‘Fire on fire’: how migrants got blamed for Greece’s devastating blazes

Feature

In August, wildfires in Evros killed a group of people, including children, passing along a well-trodden migration route. Locals and politicians made the victims scapegoats for the disaster. First piece of our 2023 Climate Disinformation Fellowship by Giorgos Christides and Katy Fallon. Photos by Alexandros Avramidis.

Teaser Image Caption
The charred area where the bodies of 18 migrants were found following a wildfire that swept through the hills near the village of Avantas, in Evros, Greece.

Dr Pavlos Pavlidis leans back in his chair, puffing on a cigarette in his office at the morgue of Alexandroupolis University hospital. Pavlidis has witnessed many horrors in the two decades he has been the coroner in Evros, a region in north-east Greece located on a well-trodden migration trail.

But even for him, it has been difficult to look at the scorched remains of the people caught in the wildfires this summer.

On his screen are photos of the bodies of the migrants found near the village of Avas on 22 August. In one, a small group is seen huddled together.

“They saw the fire coming – they knew they would die and instinctively hugged,” Pavlidis says, laying out personal belongings found at the scene, a ring and a watch. Among those identified were two children aged between 14 and 15.

A watch and a ring, found on the remains of one of the wildfire’s victims.

The Evros wildfires, the largest ever recorded in the EU, raged for more than a fortnight and destroyed 96,600 hectares (239,000 acres) of forests, including a national park. The victims were believed to have crossed the Evros River, on Greece’s border with Turkey, to seek asylum in the EU.

But it was these people, who were using the mountain trails and forests as cover to avoid being caught and forced to return, who have been blamed for lighting the fires. The baseless allegation that scores of migrants had gone on an arson spree was widespread, even being shared by schoolchildren on their phones.

“Three migrants found on the mountain … They said: ‘You may throw us in jail, but there’s 600 more ready to burn you,’” read one such message seen by the Guardian, while another called for everyone in Alexandroupolis, the region’s capital, to form small groups to “protect the homeland. Today, they will burn the city down”.

Human rights groups criticised the “escalating targeting of refugees” as militias were formed and teenagers patrolled on scooters, incited by conspiracy theories shared on social media.

Dr Pavlos Pavlidis, who performed autopsies on 18 migrants found after the wildfire, at the University hospital morgue in Alexandroupolis.

On 31 August, the prime minister, Kyriakos Mitsotakis, appeared to suggest migrants were responsible, without offering any evidence, when he told parliament: “It is almost certain the causes were man-made. And it is also almost certain that this fire started on routes that are often used by illegal migrants.”

The leader of the nationalist Greek Solution party spoke of “foreign arsonists”, and one of its MPs posted a video saying: “We are at war – illegal immigrants have entered in a coordinated way and have set more than 10 fires.”

In a country where the tone of political discourse is often set by social media, the rising anti-migrant sentiment was fuelled by various factors, including fabricated content. “Don’t just show them, burn them,” users commented on a viral TikTok video in which one “bounty hunter” bragged about “arresting” supposed suspects and was heard saying: “They will burn us.”

The hostility was amplified by unsubstantiated conspiracy theories spread by far-right groups and by sensationalist news reporting, as well as innuendo from the highest ranks of government pointing to fires starting on known migration routes.

The scorched forest after a wildfire swept through the hills near the village of Avas, in Evros.

Paula Gori, secretary general of the European Digital Media Observatory, says these kinds of responses in crisis situations serve as a “confirmation bias”, where people tend to look for information that confirms their beliefs.

The climate crisis and migration are popular topics for disinformation because of the strength of feeling they elicit in people, she says. “We know disinformation spreads faster than information,” adds Gori, noting that posts with high interactions spread quicker.

Emotion can be a powerful fuel for disinformation, particularly during disasters, says Gori. “It’s really putting fire on fire. Unfortunately, it’s easy to have violent reactions as people desperately look for someone who is guilty.”

The Evros wildfires claimed livelihoods as well as lives. Giorgos Karafillidis, 45, was in church getting married when the fires started. The beekeeper lost 92 hives producing his organic honey.

The day he found his dead bees, he posted a video that went viral. “Nothing’s left, only metal sheets,” he sobs. “My sweethearts.”

Kostas Karafillidis stands next to his burned beehives near the village of Kirki.

“I was in shock when I found my bees burned. My heart broke,” he says, picking up pieces of metal warped by the heat in the scorched clearing where his bees used to feed among the oak trees.

Karafillidis believes the fires were lit by people. “That this was arson to serve foreign or domestic interests, I have no doubt. But that simple migrants were behind it?,” he says. “I don’t buy it.”

The claims that people moving along the migration trail lit the fires remain unsubstantiated. Asked if any evidence had been found linking migrants to arson, the Greek fire service said: “The causes of the fires are still under investigation.”

Evros has been the centre of anti-migrant rhetoric in Europe for many years. The region is heavily policed to intercept asylum seekers from Turkey, including through well-documented unlawful forced returns.

George Hatzigeorgiou, mayor of Avas village, says the theory of intentional arson is ‘utterly ridiculous’.

Giorgos Hatzigeorgiou, mayor of Avas, says it is easy to explain why migrants were blamed. “People were already agitated. Scores of migrants are smuggled across Avas and other areas every single day.”

But, he says, the theory of intentional arson is “utterly ridiculous … If you and I tried it, we wouldn’t be able to start a fire, let alone save ourselves from it.”

The focus on migrants has also eclipsed the debate about factors such as the preparedness of the forestry service and the climate crisis. The Mediterranean is warming 20% faster than the global average. “This year has seen record sea-surface temperatures. July and August were the warmest ever recorded in the eastern Mediterranean,” says Prof Christos Zerefos, head of the climatology centre at the Academy of Athens.

Greece’s fire service said Evros experienced 55 forest fires in August alone. Despite huge firefighting mobilisation and assistance from other European countries, the fires were impossible to control, as prolonged drought, high temperatures and a very dry winter created conditions for blazes of “extreme severity”. Zerefos says such conditions will become more common in future.

The office of Petros Anthopoulos, head of the Evros Forest Service, is a shrine to the forests under his watch, with a lump of bark displayed on a shelf and a painting by local schoolchildren captioned: “We love the forest.”

“The forest is our livelihood, our profession, our passion. It felt like losing our home,” he says.

Burned trees at the Dadia national park in Evros. Wildfires raged there for more than a fortnight in August, destroying the park.

The agency has been under-resourced for years; no one has been recruited since 2006. “There are 18 foresters in Evros; some of them over 60 years old,” says Anthopoulos. Meanwhile, he says he has seen investment in border guards and hi-tech infrastructure to stop migration in the same region.

In Avas, people are still trying to come to terms with the devastation. “We have nothing to fear now, because we have nothing left,” says Hatzigeorgiou. The blackened forest is now silent where the noise of birdsong and bees once dominated.

“I just hope our disaster becomes a cautionary tale for the rest of Greece and Europe,” he says.

This article first appeared on The Guardian on 23 November 2023. Research for this article was made possible with the support of the Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung European Union's Climate Disinformation Fellowship.


This article also appeared here: eu.boell.org