Greek firefighters continue to fight the “largest” forest fire in the European Union in 23 years, while the far-right accuses migrants of being behind the fires, which killed about 20 people, most of them migrants.
The fire that broke out on August 18 in the northeast of the country, near the coastal city of Alexandroupolis, and the Natura Dadia National Park, burned tens of thousands of hectares, killing 19 people and damaging buildings.
“These forest fires are the largest in the European Union since 2000,” the European Commission said in a press release on Tuesday, August 29, when the European Forest Fire Information System (EFFIS) began recording data.
Claims that asylum seekers are behind a number of forest fires that swept through Greece this week have sparked a wave of anti-immigrant comments online.
Tension is increasing in the country, after residents reported that 13 Pakistanis and Syrians were caught red-handed trying to light a fire outside the city of Alexandroupoli in the Evros region bordering Turkey, according to “InfoMigrants” website.
Last Tuesday, a resident posted a live video on Facebook showing migrants piled up inside a trailer, boasting that he had arrested them for trying to “burn us.” Another user commented on the post, saying, “Don’t put them on display… Burn them.”
The man was arrested, along with two others suspected of being involved, while the authorities stressed that they would not tolerate acts of “retribution.” Three detainees were charged with incitement to racist violence.
As for the immigrants, they were accused of entering illegally and trying to start a fire. But a government source told Kathimerini newspaper that the evidence against them appears to be related to them starting fires for grilling. This speech was accompanied by a media misinformation campaign.
A news platform in Evros reported that 20 migrants were stopped outside Alexandroupoli after they exchanged gunfire with police, something the authorities later denied. National broadcaster Open also published a correction after incorrectly reporting that two migrants had been caught setting fires in the neighboring Rhodope region.
Christos Pashalakis, who lives in Evros, told AFP, “I am completely convinced that migrants caused the fires.” He added, “They burn us, steal from us, and kill us in traffic accidents.”
The case sparked political controversy this week after the leader of the nationalist “Greek Solution” party, Kyriakos Filopoulos, added his voice to those attacking the migrants, and praised the man suspected of being arrested for arresting them.
MP from the same party, Barry Papadaki, also called on residents to “take action” given that migrants are “obstructing” pilots working to extinguish the fires. “We are at war,” he said in a Facebook post.
During the national elections in June, Filopoulos’s party and two other far-right parties won their best results in northern Greece In the Evros region, the “Greek Solution” party received about nine percent of the votes.
It is believed that 19 of the 20 people who died in this week’s fires were migrants.
140 people were arrested on charges of arson, and 37 of them were charged. 62 cases are related to fires that were ignited unintentionally, while the remaining 11 cases relate to intentional acts.
Amnesty International called on Greece to “urgently evacuate all those stranded in the Evros region and those unable to move safely due to the fires, and to ensure that refugees and migrants who entered Greece irregularly are able to seek asylum so that they are not forcibly and illegally returned at the border.”