Refugee, Migrant Surge Collides With Coronavirus Scare in Greece

March 2, 2020

ATHENS – Just as Greece was heading toward accelerating a slow recovery from a near-decade long economic and austerity crisis under Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis, the New Democracy leader has been bedeviled by twin crisis: Turkey opening the borders for refugees and migrants and fears over the coronavirus.

With seven cases of the deadly disease confirmed in Greece, none said to be serious yet, just the prospect had the government scrambling to prevent an economic fallout, especially if it cuts into tourism after several consecutive record years.

The outbreak in the tourist hotspot of northern Italy, including a stretch from Milan to Florence and Venice, with 17 fatalities and at least 650 cases so far, has made near ghost towns of those areas, with a number of regions and towns shot down and quarantined.

Mitsotakis had to convene two emergency meetings in recent days, first over the virus and then with Turkey sending thousands of refugees and migrants to the Greek border, being repelled by Greek police and army units.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, furious over the death of 33 Turkish soldiers in an area of northern Syria they had invaded, unleashed the hordes on the EU as he had long threatened to do.

There are some 5.5 million in Turkey who had gone there fleeing war and strife in their homelands, including Afghanistan and Turkey, but also economic migrants from other regions who want to get to the EU.

The bloc, however, has closed its borders to them and other countries reneged on promises to help take some of the overload, dumping the problem largely on Greece which is holding about 100,000 in detention centers and camps, including 42,000 on islands near Turkey.

Closing the borders is also aimed at preventing the spread of the virus, Mitsotakis said as he warned refugees and migrants to not try to get into the country because now it has joined the EU in shutting them out.

There are already some 100,000 refugees and migrants in Greece, including about 42,000 on islands near Turkey which has let human traffickers operate during an essentially-suspended 2016 swap deal with Turkey.

Before Turkey opened the floodgates for more, human rights groups and activists said conditions in island camps were inhumane and the government said acknowledged they were a “ticking health bomb,” while being criticized for doing little to improve them.

“Our islands are already overburdened with public health issues and they must be doubly protected,” Mitsotakis, whose administration has taken a tough stance on migration, told a cabinet meeting, reported the news agency Reuters.

Mitsotakis said he had invoked a European Union directive allowing member states to elevate border security if public health was at risk, the report added.

“Putting it simply, we will do whatever it takes to prevent the appearance of the virus – particularly there,” he said, referring to the islands.

Before the new eruption of the refugee and migrant crisis, the government said that tourism books had been hit but not dramatically as there was a calm for call although island officials and residents are fiercely resisting new centers aimed at vetting refugees and migrants deemed eligible for asylum.

An official at the Bank of Greece told Reuters the central bank was so far sticking to its projections for an economic expansion of 2.4% to 2.5% this year but that was before the battles began at the border.


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