Thousands of asylum seekers have been left homeless by the fire in the overcrowded Moria camp on the Greek island of Lesvos, prompting a state of emergency.

A migrant boy rides a destroyed bicycle next to the burned debris in the Moria refugee camp on the northeastern Aegean island of Lesvos, Greece, on Wednesday, Sept 9, 2020.
A migrant boy rides a destroyed bicycle next to the burned debris in the Moria refugee camp on the northeastern Aegean island of Lesvos, Greece, on Wednesday, Sept 9, 2020. (Petros Giannakouris / AP)

A major fire has swept through a notoriously overcrowded refugee camp on the Greek island of Lesvos, burning through container housing and leaving thousands of people in need of emergency shelter.

Complicating matters, the Moria camp was under a coronavirus lockdown from an outbreak there when flames gutted much of it overnight. Authorities scrambled to find a way to house now-homeless camp residents without creating more risk of the virus spreading.

“The combination of migration and the pandemic in these conditions is creating an exceptionally demanding situation,” Alternate Migration Minister Giorgos Koumoutsakos said.

Civil protection authorities declared a four-month state of emergency for public health reasons on Lesvos.

Greek Migration Minister Notis Mitarachi said that the fire was started by asylum-seekers, but did not confirm if it was a deliberate act of arson.

"Many fires broke out in the camp overnight from Tuesday to Wednesday... the incidents in Moria began with the asylum-seekers because of the quarantine imposed" after 35 cases of coronavirus were detected in the camp, Mitarachi said, adding that no-one was seriously hurt in the blaze.

Fears of Covid-19

Koumoutsakos said it appeared the blaze broke out “as the result of the discontent” of some of Moria’s residents over lockdown measures imposed after a Somali man who returned to the camp after being granted asylum tested positive for the virus this month.

About three dozen Covid-19 cases were detected during subsequent broad testing of the camp population.

“I recognize the difficult circumstances," Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis said, expressing sorrow over the fire.

"However, nothing can become an excuse for violent reaction to health checks. And, more so, for unrest of this extent.

The prime minister added, “The situation in Moria cannot continue because it constitutes simultaneously a question of public health, humanity and national security.”

READ MORE: Greek move to extend migrant camp lockdown slammed

Dire living conditions for refugees

In dramatic night-time scenes, camp inhabitants fled fires that broke out at multiple points and were fanned by gale-force winds, gutting much of the facility and surrounding hillside olive groves. Protests also broke out involving migrants, riot police, and firefighters.

There were no reports of injuries.

Aid agencies have long warned of dire living conditions at Moria, where more than 12,500 have been living in and around a facility built to house just over 2,750. The camp has become a symbol of what critics have said is the European Union's failure to humanely handle the migration and refugee situation.

Lesvos, which lies just off the Turkish coast, was on the front line of a massive movement of refugees and migrants to Europe in 2015-2016. 

Due to the coronavirus pandemic, since March 1, all migrants reaching the island have been quarantined away from the camps.

Wildfires fanned by strong winds were also burning in two other areas on the island. 

READ MORE: Greece to remove migrant support groups from camps

EU ready to provide aid

Following the disastrous fire, Ursula von der Leyen dispatched a senior official to Greece and promised Brussels will offer support to refugees after a fire ravaged a major migrant camp.

"I am deeply sorrowed by last night's events at the Moria refugees camp in Greece," the president of the European Commission tweeted, adding that she had sent one of her vice-presidents, Margaritis Schinas, on an urgent trip back to his homeland.

"We stand ready to support, with member states. Our priority is the safety of those left without shelter."

Germany has called on EU member states to pitch in to help resettle the refugees, but so far Brussels has announced that it will only help 400 children and teenagers among the 12,000 residents.

The crisis in Moria illustrates the need to reform the EU's migration policy, a process long-stalled by divisions between member state governments.

The European Commission is due to present a proposal, which has been postponed several times, for a "new Pact on Migration and Asylum" at the end of the month. 

The EU executive is also coordinating a program of relocation to 10 EU countries of some 2,000 unaccompanied minors in Greek refugee camps.

So far about 640 children, adolescents and families of sick children have been relocated to Belgium, France, Luxembourg, Germany, Ireland, Portugal or Finland.

Source: TRTWorld and agencies