Greece’s COVID-19 Lockdown Still in Place for Refugees, Migrants

Αssociated Press

Migrants living in Greece chant slogans during a rally, in Athens, on Saturday, June 20, 2020. (AP Photo/Yorgos Karahalis)

While a lockdown aimed at preventing the spread of COVID-19 has gradually been lifted across most of Greece, apart from some pockets of lingering infections, some 120,000 refugees and migrants are still being kept confined in camps and centers.

That includes some 34,000 on islands near Turkey, where they had gone fleeing war and strife in their homelands - especially Afghanistan and Syria’s civil war - before being sent to five Greek islands by human traffickers.

Turkey has let the smugglers keep operating during an essentially-suspended 2016 swap deal with the European Union, which closed its borders to them, leaving the refugees and migrants only to seek asylum in Greece or be deported if rejected.

While the New Democracy government garnered praise for an early lockdown that held down the number of cases, and with only 190 deaths as of June 21, the refugees and migrants are still locked down despite no reports of any vast infections.

Greece's Migration and Asylum Ministry said confinement for those in the country’s migrant holding centers would be extended through July 5, the second such extension decreed by authorities since they were first imposed in March.

No explanation for the extension was provided by the ministry in the single-sentence announcement, reported the Voice of America which noted the notice came hours after 2,000 people rallied in Athens streets for World Refugee Day, demanding an end to the confinement of asylum seekers and improvement in migrants’ abysmal living conditions, was controversial.

"While restrictions on freedom of movement to protect public health can be necessary and justified," said Eva Cosse, of the Human Rights Watch in Athens, "they must be based on scientific evidence, neither arbitrary nor discriminatory in their application... respectful of human dignity and subject to review."

"The camp lockdowns do not meet these criteria," Cosse said. "And yet ... these discriminatory lockdowns continue."

Greece’s government has been widely criticized for conditions in camps and for how it holds and treats unaccompanied minors with the refugees and migrants beginning to arrive in 2015, slowed by the EU-Turkey swap deal but still continuing.

There weren’t any reported arrivals on the islands or through the closed northern land border along the Evros River from June 8-21, said the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR.)

"Even with financial support from the European Commission, Greek authorities have done little to protect camp residents from COVID-19 or mitigate the risk of infection in the facilities," Cosse said, although there curiously hasn’t been a wide outbreak.

"They haven't addressed the overcrowding that makes social distancing impossible, the lack of health care, or lack of access to adequate water, sanitation and hygiene products," she said.

Rights groups and the United Nations concern the health restrictions were eroding the rights of migrants.

"The Greek government should stop using COVID-19 as an excuse to force people to live in segregated, overcrowded and unsanitary conditions. They should be lifted immediately," Cosse said.