Moria camp on Lesbos island following a fire that started on the evening of September 8, 2020, destroying most of the camp and leaving 12,000 asylum seekers and refugees without shelter. © 2020 Private

Fires that consumed Europe’s largest refugee camp, Moria, on the Greek island of Lesbos earlier this week have left nearly 13,000 men, women, and children without shelter or access to basic services. 

Prior to the fires, security in the camp had already deteriorated and tensions were high. The refugees were crammed into overcrowded, inadequate tents, with limited access to food, water, sanitation, and health care, despite the risk of Covid-19.

Now they have nothing.

Last week, authorities confirmed the first case of Covid-19 in the camp and responded by imposing a rigid lockdown that forbid entry and exit from the camp. Since the camp’s first pandemic-related lockdown, put in place in March, authorities have not provided sufficient access to medical care, hygiene products, running water, and testing.

Covid-19 restrictions for Greece’s general population were lifted in May.

Following the fires, the Greek government initially blamed migrants for the situation and called for a plan to lock the migrants up in closed facilities on the islands. “Some [people] do not respect the country that is hosting them,” government spokesperson Stelios Petsas said on Thursday.

The cause of the fires remains under investigation.

As thousands are now left sleeping rough in the hills around Moria or on the streets, tensions between local residents, asylum seekers, and police are increasing. According to media reports, far-right thugs are gathering near Moria. Homeless asylum seekers told Human Rights Watch that riot police have used violence and tear gas against those left homeless.

The fires highlight the failure of the European Union’s “hotspot approach” on the Islands, which has led to the containment of thousands of people on the Greek islands with the aim of returning them to Turkey, from which they transited. Some EU members have voiced agreement to relocate limited numbers of asylum seekers from Lesbos, but the EU response is hardly adequate or united.

European leaders should share responsibility for the reception and support of asylum seekers. Also, Greek authorities should ensure that respect for human rights is at the center of its response to this fire. They should prevent the use of force or inflammatory language, take appropriate steps to de-escalate any risk of violence, and provide the care and protection that those affected by the fire need and are entitled to.