Why refugee camps became a target for arson attacks during the pandemic

Why refugee camps became a target for arson attacks during the pandemic
In-depth: The hardships of life in refugee camps during the pandemic have exacerbated tensions between residents, local populations and the authorities managing them.
7 min read
A woman and her child are seen stranded after the Moria fire in 2020. [Getty]
More than a year on from the start of the coronavirus pandemic, migrants and asylum seekers around the world remain among the least protected populations.

Living conditions inside many accommodation centres for asylum seekers have deteriorated as governments attempt the near impossible task of guaranteeing safety measures in environments where maintaining adequate standards of hygiene and social distancing are hardly ever feasible.

The accumulated hardships of life in refugee camps during the pandemic have exacerbated tensions between camp residents, local populations and authorities managing these spaces.

Between September 2020 and January 2021, four sites across the most frequented migration routes to Europe have burnt down. Whilst accidental fires are common in these types of temporary accommodation, the fires were deliberate acts of arson, started either by camp residents protesting their dire living conditions or by hostile local populations protesting the presence of the camps.

The biggest refugee camp in Europe

The first of these fires happened the night of 8 September 2020 in the largest refugee camp in Europe: Moria. Infamous for its living conditions, the Moria hotspot hosted asylum seekers and migrants arriving on the Greek islands of Lesbos from Turkey. 

"The fire started in the middle of the night," explains Sara Podetti, an Italian NGO worker who was on the island the night of the arson. "I remember the next morning nobody in town knew what had happened. Some people were saying the fire was started by local right-wing groups, others that it had been set alight by asylum seekers living in the camp."

As Lipa camp burns, its residents flee the flames. [Video recorded by migrants and asylum seekers on the ground]

Seven months later, it still remains unknown how the fire started that night. But according to local NGOs working in the camp, it came as no surprise. "You have to appreciate the context of these events to understand why the fire happened," Podetti told The New Arab.

The first confirmed case of coronavirus inside Moria camp was announced on 2 September, just six days before the fire. "Immediately after the first case was announced, an isolation area was created inside the camp, and the Greek authorities took a number of people suspecting they had been in contact with the infected person". 

"Those in isolation started protesting against the conditions they were being kept in," says Ghulam, an Afghan asylum seeker who was living in Moria at the time. The fire started soon after those protests began.

With nearly 13,000 people without shelter, many hoped asylum seekers would be relocated on Greece's mainland, away from the island. "We imagined it would have been impossible to keep people here in those circumstances," concluded Podetti.

Instead, the Greek authorities transferred around 450 unaccompanied minors to mainland Greece, but everyone else, vulnerable people and young families included, were made to remain on the island, blocked by the police on a nearby road for the nine days it took to build another camp.

Between September 2020 and January 2021, four sites across the most frequented migration routes to Europe have burnt down

Covid-19 camps 

Two months later, on 23 December 2020, the camp of Lipa, in Bosnia-Herzegovina, burnt to the ground. The camp was built in March to provide temporary accommodation for asylum seekers living in squats around the Bosnian town of Bihac, attempting to reach central Europe by crossing the Balkans. 

Without adequate access to water, sanitation and electricity, the International Organisation of Migration (IOM) who had been running the camp since its opening, had decided to make good on their threat to close the camp if local authorities didn't support structural improvements needed to face the winter.

On the morning of closure, a handful of residents set a section of the camp alight. Since the arson, hundreds of individuals and families, including children, have moved to informal encampments and abandoned buildings in the area, as alternative accommodation provided by IOM had no capacity to support all those evacuated from Lipa. 

Questioned about the apparent lack of involvement by local Bosnian authorities, the mayor and local administration of in the Una Santa Canton did not reply to The New Arab's requests for comment.

Read more: Moria camp tragedy is a wake-up call for Europe's failed migration policy

Local tensions in Lebanon

Three days after the fire in Lipa camp, a Syrian workers' camp in north Lebanon was set alight after a fight between members of the camp and local Lebanese families. 

Different from Moria and Lipa, this camp was not being managed by local authorities or international organisations but had existed for over a decade, hosting nearly 80 Syrian families, many of which had been living and working in Lebanon since before the war in Syria.

"This fire is yet another example of rising tensions between the local population and Syrian refugees," says Abu Abdo, a Syrian community organiser living in the nearby town of Minyeh.

Just a few weeks before, nearly 300 Syrian families were pushed out of the mountainous area of Bcharre, after the alleged murder of a Lebanese resident by a Syrian man had sparked indiscriminate violence against Syrians living in the area. 

"This isn't the first time that a Syrian camp is set alight by Lebanese residents," continued Abu Abdo. "Covid and lockdown have added to an overall economic situation that in Lebanon is being managed by a failed state."

The August 2020 explosion at the port of Beirut has aggravated the situation for a country hosting the highest number of refugees per capita, with an overwhelmed healthcare system local Lebanese themselves have trouble accessing. "Such pressure will push refugees to return back to Syria or to try and reach wealthy countries in Europe by any means, whatever the risk". 

Covid-19 restrictions for migrants and asylum seekers in camps have backfired, heightening tensions between local communities and residents

Prison-like barracks

In Western Europe the situation for newly arrived asylum seekers is not always significantly better. On 29 January, a fire broke out in an 'Initial Accommodation' centre set up for asylum seekers in old military barracks, a few miles west of Dover, the main arrival spot for those crossing the English Channel. 

"The barracks are like a prison surrounded by barbed wire" Aldam Alazrak (not his real name), who previously lived in the barracks, explained. "Except in prison you get your own cell and instead there we were 28 people to a room." Having fled the war in Yemen after being imprisoned and tortured there, Alazrak came to the UK in the hope of finding safety and freedom.

The aftermath of the informal tent settlement in Miniyeh, Lebanon. [Video recorded by migrants and asylum seekers on the ground].

Staff assisting residents inside the Folkstone barracks warned that growing tensions could have led to damaging consequences. "Not only were the conditions in the barracks dire," explains Bridget Chapman, spokesperson for Kent Refugee Action Network, "every time they [residents of the camp] leave the site, they are harassed by far-right activists calling them ISIS, terrorists, rapists."

A few days before the fire, a number of Covid-19 cases were identified. Some residents were moved, but the majority were told that they had to stay and quarantine for 10 days.

"People were in rooms of up to 28 people partitioned only by sheets," Chapman continued. "I cannot imagine how terrifying it must be to be in a dorm with 27 other people breathing the same air and knowing that some of them are almost certainly positive and coughing". These were the conditions that pushed some residents to set fire to a section of the barracks.

The next day, the UK's Home Secretary Priti Patel said the damage and destruction at Folkstone's barracks was an offence to British taxpayers providing accommodation to asylum seekers. No mention was made of the many requests residents of the barracks had made to ask for different treatment. 

"Residents in the barracks have held demonstrations, have tried engaging with local press, have written letters explaining their situation, and have followed all the complaints process they were told to pursue, but nothing changed," says Chapman. "Eventually somebody snapped, and I think that is always going to happen when you have people put under that kind of pressure in that kind of situation". 

Luckily no one died in these fires. But they provide an illustration of how the pandemic has impacted migrants and asylum seekers living in camps and temporary accommodation. Covid-19 restrictions in these contexts have backfired, heightening tensions between local communities and camp residents, mixing xenophobia with the legitimate fear of the spread of the virus. Going forward, new strategies are urgent.

Roshan De Stone is a human rights advocate working in Syrian refugee camps in Lebanon. She is a full-time contributor to Brush&Bow

David L. Suber is a political researcher and journalist. He is directing a documentary on deportations from Europe and currently lives in Lebanon, where he works in refugee camps. David is a full-time contributor to Brush&Bow.