LESBOS, Greece – For asylum-seekers trapped in the overcrowded facility on Greece’s island of Lesbos, Moria was hell most days. But a coronavirus quarantine was the final straw.
It was just before midnight on Tuesday when eight migrants who tested positive for COVID-19 were told by authorities they would be isolated to an area just beyond the gated compound, according to witnesses and government officials.
Their relatives would also be moved into the fenced unit, about 40 small wooden houses on a hill inside Greece’s biggest migrant settlement set up to deal with any breakout of COVID-19, for further testing.
The news did not go down well and scuffles broke out in the area, surrounded by olive trees, the witnesses and officials said. The melee spread when other migrants in tents close to the isolation unit joined the fray.
Minutes later the fire broke out and tents were in flames fanned by strong winds. By morning the sprawling complex was a smouldering mass of mangled steel and burnt tents and containers. Thousands, including children, were forced to sleep on the streets around the camp.
“It was chaos,” 21-year-old student Elena Ilunga said. “I took my things from the tent and ran to the street.”
Ilunga said she initially saw flames burning forest land, but later saw five or more fires inside the camp, one of them close to her tent.
Greek authorities have launched an investigation. The government says the fire was started by asylum seekers, without providing evidence.
The Moria camp’s more than 12,000 residents, four times its capacity, were already sorely tested by living in conditions U.N. officials had decried as ‘shameful’ – packed into tents and containers with little running water and frequent fights over food.
“Life in Lesbos is hell. The situation in Moria was very bad,” said 26-year-old Mahmoud Noorzaie from Afghanistan, who lived there for more than a year. “We want to leave this island”, he said, after the fire.
It is not the first time there has been a fire at the camp. A woman was killed there last year.
Lesbos, not far from Turkey in the northeastern Aegean Sea, was the preferred entry point into the European Union in 2015-2016 for nearly a million Syrians, Afghans and Iraqis. The flows have been reduced significantly in recent years but thousands remain stuck there, pending a decision on their asylum request.
Without shelter for a second night and residents opposing government plans to set up tents in other areas, most of the asylum seekers hope they will now be moved to the mainland.
But for now, authorities have said none of them are allowed to leave Lesbos.
“It’s very bad now after the fire… but we hope that we can leave now to go to Europe,” said Congolese woman Divine, 18. “This place will give me nightmares.”