Lesbos refugee camp fire forces thousands to evacuate

The Greek prime minister has convened an urgent meeting of cabinet ministers after a devastating fire gutted the overcrowded Moria migrant facility on Lesbos, leaving 13,000 people without shelter.

As riot police were dispatched from Athens to the island, the regional governor for the north Aegean, Kostas Mountzouris, called for a state of emergency to be declared, saying the situation was out of control.

At least 35 of the refugees forced to flee the camp have tested positive for Covid-19 although authorities said the number may well be larger as tracing had not been completed by the time the fire broke out overnight.

“It’s an atomic bomb,” said Michalis Frantzeskos, the island’s deputy mayor in charge of citizens’ protection. “People have headed to the mountains, they’re [scattered] everywhere.”

Kyriakos Mitsotakis chaired the unscheduled meeting amid reports of local police preventing refugees from entering Mytilene, the island’s main port and home to most of its 85,000 population.On Wednesday morning, fires were still burning in some of the camp’s containers, with the state TV channel, ERT, broadcasting footage of mangled wreckage, and men, women and children foraging for belongings. The station showed thousands of people gathered under police guard along the main road connecting Mytilene with the hilltop holding centre.

The facility, which had been under Covid-19 lockdown, was more than four times over capacity when the fire broke out. It has long been criticised by aid groups and doctors for its appalling living conditions.

Although no injuries were reported, officials spoke of “complete destruction”.

“The camp has been entirely burned and can no longer be used,” said Moutzouris. “People are in the street, in the fields. We are talking about thousands of people.”

It remained unclear what had caused the fire. The Greek government spokesman, Stelios Petsas, said all eventualities were being studied and alluded to arson.

The north Aegean fire brigade chief told ERT firefighters had met stiff resistance as they tried to douse the flames, with some refugees hurling rocks and stones at them. “The fire clearly broke out on multiple fronts,” Theophilos Kanstatas said. “When we tried to extinguish it we met resistance.”

Top officials had rushed to the island to coordinate relief efforts, with the EU also offering aid.The bloc’s commissioner for home affairs said Brussels would fund the transfer to the Greek mainland of 400 unaccompanied minors accommodated in the camp.

Lesbos, long on the frontline of the refugee crisis, has been a magnet for men, women and children moving westward from Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq, Pakistan and increasingly western Africa. Although numbers have dropped significantly since their height in 2015, rickety boats carrying desperate men, women and children still arrive from Turkey almost daily, according to local police.

Officials said it was urgent tents were erected to host the 13,000 refugees, although it remained unclear where authorities would choose to erect a makeshift camp in the coming days.

“We are taking every measure possible to protect them but there are still small fires burning in the camp and we must also deal with that,” Manos Logothetis, the migration ministry’s general secretary, told the Guardian from Lesbos. “We’ve got tents here and are bringing in others from surrounding isles but right now we are unsure where we will be placing them.”