Migrants flee burning camp on Greek island of Lesbos

Fire at Greek Migrant Camp

Fire at Greek Migrant Camp

Thousands of asylum seekers were forced to flee to safety Monday when their camp on the Greek island of Lesbos was badly damaged in a fire apparently started on purpose after a scuffle between migrants.

No casualties were reported but tents at the Moria camp were “almost entirely destroyed” and containers that provide additional accommodation and health and registration services were damaged, a police source in Athens told AFP.

Shamshaid Jutt, an asylum seeker who has been staying at the camp since February, told FRANCE 24 that the fire started after “a brawl involving Syrians, Afghans and African migrants”.

The young Pakistani sent pictures showing huge flames and torched tents, with migrants fleeing the camp.

The clashes between rival nationalities initially hindered firefighters’ attempts to tackle the flames.

The Greek police source said “between 3,000 and 4,000 migrants fled the camp” to the surrounding fields, with strong winds fanning the flames and also hampering firefighters.

Police were dispatched to round up the migrants and were in the process of returning them to the camp, the officer added.

The officer said there was “no doubt” that the fire had been started on purpose by those inside.

Some 150 minors housed at the camp were evacuated to a children’s village on the island, the police source added.

Earlier on Monday, tensions rose in Moria owing to a rumour that migrants were about to be deported en masse to Turkey, state agency ANA reported.

Another two fires broke out in the olive groves near Moria but were brought under control before the third blaze erupted at the camp.

There are now more than 60,000 refugees and migrants in Greece, most of them seeking to travel to Germany and other affluent EU countries.

But they are unable to do so after several eastern European and Balkan states shut their borders earlier this year.

Overcrowding

Human rights groups have repeatedly criticised the conditions at Greek migrant camps, pointing to overcrowding and unsanitary living conditions.

The situation is particularly acute on Lesbos and other eastern Aegean islands facing Turkey, where most of the migrants land and are held for registration.

Island residents have also staged protests to demand the transportation of the migrants to the mainland.

The procedure is part of an EU-Turkey deal designed to limit the flow of refugees and migrants to Greece’s shores.

According to government data, there are more than 13,000 people on five islands in facilities built to house fewer than 8,000.

Most of them are Syrian refugees fleeing civil war, in addition to Afghans, Pakistanis and others from the Indian subcontinent and north Africa considered to be economic migrants, and as such not automatically entitled to asylum in Europe.

On Lesbos itself there are in excess of 5,600 people, more than 2,000 more than the capacity of the camps.

Brawls are common, with many desperate to avoid being returned to Turkey or their home countries after spending a small fortune and risking their lives to escape poverty and persecution.

The fire comes as UN member states Monday promised to try to improve the plight of millions of refugees around the world.

Speaking at the first UN refugee summit in New York, Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras warned that failure to confront the refugee crisis would unleash xenophobia.

“If we fail to support this, the political repercussions will be felt not only in Greece but everywhere,” he said.

“We will give space to nationalistic, xenophobic forces to show their face for the first time since the Second World War.”

More than 850,000 migrants arrived on the Greek islands last year, many after risking their lives in unseaworthy boats and dinghies.