At least one dead in fire amid rising tensions in Lesbos refugee camp

A woman and child are thought to have perished in a fire at the overcrowded Moria camp

Migrants stand next to a burning container during a fire in Moria camp on the island of Lesbos, Greece, September 29, 2019. Ihab Abassi/Handout via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY. NO RESALES. NO ARCHIVES.
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A woman has been killed and a baby is suspected dead on the Greek island of Lesbos after a fire engulfed containers housing migrants in the island’s main refugee camp, sparking ferocious clashes with police.

Twenty-four-year-old Syrian, Nabil Laila, returned to Moria refugee camp with friends at around 5:30pm to see thick plumes of smoke rising from within. The group rushed to the scene of the fire to find absolute chaos.

"When we got to the fire we saw around eight containers were on fire. Everyone was trying to help put it out; the fire brigade and camp residents. Hoses were hooked up to the bathroom areas while fire fighters used the water from their trucks," he told The National, coughing as he spoke due to smoke inhalation.

“People were screaming. It was bedlam. We could hear the screams of a lady inside the burning structure, it was awful.

"So many people could hear her. I felt helpless. It all happened so quickly – the fire just engulfed the entire block of containers before our eyes.”

A spokesman for Greece’s Hellenic Police department confirmed the death of one woman and said authorities are investigating information about the death of a baby. He said there were two fires – one inside the camp and one just outside. He added that it was too early to provide further information because officials were still investigating the incident and they had not yet received the fire department’s report.

However, local authorities said the fires had been started by refugees protesting the conditions of the camp, Associated Press reported.

Four policemen and one firemen were injured, non-seriously, during the incident.

It took around 90 minutes to bring the fire under control Mr Laila said. He then witnessed further drama unfold as tensions within the camp boiled over.

“Hundreds of migrants began throwing stones and rubbish at the police. I think it was in frustration at what had happened, at the conditions of the camp – this week many people were forced to sleep outside when their tents were flooded because of bad weather. The police were forced to take shelter in their office inside the camp,” said Mr Laila.

The police department spokesman said he believed the violence was in reaction to the deaths caused by the fire.

Not wanting to be a part of the violence, Mr Laila and his friends returned to their tent. Within a couple of minutes, he could smell the tear gas.

“We were already coughing from the smoke and suffering with headaches, but then our eyes starting burning and we knew instantly what it was. It sent me hurtling back into the traumatic memories of Syria,” he said.

The friends packed their bags and attempted to head to the beach to get away from the clashes, only to find the road had been closed.

“We came here to escape war and to find peace but right now this isn’t much better than the places we’ve fled from.”

TOPSHOT - A man holds a boy during clashes with police outside the refugee camp of Moria on the Greek island of Lesbos, on September 29, 2019. At least one migrant died on September 29, 2019, after a fire broke out in Moria, the over-crowded refugee camp on the Greek island of Lesbos, Greece's Health Ministry said. Police were firing tear gas to control crowds who started rioting after the fire ignited inside the camp, according to an AFP correspondent. / AFP / ANGELOS TZORTZINIS
A man holds a boy during clashes with police outside the refugee camp of Moria. AFP

A statement released by Doctors Without Borders (MSF) said its medical teams were treating at least 21 wounded people Sunday evening as a result of the clashes.

“We are outraged by today’s episodes in Moria and the reported death of at least two people, a mother and a child, as a result of a fire inside the camp,” said the statement.

“No one can call today’s fire and these deaths an accident. This tragedy is the direct result of a brutal policy that is trapping 13,000 people in a camp made for 3,000."

The charity excoriated European and Greek authorities for their roles in detaining migrants at the camp, adding it's "high time" to end the policy of containment and "urgently evacuate people out of this hell that Moria has become".

Moria refugee camp houses people from a host of countries including Syria, Democratic Republic of Congo, Iraq, Palestine, Iran and Yemen, but Afghans are the largest demographic of the population. Throughout September 4,800 migrants arrived on Lesbos alone, and a total of 10,300 across the Aegean islands, according to Norwegian charity Aegean Boat Report, which monitors arrivals.