Fires were burning both inside and outside the overcrowded Moria camp on the Greek island of Lesbos in the early hours of Wednesday, forcing hundreds of refugees and asylum seekers to flee, according to the fire service.
The cause of the blaze was not immediately clear, but Reuters witnesses said people were seen leaving the camp, carrying their luggage in their hands, and police said they were being taken to safety.
Nearly the entire camp, the largest in Greece, was on fire, including in an olive grove outside the walls of the main compound where many people sleep in tents, according to an AFP photographer.
At least 28 firemen with 9 engines, aided by volunteers, were battling the flames.
Stand by Me Lesvos, a refugee support group, said on Twitter it had received reports that some of the island’s Greek residents prevented fleeing asylum seekers from heading into a nearby village.
“The whole camp is on fire. Everything is burning. People are escaping. Their homes in Moria are gone,” the organisation said.
People escaping out of #Moria.
We pray that these people will have had enough trauma for tonight as we simultaneously are getting reports of some locals attacking and blocking people’s passage into the nearby village. https://t.co/CvtHGQ2zMt | #StandingTogetherForLesvos pic.twitter.com/ADoOMw2wcu
— Stand by Me Lesvos (@standbymelesvos) September 8, 2020
The camp is home to some 13,000 people – more than four times its stated capacity. Aid groups have criticised its cramped and unsanitary living conditions, which also make social distancing and basic hygiene measures impossible to implement.
Greek news agency ANA said the fires started after a revolt by people who were to be placed in isolation after testing positive for coronavirus or coming into close contact with an infected patient.
Firefighters said earlier there were “scattered fires” around and inside the camp.
The camp has seen a spike in coronavirus infections since reporting its first case last Wednesday, when it was placed in lockdown, with 35 confirmed cases so far.
Lesbos, which lies just off the Turkish coast, was on the front line of a large movement of refugees and asylum seekers to Europe five years ago. Wildfires fanned by strong winds were also burning in two other areas of the island.