ATHENS - With two mainland centers holding refugees and migrants in Greece quarantined after cases of the COVID-19 Coronavirus were found, and human rights groups complaining about conditions in island camps holding 42,000 people, Greece is moving many to hotels and holiday apartments shuttered during the crisis.
The idea is to create social distancing of a least 1.5 meters (4.92 feet) between people recommended to help prevent the spread of the virus but with those packed into camps and centers, especially on the islands, jammed next to each other.
That has health officials worried the pandemic could spread in the camps athough no cases had been reported at the notorious Moria camp on Lesbos that's holding 18,000 people in a space designed for one-sixth that.
Hotels and holiday apartments are being hired to temporarily house migrants, said FRANCE24, reporting that 1,600 unaccompanied child asylum-seekers being relocated around eight European Union member states after the borders had been closed.
Two Greek ministers, two European Commissioners and the director of the European border agency Frontex were among those who took part in a video meeting on April 2, organized by the European Parliament’s Civil Liberties committee.
Te United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) said there's reason to worry though with camps on five islands holding 35,000 refugees and migrants in spaces designed for only 6,000.
Human rights groups said some of the camps are inhumane and the Moria facility doesn't have enough toilets or water supplies for people to keep washing their hands to help fight off the virus.
The organizations and UNHCR want more moved off the islands and the New Democracy government, under fire from officials and residents there, was in the process of transferring some 20,000 when COVID-19 hit.
Now Minister for Migration and Asylum Notis Mitarachi said that would only move people from camps without infections to places where the virus was present, making it more likely to spread.
Imogen Sudbery, Europe Director of Policy and Advocacy for the International Rescue Committee, called that response “disappointing on several levels.” She told the news agency that, “We have been flagging the lack of capacity on the mainland for at least three years.”
“The European Commission and many other organizations have found that it would be perfectly feasible to put in place the necessary health screening arrangements” for a transfer of asylum-seekers to the Greek mainland.
'The day before the meeting, the International Rescue Committee released a report showing the Moria camp had a population density 10 times greater than that of the Diamond Princess, a cruise ship on which 712 people were infected.
European Commissioner for Home Affairs Ylva Johanssen described the crowded conditions on Greek islands as “unbearable” and said there were plans to provide another 350 million euros ($379.87 million) in aid but there were no plans to open the borders and spread some of the more than 110,000 refugees and migrants in Greece.
They had gone to Greece, mostly the islands, from Turkey where they had first gone fleeing war and strife, especially Afghanistan and Syria, as well as economic conditions in sub-Saharan Africa and other countries in hopes of reaching more prosperous countries in the EU before the borders were shut.
That left them only the option of seeking asylum in Greece but many have been stuck in the camps for two years and more waiting for their applications to be processed, which the government said would be accelerated, along with deportations.
Some of the new EU aid would be used to build new “multi-purpose” reception centers for migrants on the Greek mainland, as well as renting more temporary accommodation in hotels and holiday homes to increase short-term capacity.
Mitarachi also said that asylum applications that had been suspended because of more arrivals and Turkey sending 10,000 migrants to the land border and urging them to cross before they were stopped, would resume being reviewed.
He said that agencies were “exploring restarting the asylum process using Skype and other platforms” to work through a backlog of approximately 125,000 asylum applications, the news agency report added.
Sudbery said that, “It’s really critical we don’t see Covid-19 used as an excuse not to allow people to access the asylum system,. Particularly in Greece, if you can’t show you have registered for asylum you then don’t have access to healthcare, food, and other basic provisions."