Cover image by AP

Authorities on the island of Lesbos called for the immediate evacuation of thousands of refugees to the Greek mainland after fires started by rioting residents gutted a detention camp. But European Union officials appeared cool to the idea.

More than 4,000 people were housed at the camp in Moria on Lesbos where the fire broke out late on Monday, destroying or damaging about 160 tents according to Greek officials. No injuries were reported at the camp, about 8km north of the island’s main town.

Police said the blaze was started during clashes between different ethnic groups in the camp, where tensions are high amid uncertainty on whether residents will be granted asylum in Greece or deported back to Turkey, from where they arrived in boats.

Families with young children hastily packed up their belongings and fled into the nearby fields as the fire raged after nightfall. Many were later given shelter at volunteer-run camps.

“We have been saying for a very long time that overcrowding on the islands must be eased,” regional governor Christiana Kalogirou said. “On the islands of the northeast Aegean, official facilities have a capacity of 5,450 places, but more than 10,500 people are there. There is an immediate need to take people off the islands because things will get even more difficult,” she said.

More than 60,000 migrants and refugees are stranded in Greece, and those who arrived after March 20 have been restricted to five Aegean islands under an EU-brokered deal to deport them back to Turkey. But the agreement has been delayed, and most of the people in camps applied for asylum in Greece, launching a lengthy process during which they cannot be deported.

In Brussels, a spokeswoman for the European Commission, Natasha Bertaud, said the Greek government had described the situation as under control. Transfers to the mainland, she said, would remain limited.