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Fire Sweeps Through Greece's Largest Refugee Camp


A refugee camp caught fire in Greece overnight. The flames, we are told, left more than 12,000 migrants in need of emergency shelter. And it was a camp on lockdown at the time because of the coronavirus. NPR's Joanna Kakissis has been to that camp in the past and is on the line. Joanna, what kind of a camp is it? Was does it look like when you're there?

JOANNA KAKISSIS, BYLINE: So this is a camp on the island of Lesbos. It's a notorious camp, and I use that word because it's been described as hell on Earth, the worst refugee camp in Europe. And that's because it's been chronically overcrowded for years now. And by overcrowded, I mean it was built to hold 3,000 people, and before this fire, it was holding 12,000. And at times in the past, it's held 22,000. And it's filthy. It's very poorly taken care of. There was no - there were very few water caps, not enough soap. And so during the time of the pandemic, everybody kept saying this is a time bomb ready to explode. And instead, they got a very different kind of explosion but just as horrifying.

INSKEEP: When I think of a refugee camp, when I think of ones I visited, I think a very narrow dirt pass with tents or very temporary structures, everything crowded together, where I would imagine if one thing burned, a lot of things would burn. Is that the way this camp was?

KAKISSIS: That's exactly right. The camp, it was basically just a bunch of tents together, some containers, meaning, like, these kind of small little houses for families and for vulnerable people. But this camp was so crowded that people had actually set up makeshift tents, like, made out of cardboard and whatever they could salvage just outside the camp. So it was so crowded inside the camp where the flames started, but they could have very easily jumped outside and there would have been an even bigger problem outside the camp where the makeshift tents were.

INSKEEP: Now I guess we don't know the cause of this fire at this time, but is it clear the extent of the damage? Does it seem that most or everything is destroyed?

KAKISSIS: Yeah. Well, we've heard figures - about 70% to 80% of the camp is destroyed, so it's pretty much gutted, and most of the tents as well, areas where there was kind of a makeshift hospital, small, little clinic that MSF had set up, Doctors Without Borders. Yeah. So it's smoldering now. It's full of - I saw a video where people were walking around and it was just all ashes. And they were looking at where their tents used to be, and they were just horrified.

INSKEEP: We mentioned that it was on COVID-19 lockdown. Had there been an outbreak there?

KAKISSIS: Yes. There were at least 35 or 36 confirmed cases of people - they had been testing people. One person ended up getting confirmed with having the virus. Other people were tested, but they hadn't finished testing people. And so they locked down the camp to make sure they could test everybody. So that's where the lockdown came from.

INSKEEP: Is there anywhere for these thousands of people to go?

KAKISSIS: No, not really because there hasn't been any alternative housing set up. That's what people are trying to do right now. And the EU has said - the European Union said, hey, you know, if you need money to set something up quickly, we'll do that. So right now, they're looking for a place to set these people up.

INSKEEP: Joanna, thanks for the update, really appreciate it.

KAKISSIS: You're welcome, Steve.

INSKEEP: NPR's Joanna Kakissis on the fire inside a refugee camp that appears to have left thousands with nowhere to go. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Joanna Kakissis is a foreign correspondent based in Kyiv, Ukraine, where she reports poignant stories of a conflict that has upended millions of lives, affected global energy and food supplies and pitted NATO against Russia.