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Fire At Refugee Camp In Greece Was A Disaster Waiting To Happen

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Now to Greece. Aid workers have long warned that Europe's largest refugee camp on the Greek island of Lesbos was a disaster in the making. That disaster materialized this week, as fires destroyed nearly the entire settlement of more than 12,000 people. Once again, the European Union's migration policies are being blamed for the misery. Joanna Kakissis reports from Athens.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

RA'ED ALABED: This is bad situation.

JOANNA KAKISSIS, BYLINE: Ra'ed Alabed films himself stepping on the smoldering remains of his tent in a place he called the hell camp. The 45-year-old Syrian refugee says he and others thought the camp was so crowded and unsanitary that disaster was inevitable.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ALABED: Nobody care. Nobody care.

(SOUNDBITE OF SIREN)

KAKISSIS: The refugee camp had no fire evacuation plan that he knew of. So when Alabed saw the flames heading right for his tent on Tuesday night, he took charge.

ALABED: I said, my God, the children, the womens, please leave your tents, take your stuff, as much as you can, quickly.

KAKISSIS: Now he's homeless, along with his daughter, son-in-law and 4-month-old granddaughter. Alabed says he fled Syria to avoid catastrophes like this.

ALABED: We saw a lot of things in our country. We saw the bombs. We saw the blood. I don't want to die here.

KAKISSIS: The camp, which is now largely destroyed, was called Moria, after a nearby village, and workers say the name has become a code word for cruelty. Amelia Cooper of the Lesbos Legal Centre, which assists refugees, says the camp telegraphs the European Union's policy on migration.

AMELIA COOPER: Moria refugee camp is deliberately constructed to deter future migrants from crossing by willfully subjecting those who live here to inhumane and unsafe conditions.

KAKISSIS: Faris Al-Jawad of Doctors Without Borders says that more than 12,000 people were living in a space designed for 3,000.

FARIS AL-JAWAD: This was a ticking time bomb that was waiting to explode. Now that it has happened, they need to be moved off the island, and they need to be given a safe place to be and the chance to integrate and start a new life again.

KAKISSIS: Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis said in a televised address that he understands the conditions were bad, but he implied refugees started the fire because they were angry about a lockdown after several COVID-19 cases were confirmed in the camp.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRIME MINISTER KYRIAKOS MITSOTAKIS: (Speaking Greek).

KAKISSIS: "There's no excuse for violent reactions," he said, "especially when it leads to this kind of unrest." Omid Alizadah, an Afghan pharmacist who lived in the camp, has heard he and other refugees will now be housed on ships.

OMID ALIZADAH: I don't know what will be the next plan and what will happen. No one knows that they will keep people inside this boat or they will take them to somewhere.

KAKISSIS: He says he hopes the next place will at least be safe enough to live like a human being.

For NPR News, I'm Joanna Kakissis in Athens.

(SOUNDBITE OF FAODAIL'S "GAEL") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.