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Human Rights Watch Says Greece Refugee Camps Face COVID-19

Αssociated press

Migrants wave from the their balconies at a hotel in Kranidi town about 170 kilometers (106 miles) southwest of Athens, Tuesday, April 21, 2020. (AP Photo/Thanassis Stavrakis)

ATHENS - While there haven’t been any outbreaks of the COVID-19 Coronavirus in refugee and migrant detention centers and camps on Greek islands, Human Rights Watch (HRW) still said more should be transferred to the mainland to prevent it.

The group, as well as some two dozen other rights organizations, activists, and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) working on five islands near Turkey’s coast have long complained the facilities are inhumane holding pens.Now they said that with those being held unable to keep a recommended social distance of 1.5 meters (4.92 feet) apart from each other in overcrowded conditions - the Moria camp on Lesbos is holding nearly 18,000 people in a space designed for 3,000 - that the transfers are more imperative.

The New Democracy government said it would move 2,380 in two stages although it wasn’t said where they would go on the mainland after a report that COVID-19 was found among those being housed in a hotel on the Peloponnese.

“While the Greek government is working to stop the spread of the virus, the images of the squalid conditions in camps on the islands make clear that it’s not complying with minimum preventive and protective measures against COVID-19 there,” said Belkis Wille, senior Crisis and Conflict researcher at HRW. “Even handwashing and social distancing are impossible in these circumstances.”

Asylum seekers at the Moria camp on Lesbos protested being kept there, demanding to be moved off the island, fearing they would be infected if they stay there, said Kathimerini.

The protestors stood outside the camp holding banners that read "Freedom for all. We are exposed to COVID-19." The migrants will be the first out of a total of 2,380 members of vulnerable groups, such as the elderly or those with underlying ailments, who are to be moved out of island camps over the next two weeks.

HRW said As of April 20, there were 34,875 migrants and asylum seekers living in the camps on the Greek Aegean islands of Chios, Kos, Leros, Lesbos, and Samos – more than six times their capacity.

The group said it interviewed 11 male asylum seekers from Afghanistan, Palestine, Somalia, and Syria by phone in English and Arabic between April 6-16, and nine aid workers on Chios, Leros, Lesbos, and Samos and had analyzed photos and video footage showing the conditions in the camps.

Some 2,401 Covid-19 cases and 121 deaths have been reported on mainland Greece as of April 20, and 11 cases in the local population on the islands, according to reports from the media, but none in island camps.

But one aid worker not named said that, “It is very unlikely that COVID-19 will never come to Moria. The only solution, if we want to minimize casualties, is to decongest before it comes,” the worker said.

HRW called on the government to identify people in the camps at greater risk of serious illness and death from the virus including older people and people with chronic diseases and serious underlying medical conditions, and other especially at-risk groups, as well as unaccompanied children, people with disabilities, pregnant women, and women who have recently given birth.

The group said they and their families should be taken to hotels, apartments, and other housing units to better have access to food, water, sanitation, health care, and other basic necessities and be able to practice safe distancing.

Soon after the first COVID-19 cases were reported in Greece, the government announced measures on March 17 to prevent an outbreak in the island camps including limits on coming and going other than for obtaining necessities. Suspended were activities including informal schools, and prohibiting access to visitors except those providing essential services, the conditions continued for until at least May 20 under a greater lockdown on the mainland and for islands residents.

The European Union’s Home Affairs Commissioner announced April 2 that part of its €350 million ($377.88 million) financial aid for Greece would cover temporary accommodation for migrants and asylum seekers on the islands, including in holiday homes and hotels on the islands and through an increase in the reception capacity on the mainland.

Greek authorities developed a plan to decongest the island camps following “triage” of the migrants and asylum seekers, giving transfer priority to people over 60, those with “specific medical conditions,” and their immediate family members.

“COVID-19 exposes that the lack of EU solidarity on addressing the congestion in the Greek islands has not only made the situation worse but is now putting thousands of lives at risk,” Wille said. “The Greek government and the EU should show they can win this race against the clock while addressing in a humane way the massive overcrowding that has been a problem for years.”