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Thousands Homeless As Blaze Guts Greece's Main Migrant Camp

A migrant walks among destroyed shelters following a fire at the Moria migrant camp on the island of Lesbos on September 9.
A migrant walks among destroyed shelters following a fire at the Moria migrant camp on the island of Lesbos on September 9.

Thousands of asylum-seekers were left homeless on September 9 after a fire gutted Greece's largest migrant camp on Lesbos, provoking an outpouring of sympathy from around Europe and calls for reform of the refugee system.

A second fire that evening aggravated the crisis on the island, where authorities have declared a state of emergency.

The first blaze, which began hours after 35 people tested positive for coronavirus at the Moria camp, sent thousands fleeing for safety into surrounding olive groves. No one was seriously hurt.

While European countries from Germany to Norway -- along with EU chiefs -- responded with offers of help and sympathy, Greek officials sought to blame migrants for the fire.

While stopping short of alleging arson, Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis said the blaze was down to a "violent reaction" in the camp to virus testing.

Migration Minister Notis Mitarachi said asylum seekers had started the fire because of quarantine measures imposed after the positive tests.

Most of the migrants were sitting on the roadside between the camp and the port of Mytilene late on September 9.

"What are we going to do now? Where can we go?" said Mahmout, an Afghan, as his compatriot Aisha searched for two of her children.

"We lost everything" in the fire, said Cornille Ndama, a Congolese migrant.

"I have nothing, nothing with me, and yet we don't know where we are going to sleep," she added.

Of 3,500 migrants made homeless, the most vulnerable would spend the night on a ferry at a nearby port, with two Greek navy vessels providing additional sleeping births on September 10, said Mitarachi.

'High Time' For Unity

The second fire, late on September 9, broke out in part of the camp that had not been badly damaged. "Moria finished!" shouted some migrants as they headed down the road toward Mytilene.

Officials have declared a four-month emergency and flown in riot police after reports that security forces had blocked migrants from reaching Mytilene.

Since becoming one of the main gateways into Europe for migrants and asylum-seekers in 2015, Greece has built dozens of detention centers on its islands, but people often face long waits in the camps and overcrowding is common.

The fire at Moria, which houses more than 12,000 people while designed for just 2,800, raised questions about Europe's asylum system, with Germany leading the way in calling for an overhaul.

"We urgently need a common refugee intake program among as many EU countries as possible and finally a common asylum and migration policy for the EU," said Europe Minister Michael Roth.

On the evening of September 9, several thousand people in cities across Germany staged rallies calling for their country to take in migrants from the Moria camp.

People are supposed to apply for asylum in the first EU country they arrive in before being relocated if they are successful, but the system has been widely derided as some countries barely accept any refugees and others like Greece and Italy bear the brunt.

On September 9, the International Rescue Committee was among groups arguing it was "high time" for other EU countries to help Greece relocate migrants. The Council of Europe blamed a lack of solidarity for the catastrophe.

Norway has offered to take 50 Syrians from Moria even though Greece and the EU have promised to pay for 400 unaccompanied youngsters to be transported to the mainland.

EU chief Ursula von der Leyen expressed her sympathies, adding: "Our priority is the safety of those left without shelter."

'Titanic' Task

The first fire destroyed the official part of the camp, which housed roughly 4,000 people, ministers said. Another 8,000 people lived in tents and makeshift shelters around its perimeter, many of which were also badly damaged.

Officials have been trying for months to build a new camp on Lesbos to replace Moria but locals have resisted, clashing with riot police earlier this year to prevent construction from going ahead.

Moria registered its first infection only last week and testing revealed 35 more cases on September 8.

Government spokesman Stelios Petsas warned that it would be a "titanic" task to shelter the homeless and track down those infected.

The government has in recent months moved thousands of refugees from Lesbos and other islands to the mainland.

But many refugees have been unable to find places to live or jobs after leaving the camps, and the government has recently scaled back housing and cash benefits.