By Grainne Farrell
Featured image by Siniparksi/Coexistence Lesvos
Shortly after tensions on the Greek island of Lesvos had exploded, the first case of COVID-19 was confirmed on the island, sending another wave of intense fear through the island. Locals, NGO workers and refugees fear that a pandemic within Moria camp will be uncontrollable, and that the spread would be catastrophic, claiming the lives of many inside and outside the camps.
COVID-19 and the lockdown of Moria Camp
Upon confirmation that COVID-19 had reached Lesvos, NGOs on the island began their calls for the emergency evacuation of Moria camp, and transfers to the mainland where people would be safe. MSF described Moria as ‘an ideal breeding ground for a rapid spread’ of Coronavirus.
As Greece went into lockdown, further restrictions were imposed on the residents of Moria and Kara tepe camp, including a new curfew restricting their freedom of Movement, beginning on March 19th. Under this curfew, residents would only be allowed to leave the camp between 7am and 7pm, and to do so they would need to obtain written permission from either the police or security sources. Only one member per family would be allowed to leave. In a camp of 21,000 this is understandably extremely difficult to control. Therefore, a total of 100 persons would be allowed to leave at one time, in groups of 10. Without written permission, you could not leave the camp. Furthermore, it was announced on March 26th that the government would temporarily suspend the 90 Euro monthly allowance, until ATMs were built inside the camp. Furthermore, as of the 28th of March there has been only one medical centre, set up outside of Moria camp designed to treat those showing COVID-19 symptoms. However, in a camp of over 21,000, where influenza and colds are common, it will be extremely difficult to determine who gets tested.
Moria camp is systematically overcrowded, with people crammed together in close proximity in their living spaces and in their outdoor spaces. There are only 90 toilets and 90 showers inside of Moria, and 1 tap per 1,300 people. The official government advice, to stay home, wash your hands, sanitise, and engage in social distancing is impossible for the residents of the camps on the Greek islands. They have limited protection from COVID-19. Legal centre Lesvos, a Legal NGO, reports that the situation is equally bleak for new arrivals to the islands, who under the emergency decree of March 3rd, do not have the right to claim asylum and are immediately transferred to detention centres on the mainland. They report that in the Malakasa camp on the mainland, more than 1,500 people are in custody in one facility, with 1 portable toilet per 15 people, access to running water is sporadic and hygiene items have only been distributed once in the last two weeks. In Serres, a detention centre on the mainland, there are 7 toilets for over 600 detainees, with water running for just two hours per day.
COVID-19 cases confirmed in camps on the mainland
It was announced on Wednesday, April 1st that the first case of COVID-19 in a refugee camp in mainland Greece has been confirmed. The woman, who has been living in Ristona camp had travelled to a hospital in Athens to give birth, tested positive for COVID-19. Following tests conducted in the camp of 63 people, 20 tested positive for COVID-19. In response to this, the camp was placed on a 14 day-quarantine lockdown, with further tests being conducted on the 3,000 residents of the camp. On Sunday, April 5th the Greek migration ministry announced that a male resident of Malakasa camp on the mainland has tested positive for COVID-19, and the camp has now been put on a 14-day lockdown. The situation is now a time-ticking bomb, with efforts aimed at identifying other residents within the camps who may have contracted COVID-19, especially those with pre-existing respiratory conditions. EU Commissioner for Home Affairs, Ylva Johansson, announced on April 2nd that the EU would send money and medical equipment to Greece, whilst Vulnerable people such as the elderly and the sick will be transferred to hotel rooms. Furthermore, the transfers of unaccompanied minors to other European countries would start during the week of Monday April 6th. Whilst such announcements are welcome, groups working on the frontlines of this crisis are apprehensive in anticipation for these measures to be implemented. Transfers of unaccompanied minors had been promised following the increased tensions on the island, to then only be postponed a few days later because of COVID-19. Further, whilst the removal of the elderly and sick from the camps is essential, it could be argued that all of those living within camps in Greece are at risk of contracting COVID-19, all are exposed to extremely unsanitary conditions and all should be considered vulnerable and transferred to alternative accommodation.
NGO response to COVID-19
During the increased tensions on the Greek islands, many NGOs on Lesvos had temporarily suspended their services. With COVID-19, further restrictions were placed on their ability to work, as NGOs would no longer be permitted entry to Moria camp. An operation set up at the Team Humanity Hope and Peace centre saw resident volunteers making up to 22,000 masks to make sure every resident of Moria had some protection against COVID-19. Other organisations set about distributing soap, hand sanitiser, bottled water and translated information flyers about how to prevent the spread of COVID-19. On top of this, NGOs continue every day to call on the Greek government to evacuate the camp, and transfer people to safe accommodation on the mainland where they can practice social distancing. Without an immediate evacuation, the residents of Moria camp are at real risk of contracting the virus, which could have catastrophic effects on their lives. Medical NGOs have stated that without emergency evacuation, there is no way to avoid mass contagion.
Potential for an effective European response
On April 5th it was announced that funds have been collected in Berlin by a group of activists to airlift migrants from the Greek islands and bring them to Germany. There is the money, the resources and the accommodation available across Europe to protect everyone from COVID-19. What appears to be missing is the willingness on behalf of our political leaders to make a change. While witnessing across the world great acts and movements of solidarity in the times of COVID-19, one of the most vulnerable groups in our society has been largely left behind, abandoned yet again. It is physically impossible to practice social distancing in a camp of 21,000 people, where sanitation standards are extremely poor. Residents of the camps on the Greek islands have been left wholly unprotected, as communities across the globe self-isolate in the battle against COVID-19. As the COVID-19 crisis has taken the media attention away from the situation on the Greek islands, we must do everything within our power to fight for the safety of those whose voices have been silenced.
Change can and must be possible. In line with the demands by the group Europe Must Act, the Greek government ought to immediately evacuate the camps on the Greek islands and transfer people to a safe place where they can practice social distancing. Asylum seekers and refugees within Greece must be provided with the necessary equipment to engage in preventive measures against COVID-19, including soap, hand sanitiser and clean accommodation facilities. Other European governments must share these responsibilities with Greece, and relocate refugees and asylum seekers from the Greek islands.
The views, information, or opinions expressed in the blog post are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of Refugee Rights Europe and its employees. Refugee Rights Europe invites a spectrum of viewpoints to feature on its blog in order to highlight different aspects of the human rights crisis facing refugees and displaced people in Europe, with the hope of generating discussion conducive to constructive solutions.