Reportage. ‘The fire increased in intensity, and she was swallowed up by the flames.’ It’s unclear what started the fire, but the inhumane conditions certainly led to the deaths. Europe’s negligence has left tens of thousands stranded on the Greek islands.

After woman and child die in Lesbos fire, police put down protest with tear gas

A pillar of black smoke is rising from a part of the Moria camp—a literal hell on earth. The actual causes for the blaze are still unknown: some say it was an electrical short circuit, while sources from the local police are claiming that it was started by some migrants at different locations simultaneously, inside and outside the camp. In this, as in many other things, we have no certainties. The precarious conditions of the entire institutional structure here could be the cause behind this tragedy. It has been confirmed that a woman and a child have lost their lives in the fire, while sources from the camp are claiming they saw more bodies being carried away.

It was a tragedy waiting to happen, given the overcrowding of the camp, which should accommodate 3,000 people, but instead is home to more than 10,000. During the dramatic moments of the fire, the migrants themselves tried to extinguish the blaze and rescue a woman trapped inside a shipping container. Unfortunately, there was nothing they could do.

“I tried to help a woman get out of a container,” says Muhammet, who is from Syria. “I threw some water on her face from a bottle, then I wrapped her in a blanket and I began to shout, but she was completely paralyzed, in a state of shock. Then, the fire increased in intensity, and she was swallowed up by the flames.”

Everything turned to ashes in just seconds. Many migrants are accusing the delayed arrival of the firefighters: “Nobody helped us,” says Jacob. They felt abandoned once more.

After the fire, a violent protest broke out among the migrants against the terrible and inhuman conditions in which they are forced to live, which led to violent clashes with the police.

The authorities used tear gas, forcing most of the camp’s population to flee. Many migrants were wounded: “After the fire, I heard at least three explosions,” Jacob recounts. “The police also raided the ‘Jungle,’”— the informal tent settlement set up outside the camp among the olive trees, where around 3,000 people live—“and beat up many people, firing tear gas even where there were women and children.” The Doctors Without Borders pediatric clinic was kept open on Sunday to assist those with respiratory problems caused by the tear gas and by the smoke from the fire, as well as those wounded in the clashes with police.

“We are shocked,” said Marco Sandrone, the head of DWB Italy’s project on the island, adding that “this is a horrible tragedy which is a direct result of the brutal policies that are continuing to trap all these migrants in Lesbos. Every European leader is responsible for this inhuman situation that these migrants are living in, here in Lesbos and on other Greek islands. Now, they have a responsibility to avoid even more deaths and suffering.” He called for the immediate evacuation of the people and an end to the Turkey-EU pact.

The agreement between Turkey and the EU signed in 2016 calls for a Turkish blockade of migratory flows towards Europe via sea and land, and for not allowing migrants who have reached the Greek islands to leave them.

Now, President Erdogan is threatening to withdraw from the deal if he doesn’t get more EU funds to create a buffer zone between Turkey and Syria. As a result, Moria remains a kind of open-air prison, where the migrants are de facto detainees. Although they are allowed to move on the island, they are forced to live in degrading conditions, at the limit of human endurance.

This drama is playing out while the Greek government is having meetings to discuss the new bill to change the asylum procedures, which also has the goal of moving around 10,000 migrants from the islands to the mainland. However, this only applies to those who have been found eligible for refugee status, managing to avoid the fate of expulsion back to Turkey as required by the 2016 agreement. The Citizens’ Protection Minister, Michalis Chrysochoidis, called for this measure in a recent meeting with 13 regional governors, aiming to relieve the pressure on islands like Lesbos and Samos, which are collapsing under the increasing numbers of migrants arriving by sea. There are around 24,000 migrants stuck on the Greek islands, of which about 13,000 in Lesbos alone. Throughout Greece, there are around 70,000 migrants in total, mostly from Afghanistan, Syria and Iraq.

As the Greek press has revealed, these high numbers may serve as the push for Athens to propose a new initiative at the meeting of the EU Interior Ministers scheduled for Oct. 8 in Luxembourg, similar to the one agreed between Italy, Malta, France and Germany for the relocation of migrants.

Subscribe to our newsletter

Your weekly briefing of progressive news.

You have Successfully Subscribed!