France and Germany join forces to welcome refugees after Lesbos camp blaze, says Macron

Refugees and migrants run as fire burns in the Moria refugee camp on the northeastern Aegean island of Lesbos, Greece, on Wednesday, Sept. 9, 2020. Fire Service officials say a large refugee camp on the Greek island of Lesbos has been partially evacuated despite a COVID-19 lockdown after fires broke out at multiple points around the site early Wednesday. (AP Photo/Panagiotis Balaskas)
Europe's largest migrant camp destroyed by fire
01:48 - Source: CNN
CNN  — 

France and Germany are working together to find a solution to welcome migrants from the Greek island of Lesbos after Europe’s largest refugee camp burned to the ground, French President Emmanuel Macron said.

Macron said Thursday that he “hoped to include as many European countries as possible” in the response after the overcrowded Moria camp was devastated by massive fires on Wednesday.

“We are coordinating to offer a proposition, Germany and France, and we’re trying to include a maximum of European countries, to welcome refugees and minors in particular, depending on the demands of the Greek government,” Macron said during a speech in Corsica.

The fire-ravaged Moria refugee camp on the island of Lesbos in Greece on Thursday.

He said Europe had to stand in solidarity with Greece in face of “the terrible reality that is before us.”

The details of the response will be finalized “in the coming hours,” Macron added. On Thursday evening, the Med7 Summit will gather leaders of southern European countries in Porticcio, Corsica.

“What is happening in Moria is a humanitarian catastrophe,” tweeted German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas. “As quickly as possible, we have to clarify with the EU commission and other EU countries willing to help, how we can support Greece. This includes the distribution of those fleeing amongst those in the EU willing to accept them.”

The fires that razed the camp were started by residents expressing “dissatisfaction” with coronavirus-related lockdown measures, Greek authorities believe.

A series of fires destroyed the island's notoriously overcrowded refugee camp, leaving thousands of people in desperate need of shelter.

Moria, which has been under lockdown after 35 people tested positive for Covid-19 earlier this week, was home to an estimated 13,000 people, more than six times its maximum capacity of 2,200 people. More than 4,000 children lived in the camp, according to the United Nations Refugee Agency.

In a televised statement, Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis declared a state of emergency on the island, condemning the rioters he said had started the fires that ravaged the camp.

“I recognize the difficult conditions. However, nothing can become an alibi for violent reactions to health checks. And, much more, for riots of this magnitude,” said Mitsotakis. “The situation in Moria cannot continue because it is a matter of public health, humanity and national security at the same time.”

The country’s Minister for Migration and Asylum Panagiotis Mitarachis confirmed to CNN that the fire appeared to be deliberately lit, adding that a new “safer” and “more humane” facility is needed.

“It is clear that we need a new facility which is safer and offers more humane conditions and offers the appropriate capacity needed,” he said.

Unaccompanied children removed

A group of more than 400 unaccompanied children was removed from Lesbos following the blaze, the Greek government said in a statement on Thursday.

“The departure of the 406 unaccompanied minors from Lesbos was completed at dawn, with coordinated actions by the Ministry of Immigration and Asylum and the International Organization for Migration,” the statement read.

A group of children board one of three planes taking 406 unaccompanied minors from the burned camp to mainland Greece on Wednesday night.

The children were first sent to shelters on the island before leaving in three chartered flights from Odysseas Elytis airport in Mytilene, the capital of Lesbos, between 10 p.m. Wednesday night and 7.30 a.m. Thursday morning local time, according to the statement.

“The children have been transferred to safe accommodation facilities in northern mainland Greece, where they will remain temporarily, as the relocation program to EU countries and their placement in long-term mainland guesthouses continues unabated,” the statement said, adding that the minors have been tested for Covid-19.

“The main concern of the Greek government is the protection of those at risk.”

The children will eventually be relocated to EU countries, according to the Greek government.

Speaking to reporters on Thursday, Greek government spokesman Stelios Petsas said of the migrants accused of starting the fires: “They thought that if they burn Moria, everyone, with no exception, would leave the island. We are telling them they did not understand. They are not going to leave because of the fire, except for the unaccompanied minors that have already been transferred. Therefore, whatever it was that those that started the fires had in mind, they can forget it.”

On Thursday, another smaller fire broke out at the Moria camp. Local residents have set up several roadblocks to army or other vehicles carrying materials to rebuild or clean the camp.

Lesbos residents are already at loggerheads with the government over plans to replace Moria with a closed reception center. Locals fear this would mean thousands of asylum seekers would remain on the island permanently.

‘All the camp is burned’

There are no reports of injuries, but George Moutafis, a photographer on the ground, told Greek TV channel Mega the camp had been “completely destroyed.”

“The Moria camp no longer exists. The camp has been completely destroyed. The containers and tents have been completely destroyed. The fires are now out. Many migrants and refugees are now back at the camp and looking for their belongings,” Moutafis said.

“All the camp is burned,” he said on Wednesday.

Charity and activist groups on the ground also said the fire had destroyed large swathes of the camp.