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Lesbos Migrant Camp in Greece Up In Flames, 12,000+ People left Homeless

Over 12,000 migrants were left homeless on Wednesday after a huge fire ravaged the overcrowded Moria camp on the Greek Island of Lesbos. The Moria camp was “probably totally destroyed”, one Greek Migration Officer said.

Overcrowded Refugee Camp Up in Flames, Over 12,000 displaced

Officials allege that the fires began because of protests that broke out against the imposition of a lockdown in the camp after 35 confirmed cases were linked to the site earlier this week. Live videos show huge columns of black smoke from orange flames, and women and children running from the camp.

According to the United Nations Refugee Agency, the refugee camp was home to an estimated 13,000 people, more than six times its maximum capacity of 2,200 people. More than 4,000 children, including 407 unaccompanied minors, lived in the camp. While initial reports suggested there were no fatalities, the International Organization for Migration (IOM) said that over 12,600 migrants and refugees have been displaced and 80 per cent of the facility - designed to house only around 3,000 - was destroyed.

According to news reports, riot police were dispatched from Athens to the island to cordon off roads leading from the camp to prevent fleeing migrants from entering nearby towns, to mitigate any spread of COVID-19.

The Greek government has placed the eastern Aegean island in a state of emergency for four days, allowing it to mobilize all forces to support the island and asylum seekers. In a televised statement, Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis declared a state of emergency on the island, condemning the rioters who started the fires.

"I recognize the difficult conditions. However, nothing can become an alibi for violent reactions to health checks. And, much more, for riots of this magnitude," said Mitsotakis. "The situation in Moria cannot continue because it is a matter of public health, humanity and national security at the same time.”

It remains unclear what had caused the fire. However, the Greek government spokesman, Stelios Petsas, said all eventualities were being studied and alluded to arson. Michalis Fratzeskos, deputy mayor for civil protection, told ERT the blaze was "premeditated". Migrant tents had been empty, he said, and arsonists had "taken advantage of strong winds".

Stand By Me Lesvos, a refugee support group tweeted that it had received reports that some of the island's Greek residents prevented fleeing asylum seekers from heading into a nearby village.

However, to UNHCR officials, this comes as no surprise as they had already warned the government of how the overcrowded camp was simply a disaster waiting to happen. In fact, in February, the UNHCR called for an urgent evacuation of families and sick people from the Moria camp on Lesbos after the camp’s population rose to 20,000 to accommodate the huge influx of Refugees. A majority of families came from Afghanistan and Syria, but also from Iraq, Palestine, Somalia, the DRC, and elsewhere.

UNHCR spokesperson Andrej Mahecic had warned them, saying, “More than 36,000 asylum seekers are now staying in reception centres across five islands which were originally designed for 5,400 people. We are seriously concerned about the limited access to health services at the reception centres which is aggravated by the difficult living conditions.”

The International Office of Migration, UN refugee agency (UNHCR), the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) and the European Union’s Asylum Support Office, are working closely with the Greek Government to organize the relocation of unaccompanied children and other vulnerable asylum seekers to the EU Member States with the dual purpose of supporting vulnerable groups, and enhancing solidarity among States, said IOM.

Meanwhile, UNHCR had immediately deployed staff on the ground and offered assistance to Greece, amidst particular concern for asylum seekers, especially children, pregnant women, elderly people and other vulnerable populations.

The UN agency has asked that all those who were previously staying at the camp, which was under quarantine as some 35 people had tested positive with COVID-19, to “restrict their movements” and stay nearby, while a temporary shelter solution is being sought.

Meanwhile, with its partners, UNICEF has transformed its Tapuat Child and Family Support Hub near the Moria camp, into an emergency shelter to temporarily accommodate the most vulnerable, including those with critical needs, until alternatives are identified. More than 150 unaccompanied children are now sheltering there.

“Last night’s events serve as a strong reminder of the urgent need for a child-sensitive, humane EU Pact on Migration that respects children’s rights to adequate protection and services across Europe”, said UNICEF.
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