Greece: Fires destroy Europe’s largest refugee camp

Some 12,000 men, women, and children urgently need a safe place to stay

Greece 2020 © MSF
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Last night, September 8, several fires erupted in Moria refugee camp on the Greek island of Lesbos, almost entirely burning down Europe’s largest camp for displaced people and forcing some 12,000 men, women, and children to evacuate the site with no safe place to stay. The overcrowded camp was effectively an island prison for people seeking security in Europe, many having fled conflict and persecution.

Our teams saw the fire spread across Moria and rage all night long. We saw an exodus of people ... children scared and parents in shock.

Marco Sandrone, MSF field coordinator

There are no reports of injuries or fatalities. The fire also destroyed a COVID-19 medical facility and forced the interruption of all medical services for refugees, including at the pediatric clinic run by Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF).

“Our teams saw the fire spread across Moria and rage all night long. The whole place was engulfed in flames. We saw an exodus of people from a burning hell with no direction. Children scared and parents in shock. We are working now to address the immediate needs,” said Marco Sandrone, MSF field coordinator in Lesbos.

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MSF has repeatedly warned of the dangers in Moria camp, as almost five years of trapping people in these conditions can only lead to despair and tensions. “There is no question as to the cause of this fire: the years-long orchestration of human suffering and violence produced by European and Greek migration policies are to blame,” said Aurélie Ponthieu, MSF advisor on displacement.

The fact that this incident occurred days after the first COVID-19 cases were confirmed at the camp comes as no surprise. With the pandemic and increasing restrictions on people who have been locked down for almost five months, the situation had become unbearable.

“As a medical humanitarian organization, MSF knows that if you do not have the trust and the understanding of your population you can’t control an outbreak,” said Sandrone. “How can state authorities keep 12,000 people trapped in inhumane conditions, tell them that they have to respect physical distancing in a small space, that they have to wait on line even to receive a bit of food every day, and think that they will trust you when you implement COVID restrictions?”

MSF has been warning about inhumane conditions in the camp for years and most recently has been calling on Greek health and migration authorities to set up an adequate COVID-19 response plan for Moria. The Greek authorities failed to put such a response in place. The European Union and its member states rejected responsibility and did close to nothing to resolve this situation. The ashes of Moria are a testament to that neglect and failure.

These men, women, and children need a safe space now. MSF calls on Greek authorities to immediately adopt an emergency response plan and to evacuate all these people to a safe place on the mainland or to other European countries. MSF is ready to provide the support that is needed during an emergency response. 

Fire tears through Moria refugee camp
The burned shells of structures and shelters in Moria refugee camp on the Greek island of Lesbos.
Greece 2020 © MSF