Thousands of them have had to flee the camp and are now stuck in the surrounding hills and on a road outside the island’s main city Mytilene. Greek police lined the road and refused to allow them to enter the city.
Some 13,000 people were last reported to be living in and around the camp—originally built to house just 2,800. They’ve been kept in overcrowded and squalid conditions by European Union (EU) border rules designed to stop them reaching mainland Europe.
Unconfirmed reports say the fire broke out after protests over coronavirus restrictions that trapped refugees inside the camp.
Witnesses say the camp had been “completely destroyed” by the fire.
Greek authorities placed the camp under quarantine restrictions last week after one man tested positive for coronavirus. As of Tuesday of this week there were 35 confirmed cases after mass tests were carried out.
One refugee living in Lesvos told Socialist Worker the camp had been placed under forced quarantine for 14 days—and subject to lockdowns since March.
That meant refugees were trapped even more tightly in squalid and dangerous conditions.
“It made people angry, because nothing is being done to protect us,” he told Socialist Worker.
Marco Sandrone, Lesvos project coordinator for charity Doctors Without Borders, told the BBC it was difficult to say what caused the blaze.
“It’s a time bomb that finally exploded,” he said, adding that people had been kept in “inhumane conditions” at the site for years.
Conditions inside the camp mean coronavirus would be almost certain to spread rapidly among those forced the live there.
Families in the main area of the camp were made to live side by side in large converted shipping containers, sometimes with no more than three square metres each.
Many thousands more lived in tightly packed tents that stretched far beyond the camp’s official boundaries. They were provided with just one toilet and shower block, and no clean running water.
Yet rather than evacuate the camp at the start of the pandemic and accommodate people safely, the EU and Greece’s right wing government kept them trapped there.
And when Socialist Worker visited the camp in March, authorities had left it to refugees to organise and distribute coronavirus safety advice themselves.
Massih, who organised the efforts, told Socialist Worker at the time, “People are scared. Lots of people have to gather together in the line for food, or for the bus into town.”
Another refugee said, “If there’s coronavirus, I’m running. I don’t care where I go. Whether it’s in the bush, whether it’s in the streets in Mytilene. I’ll just run.”
The disaster is an horrific outcome of the EU’s border regime. Rather than allow refugees to find safety in Europe, EU governments have sought to keep trap them at the border and deport as many of them as possible.
Now tens of thousands of desperate people are left homeless on Lesvos. The only solution is to open Europe’s borders and find safe accommodation for all.
One refugee told Socialist Worker, “We want nothing more now than what we’ve been asking for a long time. Evacuate Moria. It’s not safe at all.”