Blaze ripped through the Moria migrant camp on the Greek island of Lesbos on Wednesday, leaving thousands homeless and plunging the island into crisis.
Complicating matters, the Moria camp was under a coronavirus lockdown which began hours after 35 people tested positive for COVID-19.
The blaze sent thousands fleeing for safety into surrounding olive groves – but nobody was seriously hurt.
The disaster provoked an outpouring of sympathy from around Europe and calls for reform of the refugee system.
While European countries from Germany to Norway have responded with offers of help and sympathy, Greek officials have sought to blame migrants for the fire.
Stopping short of alleging arson, Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis said the blaze was down to a “violent reaction” in the camp to virus testing, and migration minister Notis Mitarachi said asylum seekers started the fire because of quarantine measures imposed after the positive tests.
Mitarachi said that of 3,500 migrants made homeless, the most vulnerable will spend Wednesday night on a ferry at a nearby port, while two Greek navy vessels would provide more places to sleep on Thursday.
Most of the migrants were sitting on the roadside between the camp and the port of Mytilene late on Wednesday, forming long queues without knowing where they were going.
Another fire broke out in part of the camp that was not badly damaged late on Wednesday, with fleeing migrants shouting “ Moria finished”.
Officials have declared a four-month emergency and flown in riot police after reports emerged of security forces blocking migrants from fleeing the fire to Mytilene.
Since becoming one of the main gateways into Europe for migrants and asylum seekers in 2015, Greece has built dozens of detention centres on its islands, but people often face long waits in the camps and overcrowding is common.
The fire at the camp – which houses more than 12,000 people despite being designed for just 2,800 – immediately raised questions about Europe’s asylum system, with Germany leading the way in calling for an overhaul.
“We urgently need a common refugee intake programme among as many EU countries as possible and finally a common asylum and migration policy for the EU,” said minister for Europe Michael Roth.
EU chief Ursula von der Leyen said she was “deeply sorrowed” by the fire at the camp, adding: “Our priority is the safety of those left without shelter.”
Officials have been trying for months to build a new camp on Lesbos to replace Moria but locals have resisted, clashing with riot police earlier this year to prevent construction from going ahead.
The camps have been largely locked down for months over fears that the cramped, dirty conditions would be ideal for the coronavirus to sweep through.
The government has in recent months moved thousands of refugees from Lesbos and other islands to the mainland.
But many refugees have been unable to find places to live or jobs after leaving the camps, with housing and cash benefits recently scaled back by the government. (Source: The Straits Times)