After Greece was hit by what has become the largest European wildfire ever recorded, unfounded and baseless claims circulated in August 2023 that asylum-seekers started some of the blazes, whipping up an anti-migrant frenzy online.
Soon after the first fires broke out on August 19 around the city of Alexandroupoli — near a well-trodden route for migrants entering Europe from Turkey — pictures and videos were posted on social media claiming to show makeshift arson devices created by migrants crossing the border.
At least two Greek news reports implicating migrants were quickly corrected, or denied by the authorities, but this did not stop social media posts from sharing groundless accusations that in some cases incited calls to violence.
The Alexandroupoli wildfire is the largest recorded in the European Union since 2000, when the European Forest Fire Information System (EFFIS) began recording data, the service said on August 29.
The social media assault intensified after a group of 13 Pakistani and Syrian men were accused by locals of being caught red-handed trying to light a fire outside Alexandroupoli, in the Evros region.
One of the locals posted a live Facebook video on August 22 showing migrants stacked in a trailer, boasting that he had caught them for trying to “burn us.”
“Don’t show them… burn them,” someone wrote in the comments.
The 45-year-old man was arrested the same day along with two alleged accomplices, while authorities insisted that “vigilantism” would not be tolerated. The three were charged with inciting racist violence, among other offences, and put under house arrest.
The 13 migrants were also arrested and later charged with illegal entry and attempted arson. But a government source told Kathimerini daily that the migrants might have been intending to make campfires, rather than commit premeditated arson.
A picture of a device that was said to be used to start fires was widely shared online. It showed two car tyres crammed with styrofoam and wood. However, it was not clear who had built this and for what purpose.
On August 25, legal authorities investigating the case released four of the migrants. The remaining nine were also released without restricting measures on August 28. For all 13, the charges of arson were dropped as the only evidence against them was the testimony of the man who detained them. He remains under house arrest awaiting trial.
The migrants were led to a migrant detention centre as they had entered the country illegally.
The man arrested for detaining the migrants — who has been dubbed the “Evros sheriff” by Greek media — was placed under house arrest. He claimed he intervened after seeing the migrants attempting to light the device in bushes near a supermarket.
A similar incident from the Evros region gained media attention on August 28, with a video released on social media showing migrants on the ground, while two men and the man filming the video stand around them. The latter disparagingly calls the migrants “investors,” referring to a statement made by former Deputy Foreign Minister Dimitris Mardas in 2016 that the government would treat migrants with financial standing who could invest in the country favourably.
Another claim said that 20 migrants had been arrested outside Alexandroupoli after exchanging gunfire with police and the army. The claim was first made by a local news portal and was widely shared online. Authorities later denied this to AFP. The fact-checking organisation Ellinika Hoaxes also investigated the claim and could not confirm it ever happened.
Similarly, national TV station Open issued a correction on August 23 after erroneously reporting that two migrants had been caught lighting a fire in the neighbouring region of Rodopi.
Sparked by lightning
The fire that broke out on August 19 and swept across parts of northern Greece was sparked by lightning, according to Alexandroupoli’s mayor Giannis Zamboukis. The EU’s Copernicus service said the total burnt area was estimated at 808,7 square kilometres by August 29.
The area is just a few kilometres from the Turkish border. Migrant crossings aided by smugglers occur here on a regular basis.
In 2020, tens of thousands of migrants tried to break through this remote northeastern area, clashing for days with Greek security forces. Work on extending a 37.5-kilometre steel barrier to block the path is to be completed by the end of 2023.
“They want to destroy us”
The anti-migrant sentiment seen on social media is strong in Greek border areas.
“I am absolutely convinced that the fires were caused by migrants,” Evros resident Christos Paschalakis told AFP. “They burn us, they steal from us, they kill us in road accidents,” he said.
“I have no doubt that the forest fire was started by migrants,” said Vangelis Rallis, a 70-year-old retired logger from Dadia, a village near a key national park that also burned last year.
“They burned it last year, and this year they returned to finish the job. They may have even been paid to do it. They want to destroy us,” he said.
The issue also sparked political controversy after Kyriakos Velopoulos, the leader of the nationalist party Greek Solution, joined the attacks on migrants and praised the man arrested for illegally detaining them.
An MP for Velopoulos’ party, Paris Papadakis, also called on locals to “take measures” as migrants were allegedly “obstructing” fire-fighting plane pilots. “We are at war,” Papadakis said in a Facebook post.
In national elections in June 2023, Velopoulos’ party and two other far-right groups posted their highest ratings in northern Greece.
In the Evros region, Greek Solution scored nearly nine percent of the vote.
Victims believed to be migrants
The fires in the Evros region have cost the lives of 20 people, all of whom were believed to be migrants.
Another man, most likely a migrant, was found dead in the area of Lefkimmi near the Turkish border a day earlier and one more body, probably also belonging to a migrant, was found charred in the same area on Friday 25 August.