Woman who set herself on fire in Lesbos refugee camp may face arson charges

By Helena Smith

A pregnant Afghan woman who was severely injured after setting herself on fire in a refugee camp on Lesbos has been forced to give testimony to a prosecutor from her hospital bed as Greek authorities explore potential arson charges against her.

The 26-year-old woman, who has not been named, had been granted asylum by Greek authorities and had been scheduled to fly to Germany with other recognised refugees last week. But officials said doctors had advised against her making the journey because she was in the final stage of pregnancy.

“When she was told she couldn’t travel, her distress and disappointment were such she attempted suicide,” the investigating magistrate Nikos Triantafyllos told the Guardian. “She regrets her actions very much. 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.”

But the woman now faces arson charges after her tent was destroyed during her suicide attempt. The prosecutor who will determine whether the woman should go on trial visited the hospital in Mytilene, the island’s capital, to hear the testimony.

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 not been publicly identified, placed her two daughters and son outside the tent before setting fire to the structure.

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. “The prosecutor is now handling the inquiry.”

Housed on a former military firing range, the temporary facility hosts around 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.