- Fires that levelled the Moria refugee camp in Greece, leaving up to 12,000 people homeless, started after a single ATM machine was blocked in a Covid quarantine measure.
- The entire camp was dependent on the bank machine for money. Food, soap, and baby supplies became scarce.
- Youths lit small fires in protest, but they got out of control.
- Sources at the scene told Insider how the entire camp was incinerated in just a few hours.
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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 terrible turn as a handful of small fires lit by frustrated protesters spread quickly into the tightly crowded facility, engulfing it completely.
The next morning, when the flames were done, most of the camp was destroyed. Nearly 12,000 people were left homeless.
It started with the removal of access to an ATM machine on which the entire camp was dependent for money.
Covid arrives, cutting off access to the bank machine
Additional fires occurred Wednesday night across the remainder of the site. Greek officials scrambled later that day to arrange housing for the refugees. Meanwhile, fistfights and protests broke out as refugees demanded to be moved off Lesbos and frustrated residents tried to prevent new housing from being built.
The refugees had no intention of burning down the camp where they lived, said Mohammed Akbar, a 42-year-old Afghan father of three who spoke with Insider by WhatsApp.
But then coronavirus arrived, bringing with it a quarantine. The imposed isolation of the camp cut off its residents from the lone ATM machine that served all them — the only banking facility they had.
Moria was designed in 2015 to briefly hold 3,000 people, as waves of refugees fled the wars in Syria and Northern Iraq. But "briefly" became permanent, and by Wednesday as many as 12,000 lived there. Lesbos's pre-migration population was only 86,000.
Hours-long lines for money
Akbar described a scene in which the already overcrowded camp turned hellish after 35 residents tested positive for COVID, prompting a total lockdown of the facilities. For many, the "facilities" are merely tents and plastic sheeting.
Restrictions were imposed on who could stand in line for hours to receive a family's food rations — and that pushed the camp's already precarious food situation further into chaos. The restrictions included closing off the ATM machine. Even when the machine was operating, long lines formed in front of it, as these photos from May show:
—Mortaza (@MortazaBehboudi) May 14, 2020
The bank machine was the only way Moria residents could withdraw or receive money, as the camp is beyond walking distance into the nearest town. So simple tasks — such as obtaining food, soap, or diapers — suddenly became very difficult, and the camp became dependent on a flawed official handout system, sources told Insider.
People began to panic because they couldn't get money to buy the things they needed.
"The ATM machine was closed so there was no money to buy food, no shops open," said Akbar. "And sometimes the meals they give you would not come. Families were hungry and babies needed milk," he said.
The protests, which became common as thousands remained stuck in the island camp for years, were intended to pressure authorities into reopening the bank, smoothing the food distribution, and moving some families off the island to reduce overcrowding.
The fires begin
Some youths began to light small protest fires.
"The fire came from the young boys not the adults, some of them have no parents or families to control them, they were causing trouble with the police," said Akbar, in an account confirmed by multiple other witnesses.
Moria is set among olive trees on a windswept hillside — and the wind quickly took the flames into areas filled with plastic tenting. It spread to propane gas canisters used by most families to cook meals.
Greek officials have promised to deport the individuals who lit the fires and say they've opened an investigation.
By Wednesday, officials had begun plans to move hundreds of unaccompanied minors to facilities on the mainland. Thus far, they have refused to allow the bulk of the now-homeless refugees off 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 were suddenly made homeless — in many cases sleeping in fields and on roadsides — Greece announced that a new facility would be built and that refugees would be housed on ferries and naval ships dispatched to the scene.
Island residents have complained for months about the facility. They were told it would be temporary more than five years ago. This week they engaged in a series of blockades 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," said Akbar.