Fears 50 Syrian migrants are trapped as wildfires rage around Athens

Europe's largest blazes make for the worst summer since Greece introduced fire-risk maps in 2009

Flames rise as a wildfire burns on Mount Parnitha in Athens. Reuters
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A migrant advocacy group is raising urgent concerns over fears 50 Syrian migrants have been trapped by wildfires in Greece after losing touch with the group.

It comes as the death toll for a number of migrants killed in fires in a shack near Alexandroupoli on Tuesday has risen to 19, including two boys aged 10 and 15.

The nationalities of the deceased have not been released but authorities believe they could have come from the Middle East and travelled to Greece through Turkey.

Alarm Phone, which monitors migrants travelling to Europe, raised concerns on Thursday that it has lost contact with 50 Syrian migrants trapped around the Evros river border between Greece and Turkey and urged authorities to launch a rescue mission.

“For the last 24 hours we could not get in touch with this group in the Evos reqion,” it wrote on X, formerly known as Twitter.

“We are concerned about their well-being notably because of the approaching wildfires in the Dadia forest. They need to be rescued and evacuated before it is too late.”

Adriana Tidona, migration researcher at Amnesty International, is backing calls for authorities in Greece to take action.

“Alarm Phone, an NGO, has reported that hundreds of refugees and migrants are stranded in different areas of Evros while fires blaze in the region,” she said.

“Amnesty International calls on the Greek authorities to urgently evacuate all those stranded in the Evros region and who are unable to move safely due to fires and to ensure that refugees and migrants who have entered into Greece irregularly can seek asylum and are not illegally forcibly returned at the border.”

Greece's wildfire one of largest in Europe

Climate monitoring group Copernicus said on Thursday the wildfire in Greece is one of Europe’s largest ever.

Hundreds of firefighters in Greece were struggling to tame the major wildfires as they burnt for a sixth day.

A dangerous blaze raged for a second day on Mount Parnitha near Athens, in the largest forest adjoining the capital, threatening a national park.

Fire department spokesman Yiannis Artopios warned there has been an "explosion of fire" in a forest ravine early Thursday that renewed the threat to inhabited areas.

The largest fire front was in northern Greece, where a mega blaze that erupted on Saturday near the port city of Alexandroupoli, where the 19 migrants lost their lives, has now formed a unified front of over 15 kilometres.

Police battle to identify victims

Police in Athens have activated the country’s Disaster Victim Identification Team to identify the bodies, it is also being used to identify more than 600 migrants who were killed when their boat capsized off Greece in June.

“Given that there have been no reports of a missing person or missing residents from the surrounding areas, the possibility is being investigated that these are people who had entered the country illegally,” Mr Artopios said.

Officials have warned that as the area is a popular entry point for smugglers from neighbouring Turkey, more casualties are likely to be found among asylum seekers who could not escape the flames.

“The 19 people killed by wildfires in northern Greece appear to be victims of two great injustices of our times,” Ms Tidona said.

“On the one hand, catastrophic climate change, which governments are failing to address and is worsening the scale of wildfires worldwide as rising temperatures lead to longer and more destructive fire seasons. On the other hand, the lack of access to safe and legal routes for some people on the move, and the persistence of migration management policies predicated on racialised exclusion and deadly deterrence, including racist border violence.

“Though the identities of the people killed by the fires are not known, it seems likely that they were migrants and refugees who had recently crossed the border into Greece. Because of the lack of access to safe and legal routes for people trying to reach Europe, migrants and refugees increasingly use the land borders in the Evros region to cross irregularly from Turkey into Greece.”

Wildfires cause chaos in Greece

Wildfires cause chaos in Greece

Sixty firefighters have been injured battling the flames, fire department spokesman Ioannis Artopios said on Thursday.

Elsewhere in Europe, fires on Tenerife in Spain’s Canary Islands, northwestern Turkey near the border with Greece, Portugal and Italy were being brought under control, officials said.

Greece's Climate Crisis and Civil Protection Minister Vassilis Kikilias said arson was to blame for some of the blazes near Athens.

“Some arsonists are setting fires, endangering forests, property and above all human lives,” Mr Kikilias said in a televised statement.

“What is happening is not just unacceptable but despicable and criminal. You are committing a crime against the country.

“You will not get away with it. We will find you, you will be held accountable to justice.”

The minister said nine fires had been set in the space of four hours Thursday in the area of Avlona, in the northern foothills of Mount Parnitha near the Greek capital.

The greater Athens area, alongside Boeotia and the island of Evia were Greek regions most at risk of new fire outbreaks on Thursday, the civil protection ministry said.

Forecasters warn fire risk will continue until Friday

The hot and dry conditions that increase the fire risk will persist until Friday, according to meteorologists.

Civil Protection Minister Vassilis Kikilias said the country was going through the worst summer since fire-risk maps were introduced in 2009.

"It's an unprecedented situation, this is not a figure of speech," he said.

According to the European Union’s Copernicus Emergency Management Service, the Alexandroupolis fire had scorched more than 723 square kilometres by Wednesday, making it one of the largest on European soil in several years.

A forest before and after wildfires in Alexandroupolis

Copernicus is the EU space programme’s Earth observation component and uses satellite imagery to provide mapping data.

With firefighting forces stretched to the limit, Greece has asked other European countries for assistance. Germany, Sweden, Croatia and Cyprus sent aircraft, while dozens of Romanian, French, Czech, Bulgarian and Albanian firefighters have been helping on the ground.

Mr Artopios said 260 firefighters, including more than a dozen from France, were battling the Parnitha fire supported by 10 planes and 11 helicopters. Bulgarian, Albanian, Romanian and Czech firefighters with vehicles were helping in the Alexandroupolis fire.

European Union officials have blamed climate change for the increasing frequency and intensity of wildfires in Europe, noting that 2022 was the second-worst year for wildfire damage on record after 2017.

Updated: August 24, 2023, 3:49 PM