Fire Destroys Most of Europe’s Largest Refugee Camp, on Greek Island of Lesbos

Campaigners have long warned that the overcrowded conditions at the impoverished camp might lead to catastrophe.

Video
Video player loading
Vast stretches of the camp and an adjacent site were destroyed in the fire.CreditCredit...Panagiotis Balaskas/Associated Press

Europe’s largest refugee camp, on the Greek island of Lesbos, has long been a desperate makeshift home for thousands of refugees and migrants who have risked everything to flee war and economic hardship for a better life.

They lived in cramped tents with limited access to toilets, showers and health care. For years, rights groups warned that these squalid conditions would sooner or later prompt a humanitarian disaster.

On Tuesday night, that disaster came. A fast-moving fire destroyed much of the camp, leaving most of its 12,000 residents homeless. By Wednesday, a process of soul-searching had begun among many Europeans, for whom the Moria camp, and the neglect of its residents, has long been synonymous with the continent’s increasingly unsympathetic approach to refugees.

No deaths were initially reported. But vast stretches of the camp and an adjacent spillover site were destroyed in the fire, leaving only a medical facility and small clusters of tents untouched.

Since 2015, Moria has filled with an influx of migrants — now mostly Afghan refugees — seeking to reach northern Europe. It is a bleak tent camp designed for 3,000 people that at times has swollen to more than 20,000 after Europe started blocking their paths in 2016.

Ursula von der Leyen, president of the European Union’s executive arm, the European Commission, said she felt “deep sorrow” about the fire, while the governor of a region in western Germany, Armin Laschet, said he was willing to admit up to 1,000 refugees from the camp as part of a wider European resettlement program that has yet to be developed.

Some residents of the camp managed to escape to the island’s main town of Mytilene, while others were able to remain in their tents in small areas of the camp that were unaffected by the blaze. But many were being held nearby on Wednesday morning while the Greek authorities decided where to house them.

Aid workers said that the fire at Moria, which is named after a nearby village, began shortly after 10 p.m. on Tuesday following protests by residents over recent coronavirus restrictions, and that it spread quickly because of high winds and the explosion of gas canisters.

Video
Video player loading
A fast-moving fire destroyed much of the camp, leaving most of its 12,000 residents homeless.CreditCredit...Elias Marcou/Reuters

Aid workers, activists and officials said a series of fires were started intentionally by a group of camp residents who were furious at being forced to quarantine after at least 35 people tested positive for coronavirus at the camp.

A new, smaller fire broke out on Wednesday evening in one of the few areas that had survived the first blaze, displacing roughly 1,000 more people, aid workers said.

Notis Mitarachi, the Greek migration minister, said during a Wednesday evening news conference that those responsible for the fires would not go unpunished.

The fire quickly destroyed much of the camp’s formal enclosure, including a facility for 400 unaccompanied children and much of its water infrastructure, before spreading to a spillover site in olive groves close to the camp’s fence. Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis said a state of emergency had been declared for all of Lesbos and noted that all unaccompanied minors would be transferred off the island.

Videos provided to The New York Times by aid workers at the camp showed residents hurrying from Moria in droves in the early hours of Wednesday morning. They carried their belongings in bags slung over their shoulders, some of them pushing infants in strollers, and others draped in blankets.

“It was absolute chaos,” said Jonathan Turner, an aid worker who been building water infrastructure in the camp on behalf of Watershed Foundation and Choose Love. “There were just so many people trying to move, trying to escape.”

By sunrise, footage showed that much of the camp’s formal infrastructure had collapsed, with many of the tents burned. Several metal portable cabins were blackened with soot, their walls having buckled in the heat. Trees on the nearby slopes had been charred.

Video
Video player loading
Video shows a fire that broke out at a migrant camp on the Greek island of Lesbos.CreditCredit...Alkis Konstantinidis/Reuters

Thousands of displaced residents were left with nowhere to go, with many simply sitting down a few hundred meters from the camp.

“There are thousands of people just sitting on the main road,” said Nick Powell, an Australian aid worker who witnessed the fire and its aftermath, and who was helping to provide food to the survivors on Wednesday.

It is still unclear where they will be taken. George Koumoutsakos, Greece’s deputy migration minister, said during a Wednesday news conference that efforts were being made to rehouse around 3,000 people in new tents.

The priority was to rehouse the most vulnerable, with some 400 unaccompanied minors being moved to “safe zones” and hotels, he said.

Moria was started in 2015, when more than 850,000 war refugees and migrants made their way by boat from Turkey to nearby Greek islands like Lesbos, hoping to travel farther north. A further 300,000 have arrived in the years since.

Today on ‘The Daily’: The Forgotten Refugee Crisis in Europe

Conditions at the Moria center on the island of Lesbos were already dire. This year, the coronavirus compounded the misery, and then fires razed the squalid camp, leaving thousands homeless.
bars
0:00/30:33
-30:33

transcript

Today on ‘The Daily’: The Forgotten Refugee Crisis in Europe

Hosted by Megan Twohey; produced by Daniel Guillemette, Stella Tan, Neena Pathak and Alexandra Leigh Young; and edited by M.J. Davis Lin and Lisa Chow

Conditions at the Moria center on the island of Lesbos were already dire. This year, the coronavirus compounded the misery, and then fires razed the squalid camp, leaving thousands homeless.

[street noise]

matina stevis-gridneff

Kalispera. Kalispera.

[interposing voices]

matina stevis-gridneff

There are hundreds, if not thousands, of asylum seekers sleeping rough. They’ve pitched up tents with bamboo and other dried leaves. There are a lot of children here. I can see a tiny, tiny baby, I think no older than three months that’s crying.

Some of the people here have small backpacks with whatever belongings they were able to rescue. Some are looking at their asylum papers, which are actually probably the most valuable thing they own.

[street noise]

matina stevis-gridneff

And now I think I’m entering the segment of this street that’s occupied by Afghans. I can see a mom helping her little girl pee and pouring some water on her.

And this is really, really grim.

megan twohey

From The New York Times, I’m Megan Twohey. This is “The Daily.” Today: Thousands of refugees are on the streets in Greece after a massive fire burned down their camp. My colleague, Matina Stevis-Gridneff, on how they ended up there in the first place. It’s Thursday, September 17.

Matina, tell me about Moria.

matina stevis-gridneff

Moria is a place in Greece, a vast, sprawling space in the hills of Lesbos, which is a really picturesque island in the Northeastern Aegean. Where over the years, among the olive groves, this sort of slum city of huts and tents and containers has sprung up. Where thousands and thousands of asylum seekers, coming from countries of conflict or abject poverty, or people facing other kinds of persecution in their homelands — in the Middle East, in Africa, or elsewhere — travel, go through Turkey, get on boats and end up on this island.

megan twohey

And how exactly did this happen? How did so many people end up in one place?

matina stevis-gridneff

So in order to answer that question, we need to go back to the summer of 2015 and examine what happened then. That was the height of the so-called European refugee crisis.

[music]

It was a moment when the Syrian conflict was really flaring up.

archived recording 1

Hundreds of thousands of people, fleeing violence and terror in places like Syria and Iraq.

archived recording 2

Some have come from other parts of the world and are looking for better economic opportunities in Europe.

matina stevis-gridneff

People were making their way out of Syria and other parts of the Middle East, and transiting through Turkey to the Greek islands.

archived recording 1

And in Greece, desperate people are putting their lives at risk on rubber dinghies.

archived recording 2

These people, families have just risked their lives, everything they own, everybody they love, to cross this narrow strait here to arrive here in Greece.

archived recording 3

More than 50 bodies of refugees recovered from the sea after failed attempts to get to Europe over the last three days. Once again, the Greek island of Lesbos saw the most of the misery.

matina stevis-gridneff

There were up to 3, 4,000 people arriving every day on these tiny, tiny islands.

megan twohey

Right. I remember. There was that photo of the three-year-old Syrian boy who drowned in the Mediterranean.

matina stevis-gridneff

That photo was so important. It was such a turning point in the development of the early stage of the refugee crisis. Because it caused this moral pressure on richer, northern European countries — in particular, Germany — to open their doors to these people. And that’s exactly what happened.

archived recording 1

German Chancellor Angela Merkel says her country will not limit the number of refugees it takes in. She’s calling for other E.U. members to do the same.

archived recording 2

Germans gathered at the station to cheer and clap as refugees went through a temporary processing center set up outside.

matina stevis-gridneff

By 2016, about one million Syrian refugees had left the Greek islands, transited through Europe, and reached safe haven and a new life in Germany.

megan twohey

And how does Moria fit into these efforts?

matina stevis-gridneff

At the beginning of the crisis, the authorities thought they had to do something that normally happens when you have a humanitarian disaster of this scale flare up. They thought, we will create some basic facilities on this island, which is the first port of entry for these thousands and thousands of people. And what we’ll do is we’ll try and offer them some basic things like shelter and food. And we will register their asylum applications. And hopefully, the plan was back then, these people will then quickly transit through an asylum system to new homes around Europe.

megan twohey

And what is the attitude of the Greeks? What is their response to all of these people passing through?

matina stevis-gridneff

So one of the really heartwarming things about this was seeing Greeks step up and the people of Lesbos just really opening their arms and their hearts to the refugees who were overwhelming their island. Remember, Greece had just been through one of the worst financial crises in modern history. People were poor. They were devastated and exhausted themselves. But still, they offered everything they could. And then, in early 2016, something happens that makes things worse.

megan twohey

What is that? What happens?

matina stevis-gridneff

Well, the European Union sees a situation of dozens of thousands of asylum seekers in Greece, just as even more are continuing to arrive on Lesbos.

archived recording 1

Well, as the refugees move North through the European Union, they’re enduring terrible conditions and resistance.

archived recording 2

Germany has just registered its one millionth refugee. [CROWD CHANTING] And these people want to send them home.

archived recording 3

Germany, which had opened its doors, now appears to be closing them.

matina stevis-gridneff

And Germany, as well as other countries, they don’t want to take more people in. So they start to close their borders. And collectively, they’re looking for a way to just lessen the flow of refugees and asylum seekers into Europe. And what they do is they strike a deal with a country that these people are arriving through, which is Turkey.

archived recording

It’s a deal that will affect the lives of hundreds of thousands of stranded refugees and migrants, a game changer in a crisis that’s shaken the very foundations of the European Union.

matina stevis-gridneff

This deal is struck in April 2016. And —

archived recording 1

Under the plan, starting at midnight on Sunday, all migrants who reach Greece will be sent back to Turkey if their asylum claim is rejected.

archived recording 2

In return, Turkey gets political and financial rewards.

matina stevis-gridneff

Basically, what it is is that Europe hands a few billion dollars to Turkey to help them fund facilities and services for the more than three million refugees they’re hosting, to stay there instead of coming to Greece and moving on into Europe. And Turkey starts to slow down this flow of migrants into Greece. But it doesn’t entirely stop. People still do cross over to Greece and end up in Moria. So they’re just stuck. And by the beginning of 2020, it already looks like something is going to go terribly wrong.

archived recording

President Erdogan says the E.U.‘s aid has been slow to come. But Angela Merkel says more than three billion euros have been paid out. And she expects Erdogan to uphold the deal.

matina stevis-gridneff

Tensions between Greece and Turkey and the European Union and Turkey begin rising. And Turkey, at the very end of February 2020, says we’ve had enough. We’re opening our borders. If you’re a refugee, if you’re a migrant, please go to Europe. Our doors are wide open.

megan twohey

Wow.

matina stevis-gridneff

And not only that, but it actually helps people get to the border with Greece. It buses thousands of people from Istanbul and other parts of the country into Greece. And the people on Lesbos are looking at this situation unfolding. And they’re thinking, Turkey is going to start releasing boats full of more asylum seekers who will come here. And our island is already overwhelmed. By the time I visited Lesbos in March this year, the camp had swelled to more than 20,000 people.

megan twohey

And how are things for the migrants in the camp? I mean, that sounds like an absolutely chaotic, difficult combination of forces that these migrants are dealing with on the island.

matina stevis-gridneff

Well, of course, they’re extremely frustrated and living in these squalid conditions. But they don’t realize it’s actually about to get worse. Because Covid hits. The first case of Covid-19 is detected in Moria. And in response, the Greek authorities put the whole camp on lockdown. And that sets off a lot of anger and a lot of fear in an already really tense environment. And then it all comes to a head. A small group of migrants set fire to the camp. And everything burns to the ground.

megan twohey

We’ll be right back.

archived recording 1

[SIRENS BLARING]

archived recording 2

[COMMOTION]

archived recording 3

What is the situation in Lesbos tonight?

archived recording 4

It’s very, very, very, very, very, very difficult. They see the smoke. The situation is very bad.

archived recording 5

A massive fire has almost completely destroyed Greece’s largest refugee camp on the island of Lesbos.

archived recording 6

[FLAMES BLAZING]

megan twohey

Matina, what happened with this fire?

matina stevis-gridneff

It was scenes of complete chaos.

archived recording 1

The fire start to come on this side. Look, even on the floor. There is little fire. Ah! Ah! Come back!

archived recording 2

[PEOPLE YELLING]

archived recording 3

Come back! Come back!

matina stevis-gridneff

Of course, flames engulfing this really combustible set of materials — you know, you have tarpaulin, gas canisters at nearly every tent used for cooking and sometimes heating. And these thousands of people just grabbing everything they could and running out of the camp.

And it went on for two nights as the first big blaze on the first night burned down the majority of the camp, and then additional fires the second night finished it.

archived recording

My house is finished. House fire is many — all finished. [FLAMES BLAZING]

megan twohey

And what caused this fire?

matina stevis-gridneff

Based on testimonies, both from Greek officials but also other asylum seekers and aid workers, what happened was that a small group of irate, angry asylum seekers who were being asked to quarantine themselves because members of their family had tested positive for Covid, they started rioting. And according to these witnesses, this is how the fire started.

megan twohey

And why would this group of migrants set fire to their own camp?

matina stevis-gridneff

People were just extremely upset. Not only about the overall poor conditions of the camp, but because they felt that Covid was being used to hurt them even more. The authorities had tried to prepare some plans for a Covid response at the camp. But at the end, not much seemed to really be there.

So when the outbreak started growing in the camp, and 35 people were tested positive for Covid, and many more people were told they have to quarantine, not in an isolation clinics, but in some container, people were very angry. And so after the fire has decimated Moria, I go to Lesbos to see what’s happened.

[crowd commotion]

matina stevis-gridneff

So we’ve just arrived at one of the spots where asylum seekers who have been displaced by this fire have gathered.

They’re being blocked by the riot police from going further into town. There are people coughing. There are people who have clearly slept here for the last three nights and are just waiting to see where they’re going to go next.

matina stevis-gridneff

And it was just thousands and thousands of people on the street. I remember quite immediately seeing a mother with a very small baby on the street. They had put down a few blankets that they were using as mattresses. And that’s where they had spent the night before. And that’s where they were going to spend the night after.

matina stevis-gridneff

And others are trying to clean their tiny piece of street that they’re sleeping on with makeshift brooms.

crowd commotion

matina stevis-gridneff

Yes.

car honking

matina stevis-gridneff

So a woman on a scooter just drove past and screamed, “filthy dogs” at the asylum seekers.

How are you?

speaker

I’m fine, thank you.

matina stevis-gridneff

You’re OK? What’s your name?

speaker

My name is [INAUDIBLE].

matina stevis-gridneff

What was the last name?

speaker

[INAUDIBLE].

matina stevis-gridneff

And I stopped in front of one family. It was a dad, actually, with his little girl and —

speaker

One baby, 13 months.

matina stevis-gridneff

Uh huh. It’s a tiny little girl who’s walking very well.

speaker

Thank you.

matina stevis-gridneff

Well done. Oh, you’re beautiful.

speaker

Thank you.

matina stevis-gridneff

I love her shoes. Very nice shoes.

matina stevis-gridneff

And he said to me, when the fire started I just grabbed her and took my wife and we just ran.

matina stevis-gridneff

I see. And you just ran?

speaker

Yes, yes. Running fast, baby, my wife, running in the outside, away from area.

matina stevis-gridneff

And what do you think will happen now?

matina stevis-gridneff

And within 10 minutes, our tent was burned. The fire was everywhere.

speaker

We want just freedom.

matina stevis-gridneff

Where do you want to go?

speaker

I don’t want a new camp. I don’t want Moria now.

matina stevis-gridneff

You don’t want —

speaker

I just want freedom.

matina stevis-gridneff

And at that point, this family, with some of their relatives and other people they knew, they had been sleeping on that road for four nights. But he tells me that he’s been in Moria for a year. And he’d actually rather stay on the streets.

crowd talking and children screaming

matina stevis-gridneff

Good luck.

speaker

Thank you.

matina stevis-gridneff

Thanks for talking to me.

speaker

Glad to meet you.

matina stevis-gridneff

And you.

speaker

Goodbye.

matina stevis-gridneff

Take care.

megan twohey

What does that mean when he says he wants to sleep on the street? Why would he want that?

matina stevis-gridneff

The Greek authorities had been feverishly putting together a temporary tented shelter for these people so they wouldn’t have to sleep on the street. But people were so suspicious, so angry, so traumatized by living in Moria and by the fire that they just didn’t want to go to the new camp. This man told me, I am not going to this new camp. And this was something I heard over and over again.

speaker

From Turkey?

iram

Yeah.

speaker

And your English is not bad, huh?

matina stevis-gridneff

Very good English.

interposing voices

matina stevis-gridneff

What’s your name?

iram

My name is Iram (ph).

speaker

Iram?

matina stevis-gridneff

Iram.

iram

Yeah.

matina stevis-gridneff

I remember this 13-year-old girl —

matina stevis-gridneff

Ayyubi? (ph)

iram

Yeah.

matina stevis-gridneff

— who was carrying her little brother. And then she was actually very upbeat and quite enthusiastic.

matina stevis-gridneff

He is very, very cute. You look similar.

iram

Not cute.

matina stevis-gridneff

Very cute. So how long have you been on the island?

iram

The Lesbos?

matina stevis-gridneff

Yes.

iram

The Lesbos is nine months.

matina stevis-gridneff

OK. Nine months. And were you with your family when the fire started?

iram

Yeah. When the fire starts, we come to here.

matina stevis-gridneff

I heard that they are making new tents for you. Do you want to go there?

iram

No, no, no. The tent is not good. I want to go to [INAUDIBLE] and the Germany and the France.

matina stevis-gridneff

But until you go there, should you not have somewhere to sleep where you’re covered and safe?

iram

No problem.

matina stevis-gridneff

And she said to me, listen. I don’t want to go to this new camp. I don’t want to go to this place that the Greek government is building.

iram

I don’t like the tents. We don’t. We don’t — we don’t go to the tents.

matina stevis-gridneff

You don’t —

iram

The tent is the problem.

matina stevis-gridneff

And Moria, you did not like living there?

iram

No, no, no. I don’t like. I don’t like living here. Because here is where problem is. And you understand? It’s not good. It’s very problem here.

matina stevis-gridneff

I understand. I’m sorry. Thank you very much. Good luck.

megan twohey

So these refugees are desperate not to end up back in a camp. And so how is this resolved and who resolves it?

matina stevis-gridneff

It’s not resolved, Megan. It’s not resolved. The only positive news has been that 400 unaccompanied minor refugees, children that had arrived in Greece on their own and had been living in Moria on their own without parents or other family, they have been taken to other European Union countries where, hopefully, they’ll start a life. And Germany stepped up and said they would relocate 1,500 people. That leaves around 10,000 people still in need of resettling.

But what’s also been clear, as a message from the Greek authorities, is that they’re also not in a rush to get people off Lesbos, which is what both the locals and the migrants themselves are demanding. The reason for that is they don’t want to send a message that, if a refugee camp burns down, then you get to be relocated to Germany or another country.

So there is clearly an element of management — and some say punishment — in this pace at which people are being resettled.

megan twohey

And Matina, you’ve covered the refugee crisis and Moria since 2015. I mean, seeing what it’s come to now, what do you think happens next? Well, part of me thinks that, if in 2015 and 2016 Europe was able to deal with more than one million refugees arriving, then surely it can humanely handle 10,000 people. This isn’t the same kind of crisis. But the cynical side of me wonders if this new tented camp on Lesbos will just become another purgatory.

There’s this Greek proverb that goes a bit like this: It says, there is nothing more permanent than what’s temporary. And I think of that when I think of Moria.

mahbube

You can get selfie here?

matina stevis-gridneff

Ah, yes. How are you? You speak some English?

mahbube

Yes.

matina stevis-gridneff

Oh, very good. What’s your name?

mahbube

Mahbube (ph).

matina stevis-gridneff

Mahbube. What’s your family name?

mahbube

Afzali (ph).

matina stevis-gridneff

Afzali. How old are you? You’re very young?

[yelling in background]

mahbube

15.

matina stevis-gridneff

15. And you’re from Afghanistan?

mahbube

Yes. And you?

matina stevis-gridneff

I’m from Greece, actually.

mahbube

Greece.

matina stevis-gridneff

Yes.

matina stevis-gridneff

I interviewed this really dynamic 15-year-old girl. And she was full of energy.

matina stevis-gridneff

How many months have you been on the island?

mahbube

10 months.

matina stevis-gridneff

10 months?

mahbube

Yeah.

matina stevis-gridneff

OK.

matina stevis-gridneff

She said she’d been on Lesbos for 10 months. She came from Afghanistan.

mahbube

And we are coming in here because we want a future. And we are waiting because Moria, it’s building again.

matina stevis-gridneff

You don’t want to go back to Moria?

mahbube

No, I don’t want.

matina stevis-gridneff

And what about the new tents that they’re making, do you want to go there?

mahbube

No, I don’t want anymore.

matina stevis-gridneff

She said she wanted to go to Germany to have a future, to build a life.

mahbube

I want to go to Germany, French. Like, country I can make a future. I want to go. And I think Greece not lot like me.

matina stevis-gridneff

But what struck me was that even someone this young, who clearly had so much hope for the future, in that moment in time, she was beginning to give up on that hope.

mahbube

And coming in here, but I think now, I wish had not come.

matina stevis-gridneff

You wish you had not come to Greece?

mahbube

Yeah.

matina stevis-gridneff

You wish you were back in Afghanistan?

mahbube

Yeah.

matina stevis-gridneff

She felt that after living in Moria for 10 months without school, after this fire, after everything that had happened to her, she just wasn’t sure it had been worth leaving Afghanistan in the first place. Good luck. Thanks for talking to me.

mahbube

Thank you.

matina stevis-gridneff

I think I feel two things about the situation I witnessed. The one is that there’s just so much human energy and potential among these people that no country will accept. And they’re stuck in some of the worst conditions. And the other thought was that precisely because no country will accept them, Moria, which was supposed to be this transitory place, will never really be a transitory place. There’s always going to be these places where hopes end rather than begin.

megan twohey

Well, thank you so much, Matina.

matina stevis-gridneff

Thanks for having me.

megan twohey

We’ll be right back.

Here’s what else you need to know today.

archived recording (dr. robert r. redfield)

Today, and even after we have a vaccine, C.D.C. encourages all Americans to embrace the powerful tools that we have right now, to wear a mask, particularly when they’re in public.

megan twohey

During a Senate hearing on Wednesday, the Director of the C.D.C., Robert Redfield, told lawmakers that wearing masks is the single best way to slow and potentially even stop the spread of the coronavirus.

archived recording (dr. robert r. redfield)

I might even go so far as to say that this face mask is more guaranteed to protect me against Covid than when I take a Covid vaccine. Because the immunogenicity may be 70 percent. And if I don’t get an immune response, the vaccine is not going to protect me. This face mask will.

megan twohey

Redfield also said that a vaccine could be available for limited use by the end of the year and for wider distribution by the middle of 2021. This contradicted what President Trump said the day before during an ABC town hall event, when he claimed a vaccine could be ready in three to four weeks. And —

archived recording

[RAINS AND WINDS BLOWING]

megan twohey

Hurricane Sally made landfall in the Gulf Coast yesterday before it was soon downgraded to a tropical storm. Sally was still powerful enough and slow enough to bring torrential rain and flooding to parts of Alabama and the Florida panhandle. Waters in Pensacola, Floria reached up to five feet, turning roads into rivers, submerging cars and slamming an out-of-control barge into the Pensacola Bay Bridge. And finally, the Big Ten conference, which includes universities like Penn State, Michigan and Ohio State, has announced that it will go forward with its 2020 football season. The league had initially said it would suspend the season because of concerns over the coronavirus. But by Wednesday morning, after consulting with medical advisers, all 14 schools had agreed to start the season in October. The league will follow a number of new rules, including daily testing for athletes and closing stadiums to fans.

That’s it for “The Daily.” I’m Megan Twohey. Michael Barbaro will be back next week. See you tomorrow.

At first, when Europe was more tolerant of migrants, people tended to pass through the camp quickly. But in 2016, Europe changed tack, blocking the onward movement of migrants to countries like Germany and leaving thousands stranded in squalid Greek camps like Moria, which soon became overcrowded.

Since then, Moria has been considered an emblem of Europe’s hardening approach to migrants in the aftermath of the 2015 crisis.

Through the European Union, other European countries provided Greece with money to care for its refugee population. But European leaders refused to allow many of them to leave Greek camps for sanctuary elsewhere in Europe.

Stuck in Moria, migrants lined up for hours for food that was often moldy. And they became enmeshed in what for many of them seemed an interminably complex asylum application process, leading to what some doctors deemed a mental health crisis at the camp.

Image
Credit...Alkis Konstantinidis/Reuters

The situation has been no better in other camps on nearby Greek islands. Across the Greek islands before the fire, more than 23,000 people were crammed into camps built for just 6,000, according to recent statistics compiled by aid groups.

The dynamic has created deep hostility between migrants and Greek islanders who, once welcoming to their new neighbors, have grown increasingly resentful. It has also led the Greek government to immediately expel many new arrivals this year, abandoning more than 1,000 immigrants in rafts at sea.

Given these conditions, campaigners had long predicted a catastrophe at the camp.

“This fire was expected,” said Eva Cossé, who leads research in Greece for Human Rights Watch, an independent New York-based rights organization. “It’s not surprising. It’s a testament to the European Union’s negligence and Greece’s negligence.”

Human Rights Watch has been calling for the camp to be closed or its number of residents to be significantly reduced for years.

“E.U. member states need to have a serious discussion about reducing numbers on the island, and alleviate the pressure on Greece, because Greece cannot deal with this alone,” Ms. Cossé said.

While Mr. Mitsotakis, the prime minister, condemned those who started the fire, he said the disaster could “become an opportunity to deliver better conditions and a new reality in Lesbos.”

Offers of support began on Wednesday, with the European Commission saying it would immediately help relocate the 400 unaccompanied minors to mainland Greece and onward to new homes in E.U. member states. These children are the last of 1,200 that the bloc has been helping place in other countries.

Ylva Johansson, the European commissioner for migration, said that the commission was also paying for a boat that was on its way to Lesbos on Wednesday afternoon and would serve as a makeshift hotel for the most vulnerable.

She also said that, despite recent efforts to improve the overwhelmed camp, conditions had remained very poor. Thousands of people were transferred off the island as the pandemic began, reducing numbers from more than 20,000 to 12,000, though it remained vastly overstretched.

“There are still too many people there,” she said, calling the conditions in Moria “unacceptable.”

Reporting was contributed by Niki Kitsantonis and Iliana Magra from Athens, Matina Stevis-Gridneff from Brussels, and Melissa Eddy from Berlin.