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Migrants are being blamed for the wildfires in Greece

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Greece is experiencing one of its worst wildfire seasons in recorded history. At least 18 people have died in the fires in a mountainous region near the border with Turkey. That is also where migrants enter Greece, often illegally. Reporter Lydia Emmanouilidou says those facts have exposed an ugly current in Greek society.

LYDIA EMMANOUILIDOU: Officials say that lightning is probably what started the first fire in the Alexandroupolis area nearly two weeks ago, and that flames spread throughout the region because of dry and windy conditions. But locals like Iordanis (ph) tell me that's not the full story.

IORDANIS: (Through interpreter) We know very well who's lighting the fires. We've caught many people who light them. It's migrants, clearly. Here, it's illegal migrants.

EMMANOUILIDOU: Iordanis asked us not to use his last name so he could speak openly. He's blaming migrants for setting the fires, people who've crossed into Greece from the Turkish border seeking asylum. In private messaging apps and on social media, local far-right militias have been coordinating patrols, sharing locations of supposed migrant sightings and calling on people to hunt them, beat them, and even murder them.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Non-English language spoken).

EMMANOUILIDOU: In this video that went viral, a local man says he's caught several, quote, "pieces" who he claims, without evidence, were setting fires. He opens the door to his windowless trailer and shows the people he's captured.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Non-English language spoken).

EMMANOUILIDOU: Among those who shared this video is the leader of the ultranationalist political party Greek Solution, one of several far-right parties Greeks voted into their parliament in national elections in June. Police investigated the video's claims and found 13 Syrians and Pakistanis being held captive. Then, based on the testimony of the three men arrested for holding them, officials charged the migrants with arson.

ARIETIS KADOLEMOS: They said that I am an immigrant and I'm dangerous.

EMMANOUILIDOU: Arietis Kadolemos (ph) is a former actor who traveled to this region to help with relief efforts. And he found his own picture being circulated by far-right groups.

KADOLEMOS: So people start to look for me to hit me or kill me or - I don't know what they want to do with me.

EMMANOUILIDOU: The photo was taken down after he threatened to sue. Meanwhile, all those who died in the blazes in the Evros region are believed to have been migrants. Pavlos Pavlidis is the local coroner in Alexandroupolis.

PAVLOS PAVLIDIS: (Non-English language spoken).

EMMANOUILIDOU: Some were found charred in a shed, he says, where it seems they were hiding in a forested mountain area. Others were found nearby after seemingly trying to run down the mountain and escape the fire.

ELENI SPATHANA: So they lost their lives because maybe they didn't have the possibility to ask for help and protection.

EMMANOUILIDOU: Eleni Spathana is a lawyer with Refugee Support Aegean, an organization that provides legal assistance to asylum-seekers and refugees. She says harsh Greek and EU policies can force undocumented immigrants to hide for fear of being violently and unlawfully returned to Turkey.

SPATHANA: In the border area of Evros, we do have more and more, the last - in particular the last years, serious incidents of unlawful returns.

EMMANOUILIDOU: So-called pushbacks have been documented by news media and NGOs and appear to be happening more systematically under the current conservative Greek government. Greek authorities deny the allegations, but they have repeatedly expressed relief that no Greek citizens have died in the fires.

For NPR News, I'm Lydia Emmanouilidou in Alexandroupolis, Greece.

(SOUNDBITE OF ADAM BEN EZRA'S "CAN'T STOP RUNNING") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Lydia Emmanouilidou