Greece's Moria Refugee Camp, Holding 12,500, Engulfed in Flames Amid COVID-19 Unrest

A major fire tore through Greece's biggest refugee camp overnight, leaving the Moria facility on the island of Lesbos almost entirely destroyed and forcing the country's government to declare a local state of emergency.

"Not much has been left standing," Stephan Oberreit, the Head of Mission in Greece for Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), told Newsweek on Wednesday.

"Everything is down to rubble," he said. "We haven't gone through the whole camp yet, but there's very little left that can be used."

While no fatalities or major injuries have been reported, Oberreit said it was still too soon to say whether the thousands of migrants, asylum seekers and refugees, including many children, were all able to escape relatively unscathed, with some suffering injuries due to smoke exposure.

With Moria having provided shelter to more than 12,500 people, more than four times the capacity it was designed to hold, it is unclear what will happen to the thousands of people who have had to call the overcrowded camp their temporary home.

Migrants, asylum seekers and refugees at the camp were forced to quickly flee the site, with many having no choice but to leave their few possessions behind.

"People just evacuated as fast as they could, so of course a lot of belongings have gone up in smoke with the tents and the places where they were sleeping," Oberreit said.

Ticking 'time bomb'

It is still unclear how the fire began. However, local reports have suggested that the blaze may have been started in connection with unrest over a recent coronavirus outbreak and rules enforced in response to the pandemic.

Those reports are still unconfirmed, Oberreit said. However, he said that whether the fire was sparked intentionally or not, the situation at the Moria refugee camp has been a ticking "time bomb" for some time now that "has just exploded."

"This situation is horrible, but to some extent...this whole violence was an explosion that could have been predicted," he said.

For years, immigration and human rights advocates had warned that conditions at the Moria camp were not safe, with overcrowding and lack of access to adequate sanitation, medical assistance and other supports being longstanding issues at the site.

And in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, those issues have only been heightened, with the handling of a recent coronavirus outbreak at the camp causing widespread unrest.

Last week, the camp had been placed under quarantine after a migrant tested positive for COVID-19.

Since then, more cases had been identified, with between 33 to 35 confirmed coronavirus cases at the camp, according to MSF.

The positive cases came after MSF was forced by local authorities to shut down its own coronavirus clinic in Lesbos, despite warnings that closing the facility could put migrants, asylum seekers and refugees at greater risk if an outbreak were to occur at the camp.

The Greek government had recently opened a separate facility outside the Moria refugee camp, but MSF told Newsweek that the facility has only been providing coronavirus testing, with non-profit organizations on the ground left to fill the gaps in providing care and isolation facilities for those with coronavirus.

In a statement released on Wednesday, Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis expressed his regret over Tuesday's devastation. However, addressing the unrest over coronavirus measures head-on, he said: "There can be no excuse for violent reactions to health checks. Even more so, for such unrest."

"The situation in Moria cannot go on because it is also a matter of public health, humanism, and national security," he said. "The entire island is declared in a state of emergency, which means that all national resources and all national forces will come to its assistance."

As part of the declaration, the prime minister said no immigrant or refugee would be "allowed to travel."

Further, he said that there would be "some restrictions on movement and local activities" in Lesbos more generally.

"This is an extraordinary but absolutely necessary measure. And I am certain that our islanders will understand and comply," he said.

Mitsotakis said migrants, asylum seekers and refugees displaced by the fire will be "accommodated in appropriate tents.

He also said that those who have tested positive for coronavirus will be treated "and the inhabitants of Lesbos will be compensated and protected."

It is unclear who will be providing treatment for those who have tested positive for COVID-19.

In addition to outlining the steps the Greek government plans to wake in the wake of Tuesday's fire, Mitsotakis suggested that the European community should also shoulder some responsibility for the situation, asserting that "the problem of migration flows management is primarily European."

"Greece has already shouldered a burden much heavier than its fair share," he said.

"Obviously, controls at our maritime borders, which are also European borders, will be pursued with the same effectiveness that has so far drastically curtailed illegal entry," he said, adding: "I believe that a poor experience can quickly turn into an opportunity for a better reality. This is what will happen in the case of Lesbos."

"I would like to stress, though, that Greece, with the support of Europe, can and will defend security and peaceful life across its territory; its national dignity but also its humanity towards the weak,"Mitsotakis added.

Updated (09/09/2020): This article has been updated with a statement from Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis.

Moria refugee camp
A migrant stands near tents as a fire burns in the Moria refugee camp on the island of Lesbos on September 9, 2020. MANOLIS LAGOUTARIS/AFP/Getty