THENS – Nine people have been arrested after a large fire destroyed parts of the Moria refugee camp on the Greek island of Lesbos.
Up to 4,000 migrants were evacuated from the camp, as the blaze destroyed tents and prefabricated homes.
No fatalities were reported, but large areas of the camp, which was already crowded, were left unusable.
The Greek government said it would send a ship to hold at least 1,000 people as a temporary overflow area.
Early reports suggested a riot broke out as rumours of imminent mass deportations to Turkey spread. Other witnesses said it was the result of an argument over food.
The nine people arrested under suspicion of starting the blaze included people from Afghanistan, Iraq, Senegal, Syria and Cameroon, the AFP news agency reported, citing a police source.
Additional riot police have been dispatched to the island.
The fire destroyed at least 30 per cent of the camp, according to Aris Vlashopoulos, an aid worker with the Swiss charity SAO.
“People are returning to the camp now as I can see. But the biggest number of the refugees are already on the streets, sleeping outside,” he added.
The destruction at Moria has put further pressure on the island, which is already far beyond its capacity.
There are some 5,600 refugees currently in Lesbos, according to the UN, but the island only has capacity for 3,600.
Greece’s shipping minister, Thodoris Dritsas, announced immediate plans to lease a ship with capacity for 1,000 refugees to relieve pressure on the overcrowded island.
The camp at Moria also housed a number of unaccompanied minors. Those children had been safely evacuated to another facility as a temporary measure, and would be moved to Athens, state broadcaster ANA reported.
Humanitarian worker Fotini Rantsiou said tensions in the camp had been high before the fire. During the morning a man waiting for news of his asylum application became frustrated with the process and shouted “freedom”, provoking alarm among 2,000 people in the camp and a later hunger protest.
Many on the island are afraid of being returned to Turkey or their home countries.
“Riots are not unusual in Moria,” she said.
The situation on Lesbos is tense because many refugees land there and are held on the island until their asylum claim is fully processed.
Those granted asylum are permitted to journey to the Greek mainland, while others are turned back.
There were scuffles last week during a protest against the Greek government on Chios, and Greek media reported that a rally was held on Lesbos on Monday evening. The mayor was verbally abused by ultra-nationalists who started shouting “throw them into the sea”, according to Greek website Kathimerini.
An estimated 13,500 migrants and refugees are staying on the Greek islands.