During Coronavirus, What to Do About Greece’s Refugee Camps?

Αssociated Press

Migrants, who currently live at Moria camp, cut cloth to sew protective masks, on the northeastern Aegean island of Lesbos, (AP Photo/Aggelos Barai)

ATHENS - As the New Democracy government essentially locked down the country to deal with the COVID-19 Coronavirus pandemic, guidelines including advice people should stay at least 1.5 meters (4.92 feet) apart can’t work in refugee and detention centers, including on islands holding some 42,000 of them.

There are another 58,000 on the mainland and health officials had already warned - as have human rights groups working in the facilities - that the camps and centers are health hazard bombs and a petri dish to spread the disease.

In a feature, Slate magazine reported on the dire conditions and worry that the government won’t be able to cope if COVID-19 gets into the camps and centers that are so overcrowded people are living cheek-by-jowl and in filth, with not enough toilets or showers and human waste on the ground.

There are some 20,000 on the island of Lesbos near Turkey, which has let human traffickers keep sending more during an essentially-suspended swap deal with the European Union, including 18,000 in the notorious Moria camp designed for 3,000.

That has led to frequent tension between ethnic groups who had fled their homelands to get away from war and strife and poor economic conditions and went first to Turkey as a jumping-off point to get to the EU - through Greece - before the bloc shut down to them.

That dumped the problem largely on Greece during a long-running economic and austerity crisis with the country on the verge of accelerating a slow recovery after the Aug. 20, 2018 end of 326 billion euros ($353.87 billion) in three international bailouts.

The government, after a surge in more refugees and migrants sent from Turkey, responded by suspending asylum applications and detaining those who came after March 1 with plans to deport them to their homelands.

But the problem of overcrowding festers in the camps and centers as the government was in the midst of transferring 20,000 to the mainland and as island officials and residents want them all taken off.

At Moria, the magazine said, “The overcrowding, understaffing, and lack of adequate health care made the camp into a hub for illnesses,” with a man identified only as Mohsen saying that a shortage of doctors, supplies and food are a recipe for disaster and disease.

None of the 731 cases reported in Greece are refugees or migrants but those in the camps and centers said they are worried their time is coming and that it could be a further devastating blow for them.

The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) said two-thirds of the asylum seekers are women and children being detained on islands, including Samos, Chios, Los and Leros, almost within sight of Turkey’s coast, and are in miserable conditions.

With people around the world urged to stay at least 1.5 meters (4.96 feet) apart, there are 15 to 20 people per 45 square meters in the Moria camp, the report said, and news of the first case of COVID-19 on the island set fear in the camp surging.

In a global pandemic like the one the world is currently witnessing, these conditions could quickly become deadly. During a time when governments across the world are calling for social distancing and self-isolation, Moria residents are forced to live 15 to 20 people per 45 square meter (480 square feet) per container.

Every day, the camp’s residents find themselves in close proximity to one another: waiting in line for food distribution, to see the medical staff, to see the camp staff, and to use toilets and showers that are packed.

The food line is [still] happening and people are just too close to each other all the time,” Estelle Jean, Director and founder of the non-governmental organization (NGO) Yoga and Sports for Refugees told the magazine. “There’s nothing: There isn’t enough water, there isn’t enough soap, the showers and the toilets are still in the same state,” she continues.

Imagine if you are living in a tent and you cannot go outside because you are scared of getting the virus, but then you also have to get food for your family (standing) in a line where you might get the virus and you have nothing to do just to wait,” said Jean.