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Who started the fire at Europe’s largest refugee camp?

BBC Newsnight


On 8 September 2020, Europe’s largest refugee camp went up in flames. More than 12,000 migrants, already living in dire conditions, were burned out of their tents at Moria on the island of Lesbos. The Greek authorities have blamed the blaze on a small number of residents of the camp, but among the refugees themselves many say local far-right activists started the fire.

On both sides there were people who wanted the camp gone. So what exactly happened and why?

In an extended report, we investigated the events surrounding the blaze, interviewing witnesses on the ground from both the migrant and local communities, and piecing together the most authoritative picture to date of what happened.

With the help of a group of young refugee film-makers, we analysed a vast archive of footage from the night of the fire, meticulously logging evidence and uncovering testimony that helps explain not only reasons for the fire itself, but also sheds light on the human rights impact of Europe’s dysfunctional migration policy.

The work was done under the pressure of a Covid outbreak in the camp, and with continual harassment by the authorities, who regularly threatened us with arrest and tried to block our work.

The film also tells of the plight of two refugee case studies in particular. Yaser and Milad’s stories of crossing to Europe to escape war and racist abuse are intimate and engaging, and humanise the issues raised in the film.

We took the responsibility of care for our case studies and witnesses extremely seriously, as we knew their safety was at risk both from the authorities and elements within the camp. That responsibility continues after transmission, and we have taken measures to ensure their protection.


The film, an extended Newsnight special, reached a massive and varied audience both domestically and worldwide. As well as a full feature on BBC2, it ran on BBC World in the Our World segment, which has a global reach of 468m people, and was repeated in a special transmission over the Christmas period. Digital versions of the film designed for youth and social media audiences ran on Facebook and Twitter.

The film led to further media coverage and a renewed interest in the Moria camp story, and resulted in an increase in sponsorship and direct funding for those affected.

Although the refugee film makers we worked with are still trapped in the new camp on Lesbos, they now have budding careers as freelance journalists as a direct result of this documentary.

The film also prompted the Greek authorities to pursue new lines of enquiry into the fire itself.

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