Woman who set herself on fire in Lesbos refugee camp charged with arson

Helena Smith in Athens
·4-min read

A pregnant Afghan woman who was severely injured when she set herself on fire in a refugee camp on Lesbos has been formally charged with arson and destruction of public property after giving testimony to a prosecutor from her hospital bed.

The 26-year-old, who is due to give birth next week, was told she would face trial for her actions and be unable to leave Greece. She has not been publicly identified.

“Although she was in a lot of pain because of her burns and found it difficult to speak, the testimony at the hospital in Mytilene lasted for around two and a half hours,” her lawyer, Teresa Volakaki, told the Guardian.

“It was clear she was stressed and having difficulty remembering but the prosecutor took a very strict line and ruled she will now face criminal charges, trial and not be able to travel abroad.”

Greek authorities had previously acknowledged that the woman had been driven to self-immolation after learning she could not fly to Germany with other camp residents, also granted asylum, because she was in the final stage of pregnancy and doctors did not think it wise.

“When she was told she couldn’t travel, her distress and disappointment were such she attempted suicide,” said Nikos Triantafyllos, an investigating magistrate who conducted an initial inquiry into the case.

“She regrets her actions very much,” he said speaking from Mytilene, the island’s capital. “She has suffered burns to her hands, feet and head. She is full of remorse. She is due to give birth to her fourth child next week.”

The incident occurred on Sunday in the temporary camp erected on the Aegean isle after a series of devastating blazes gutted Lesbos’ notoriously overcrowded holding centre in Moria. The woman, who has also been charged with endangering the lives of fellow refugees in the facility, placed her two daughters and son outside the tent before setting fire to it.

Other camp residents rushed to extinguish the flames alongside police who guard the installation, local media outlets reported. “We were called to the scene as well,” said Savvas Dionysatos, a spokesman for the island’s firefighting brigade.

Volakaki, the lawyer, described the blaze as being “small and put out quite quickly”.

Housed on a former military firing range, the temporary installation hosts about 6,500 men, women and children, the vast majority from Afghanistan. Although constructed as an emergency measure, residents have had to endure increasingly poor conditions, with aid groups and rights campaigners criticising the structure for failing to meet basic winterisation standards.

Lesbos, like other north-eastern Aegean isles, has been lashed by snowstorms and heavy rainfall in recent weeks. Temperatures have been such that some locals have offered to host residents of the camp in their homes.

The detention of asylum seekers on outposts opposite the Turkish coast has been blamed for a mental health crisis that psychosocial experts have attributed to a surge in suicide attempts and cases of self-harm.

Draconian lockdown measures since the start of the pandemic have further exacerbated the situation in camps. “People living in the hotspots are trapped there largely due to EU asylum policies that amount to cruel policies of containment,” said Dimitra Kalogeropoulou, the Greece director at International Rescue Committee.

“At the very least, people must be evacuated from island camps to mainland Greece … prioritising the most vulnerable, including pregnant women, to prevent more desperate people taking matters into their own hands as we’ve seen this week.”

Athens’ centre-right government has pledged to “decongest” Lesbos, long on the frontline of Europe’s migrant crisis, by relocating refugees abroad or transferring them within Greece.

Germany has agreed to take in 1,000 refugees, flying them out of the island on chartered flights over the coming weeks. In a letter made public on Thursday, the Greek migration minister, Notis Mitarachi, told Mytilene’s mayor that camps would be emptied in the months ahead as refugees were also moved to the mainland.

A permanent “closed” facility capable of hosting 3,000 asylum seekers would eventually be the only structure for refugees on the island, he wrote, with construction due to be completed later this year.