- The fires that devastated the Moria refugee camp in Greece began, leaving up to 12,000 people homeless, after a single ATM was blocked in the COVID-19 quarantine.
- The entire camp was dependent on the bank machine for money. Food, soap and baby supplies became scarce.
- The youth lit small fires in protest, but were out of control.
- Sources at the scene told Insider how the entire camp burned down within a few hours.
- Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.
Just after 10 p.m. on the night of Tuesday, September 8, a demonstration in the Moria refugee camp on the Greek island of Lesbos took a dizzying turn as a handful of small fires that disillusioned protesters had set quickly spread through the crowded facility, engulfing it completely.
The next morning, when the fire broke out, most of the camp was destroyed. Nearly 12,000 people were left homeless.
It started with canceling access to the ATM machine the entire camp had depended on for money.
Covid access, cut off access to the bank machine
Additional fires broke out on Wednesday night at the rest of the site. Greek officials scrambled later that day to arrange housing for the refugees. Meanwhile, fist fights and protests erupted as refugees demanded to move from Lesbos and frustrated residents attempted to prevent new housing construction.
Muhammad Akbar, a 42-year-old Afghani and father of three who spoke to Insider via WhatsApp, said the refugees had no intention of burning the camp they were in.
But then the Corona virus arrived, carrying a quarantine. The isolation imposed on the camp has isolated its residents from the only ATM machine that serves them all – the only banking facility they own.
Moria was designed in 2015 to hold 3,000 people for a short period, as waves of refugees fled the wars in Syria and northern Iraq. But “briefly” became permanent, and by Wednesday as many as 12,000 were living there. Lesbos had a population of only 86,000 before the emigration.
Hours long lines for money
Akbar described a scene in which an already crowded camp turned into hell after 35 people tested positive for COVID, resulting in a complete closure of facilities. For many, the “facilities” are just tents and plastic sheeting.
Restrictions have been imposed on who can stand in line for hours to receive family food rations – this has led to further chaos in the camp due to the already precarious food situation. The restrictions included shutting down an automated teller machine. Even while the machine was running, long lines formed in front of it, as these pictures from Mayo show:
Mortaza (MortazaBehboudi) May 14, 2020
The bank machine was the only way for Moria residents to withdraw or receive money, as the camp is located within walking distance of the nearest town. Sources told Insider that very simple tasks – like getting food, soap, or diapers – suddenly became very difficult, and camp had a flawed formal distribution system.
People started to panic because they couldn’t get the money to buy the things they needed.
“The ATM was closed, so there was no money to buy food, and no stores opened,” Akbar said. “Sometimes the meals they give you don’t come. The families were hungry and the children needed milk,” he said.
The protests, which had become commonplace as thousands had been stranded in the Jazira camp for years, aimed to pressure authorities to reopen the bank, facilitate food distribution, and relocate some families outside the island to reduce overcrowding.
The fires begin
Some young people started lighting small fires of protest.
“The fire came from boys, not adults, and some of them did not have parents or families to control them, and they were causing problems with the police,” Akbar said, in an account confirmed by several other witnesses.
Moria is nestled among olive trees on a windy hill slope – and the winds quickly carried flames into areas filled with plastic tents. It spread to the propane gas canisters most families use to cook their meals.
Greek officials promised to deport the people who lit the fires, and said they had opened an investigation.
By wednesday, Officials have begun plans to transfer hundreds of unaccompanied minors to facilities on the mainland. Until now, they have refused to allow a large portion of the displaced refugees to leave the island.
They want us to leave the island and we want to leave the island
In the scramble to house more than 10,000 people who are suddenly homeless – in many cases sleeping in the fields and on roadsides – Greece announced that a new facility will be built The refugees will be accommodated on ferries and sea ships sent to the scene of the accident.
Residents of the island have complained about the facility for months. They were told it would be temporary in over five years. This week, they engaged in a series of sieges and clashes with riot police dispatched from Athens to prevent any further “temporary” solution.
“They want us to leave the island, and we want to leave the island,” Akbar said.