through Greece's largest refugee camp that had been placed under COVID-19 lockdown, leaving more than 12,000 migrants in emergency need of shelter on the island of Lesbos. (AP Photo/Panagiotis Balaskas)
A firefighter tries to extinguish a fire in the Moria refugee camp on the northeastern Aegean island of Lesbos, Greece, on Wednesday, Sept. 9, 2020. A major overnight fire swept through Greece's largest refugee camp, that had been placed under COVID-19 lockdown, leaving more than 12,000 migrants in emergency need of shelter on the island of Lesbos. (AP Photo/Petros Giannakouris)
Fire burns makeshift tents at the Moria refugee camp on the northeastern Aegean island of Lesbos, Greece, on Wednesday, Sept. 9, 2020. Fire Service officials say a large refugee camp on the Greek island of Lesbos has been partially evacuated despite a COVID-19 lockdown after fires broke out at multiple points around the site early Wednesday. (AP Photo/Panagiotis Balaskas)
Fire burns makeshift tents at the Moria refugee camp on the northeastern Aegean island of Lesbos, Greece, on Wednesday, Sept. 9, 2020. Fire Service officials say a large refugee camp on the Greek island of Lesbos has been partially evacuated despite a COVID-19 lockdown after fires broke out at multiple points around the site early Wednesday. (AP Photo/Panagiotis Balaskas)
A migrant carries a boy as they flee tear gas fired by riot police during a demonstration, following a fire in Moria camp on the island of Lesbos, Greece, September 29, 2019. REUTERS/Giorgos Moutafis TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
Refugees and migrants make their way next to destroyed shelters following a fire at the Moria camp on the island of Lesbos, Greece, September 9, 2020. REUTERS/Alkis Konstantinidis
View of destroyed shelters following a fire at the Moria camp for refugees and migrants on the island of Lesbos, Greece, September 9, 2020. REUTERS/Alkis Konstantinidis
Refugees and migrants wash next to destroyed shelters following a fire at the Moria camp on the island of Lesbos, Greece, September 9, 2020. REUTERS/Alkis Konstantinidis
Refugees and migrants gather water next to destroyed shelters following a fire at the Moria camp on the island of Lesbos, Greece, September 9, 2020. REUTERS/Alkis Konstantinidis
An aerial view of destroyed shelters following a fire at the Moria camp for refugees and migrants on the Island of Lesbos, Greece September 9, 2020. Picture taken with a drone. REUTERS/Alkis Konstantinidis TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
A woman and a girl cover their faces following a fire at the Moria camp on the island of Lesbos, Greece, September 9, 2020. REUTERS/Elias Marcou
Flames rise as a fire burns at the Moria camp for refugees and migrants, on the island of Lesbos, Greece, September 9, 2020. REUTERS/Elias Marcou
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As migrants camped out in fields nearby or sifted through smoldering debris in search of possessions, Deputy Migration Minister George Koumoutsakos said about 3,000 people affected by the fires would be temporarily housed in tents.

"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".

The cause of the fires, which broke out soon after midnight, remained unclear but authorities were investigating whether they were started deliberately after Covid-19 tests led to the isolation of a number of refugees.

"There was not just one but many fires in the camp. Migrants threw stones at firefighters trying to put out the fires," Constantine Theophilopoulos, fire brigade chief for the northern Aegean, told ERT TV.

The camp had been 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.

Government spokesman Stelios Petsas said camp residents would not be allowed to leave Lesbos due to the pandemic, though 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.

Some migrants tried to head toward the town of Mytilini early on Wednesday but police stopped them, eyewitnesses said.

Aid groups have long criticized conditions at the camp, which hosts more than four times its stated capacity, saying it is impossible to implement social distancing and basic hygiene measures there.

Mitsotakis said EU Commission Vice President Margaritis Schinas would visit Lesbos on Thursday, while the head of the European Council, Charles Michel, said the 27-nation bloc stood ready to mobilize support for Greece.

"TRAGICALLY PREDICTABLE"

The UN Refugee Agency, UNHCR, said it had received reports of tensions between people in neighboring villages and asylum seekers who were trying to reach Mytilini town.

"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, International Rescue Committee Greece Director.

The UNHCR has previously said 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 mobilize all forces to support the asylum seekers and island residents.

Mytilini mayor Stratis Kytelis said migrants would have to be moved or housed on ships to prevent the spread of Covid-19.

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)

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