One of the largest refugee camps in Greece went up in flames earlier this week. Moria camp, on the island of Lesbos, was set ablaze on Monday, leaving up to 4,000 men, women, and children, including almost 100 unaccompanied minors, displaced yet again. No casualties were reported, but dozens of tents and prefabricated housing units were destroyed in the fire.
The Moria refuge camp is under immense pressure. Refugees, mostly from Afghanistan, arrive at Moria where they must wait to be registered and processed in order to transit to mainland Greece and the rest of Europe. The camp has borne the brunt of the refugee influx into Europe and is now suffering from severe overcrowding.
As journalist Helena Smith wrote in The Guardian, “The detention centre at Moria has capacity to house no more than 3,000 but is said to be holding almost twice that number following the uptick and amid fears the EU-Turkey deal – agreed earlier this year to staunch the flows – could be on the verge of collapse.”
At the time of this writing, there are conflicting media reports over the cause of the blaze, which Greek police says was intentional. “Greek news agency ANA said the arson began because of fighting between different nationalities in the camp, while Athens-based newspaper Kathimerini said the fires were lit after rumours circulated that refugee deportations to Turkey were being planned,” Aljazeera reported. The BBC reported that nine people, from Afghanistan, Iraq, Senegal, Syria and Cameroon, were arrested on suspicion of starting the fire, which left at least 30% of the camp destroyed.
Some eyewitnesses have challenged these media reports about the causes of the fire. Afghan-American volunteer Arzo Wardak wrote on Facebook that the mayhem started when the camp’s residents began protesting over frustration with the notoriously slow EU asylum process that has stranded so many on the overcrowded Greek island. She emphasized that the protests were not a result of fights between different nationalities (namely, Afghans and Syrians).
Arzo also shared photos of the blaze and wrote about the dehumanizing conditions that led to the chaos – “Make no mistake – although I do not condone violence, I sympathize for the #refugees. They are treated like animals here. It’s dehumanizing,” she wrote in a Facebook post. Giorgos Kosmopoulos, Amnesty International’s researcher on refugee and migrant rights in Europe, seems to agree. Kosmopoulos told The Guardian:
Witnessing the charred remains of Moria camp is shocking but comes as little surprise. Holding thousands of vulnerable people on Lesbos in appalling conditions with no knowledge of their fate inevitably creates an incendiary atmosphere of fear and despondency.
The government must ensure that no one is left sleeping rough tonight and everyone is adequately protected from possible violent attacks. The European Union and Greece cannot carry on stockpiling refugees indefinitely on the Greek islands. Instead EU leaders must share responsibility fairly and they must urgently start moving refugees to the mainland and onwards across Europe.
Arzo spoke with CCTV America’s Asieh Namdar about the chaotic scene at Moria this week, describing the targeting of the European Asylum Support Office, the evacuation of unaccompanied minors, and the conduct of Greek police:
Approximately today at noon, we started to see a large group of refugees coming out of the camp, and basically, it went from 0 to 100 very quickly. Immediately there were rocks being thrown, flares going off, and the Greek police began to essentially run off, leaving a lot of vulnerable people unprotected. We were immediately urged to evacuate, and we didn’t know how serious the situation was going to become. It wasn’t long when a huge fire began to break out and, essentially, all the asylum hearing containers where the asylum hearings occur were burned down. Soon after that, the containers the Afghan refugees were living in were also burned down.
The situation is dire and thousands of refugees have been left homeless, their belongings destroyed. Donations are very much needed at this time, so that volunteers can buy basic goods and necessities for the refugees. You can send donations via Paypal to firstname.lastname@example.org or donate to this GoFundMe initiative by Neda Kadri, another volunteer at the Moria camp.