Thousands flee fire at Greek migrant camp as tensions flare

September 19, 2016 4:33 PM EDT

Refugees and migrants stand at the closed gate of the Moria migrant camp, after a fire at the facility, on the island of Lesbos, Greece, September 19, 2016. Intimenews/Manolis Lagoutaris/via REUTERS


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By Karolina Tagaris

ATHENS (Reuters) - Thousands of people fled a migrant camp on the Greek island of Lesbos after fire swept through tents and cabins during violence among residents, police said.

The fire broke out late on Monday and was put out by midday on Tuesday at the Moria camp which houses the 5,700 migrants on the island. Many people had returned, though children had been transferred to other facilities, police said.

No casualties were reported from the fire and its cause was unclear. The United Nations refugee agency, UNHCR, linked the fire to poor living conditions and a sense of insecurity among many of the residents.

Refugees and migrants on Lesbos are stranded by a European Union deal with Turkey preventing them going beyond the island until their asylum claims have been processed. Those who do not qualify will be deported to Turkey.

Tensions have boiled over at overcrowded camps on Greece's islands as the slow processing of asylum requests adds to frustration over living conditions.

Greek media said violence erupted among residents after a rumor that hundreds of people would be deported.

Roland Schoenbauer, UNHCR's spokesman in Greece, said people were "sick of waiting" in the camps. "They don't know when their asylum claims will be processed. Some people feel they don't have enough information," he said.

Nearly 60 percent of the Moria camp, including tents and metal-roofed cabins, were destroyed by the fire, a police official said. Work was underway to set up new tents, Police Minister Nikos Toskas said.

At least nine people were arrested on accusations of damaging property and causing unrest and were expected to appear before a prosecutor, a police official in Athens said.

OVERCROWDING

The shipping ministry said it was looking to charter a ship to help cover "the immediate and urgent need to host, cater and perhaps transfer refugees-migrants," after the fire and that interested parties should submit their bids by 1830 GMT.

To ease growing tensions, Greece has said it plans to build new facilities to transfer migrants from its islands and improve conditions that campaigners have called disgraceful.

Panos Navrozidis, Greece director of aid agency International Rescue Committee, said the camp had been operating at over-capacity for months, with people crammed into the facility with limited access to water and in conditions that do not meet humanitarian standards.

He criticized the system to process claims as "opaque and inconsistent" and said preferential treatment based on nationality led to tensions within the community.

Thousands have applied for asylum and the wait ranges from weeks to months. Just over 500 people have been deported to Turkey since March but none of those who have requested asylum were among those, Greece says.

Despite a slowdown in arrivals from Turkey compared to last year, more than 13,500 migrants and refugees are now living on eastern Aegean islands, nearly double a capacity of 7,450.

"The situation is difficult," Christiana Kalogirou, prefect of the north Aegean region, told Greek TV. "There is a great need for decongestion of the islands ... in the future things could become much more difficult," she said.

Including those on the islands, there are 60,000 migrants and refugees stranded in Greece, mostly Syrians, Iraqis and Afghans who made risky journeys in flimsy inflatable boats.

(Additional reporting Renee Maltezou; Editing by Janet Lawrence)



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