Greece is one of the few countries that is being globally applauded for the efficient way of dealing with the outbreak of COVID-19. Lockdown measures were gradually lifted in May and people are continuously resuming their normal lives. The country is even preparing to welcome tourists during summer. However, this is only the bright side of the situation that is being continuously highlighted. What is left in the shadows is the situation of refugees stuck in prison-like camps on the Greek islands on the Aegean Sea. To say that the living conditions in these camps have become more difficult during the lockdown measures implemented in the last months, is a major understatement.
On the 16th of March 2020, the refugee camps in Greece went on full lockdown to try to prevent a possible outbreak of COVID-19. Aid agencies were also banned from contact with the camps. Many of these refugee camps, especially those located on the Greek islands on the Aegean Sea, are notoriously overcrowded and with limited access to running water and very poor hygienic conditions. The camp of Moria in the island of Lesvos is an example, with approximately 20.000 people living on a space designed to house a maximum level of 3.000 people. Tents and makeshifts are spread out of the official camp territory to house as many people as possible. The people living in the outskirts of camps have no sanitary means whatsoever, to stay safe from the novel coronavirus. Refugees have access to only one water tap for every 1,300 people, one toilet for 167 people, and one shower for 242 people. Under these circumstances and with the threat of a COVID-19 outbreak, it has been impossible to follow the health and hygiene guidelines of the WHO namely, washing hands, distancing from people and self-isolating at the first symptoms. Hundreds of people queue for hours every day to get access to food, water and basic supplies. NGOs and health workers have mostly left the camps, after facing violent conflicts and intimidation by local vigilante groups, who fear that a permanent presence of NGOs will only lead to more refugees coming in. This has left the remaining doctors and volunteers working inside the camps seriously overwhelmed and unable to meet the health requirements of all the patients. There are only 6 intensive care beds and only one isolation care unit available to the almost 20,000 people living at the camp (Dimitropoulos, 2020; Rankin & Smith 2020; Speed, 2020).
In order to raise awareness in the international environment about the imminent threat of an outbreak that the overcrowded camp is facing, more than 100 refugees have written a Europe-wide-letter that urges the European nations to help evacuate more people from the camps. This action has yet to bear any results. In the meantime, a group of refugees inside the camp have joined forces and organized the Moria Coronavirus Awareness Team, with the aim of educating as many as possible on how to protect themselves from the virus (Dimitropoulos, 2020).
The presence of journalists in the camp is strictly forbidden by the authorities for allegedly security and health reasons. Most of the footage and documentation received about the actual conditions inside the camp come from refugees who work with foreign organizations to raise awareness and help evacuate the camp. Most of them report that the lack of the basic humane conditions has been a catalyst to the rise of tensions in this camp. A fire during March left many people without shelter and provisions and the governments, both local and international, did not react. The inability to leave the overcrowded camp, seek help or even live in basic humane conditions has made the camp highly unsafe for the vulnerable and young, as stabbings, fights and even rapes are a nightly occurrent. There has been no involvement from the local authorities to stop or prevent the violent conflicts or the increased radicalization and hostility between different refugee groups (Knigge & Türemis, 2020).
The situation is dire in the housing establishments for refugees in the mainland as well. In a hotel housing about 500 refugees from sub-Saharan Africa, about 150 people tested positive during April. Members of the hotel staff were also found infected. The establishment was quarantined on April 21st and then again on May 26th after three more refugees at the facility were tested positive again (Ekathimerini, 2020). 20 asylum seekers also tested positive for COVID-19 at the Greek Ritsona refugee camp that is currently housing around 2,700 asylum seekers. This situation has worsened the alarm and panic of an uncontrollable outbreak as tens of thousands of asylum seekers continue to be trapped in camps that do not offer any kind of sanitary conditions. Several refugees from the camps have openly claimed that they were neglected and uninformed about the situation and the recent developments of this health crisis (Carassava, 2020; IOM, 2020). During May riots were also reported in one of the camps in northern Greece near the border with Turkey, after the asylum processes have been delayed for weeks due to the spread of the pandemic. Unaccompanied minors were also a part of the protests. According to the local reports the police were able to stop the rioting and reported no injured (Ekathimerini, 2020).
The extreme living conditions and the stress of being isolated and in fear of a coronavirus outbreak has become the catalyst for tensions in other refugee camps in Greece. A fire that spread in the refugee camp in the island Samos, where 7000 refugees live in a space designed for 650, left about 500 refugees completely homeless. The fire was reported to be a consequence of a conflict between refugees that spoke Arabic and refugees from Africa. Even after the police intervened and the fire was put out, tensions and conflicts continued between the groups locked in the camp for weeks (Al Jazeera, 2020). Other violent protests had a serious escalation in the overcrowded camp in Chios, after an Iraqi asylum seeker who was previously cleared of coronavirus, died on the camp from what other refugees claim to have been coronavirus. During these protests, a significant part of the camp was set on fire. A few hundred people were left homeless as a result, and facilities of the European asylum service, a camp canteen and several warehouse tents were destroyed. The local authorities intervened and arrested two Afghans and an Iraqi who were responsible for the unrest (Al Jazeera, 2020). To escape the violence that often breaks in the camps at night, many refugees have sought refuge in establishments outside the camps or sneak out regularly. This kind of action, although justified is in direct opposition to the quarantine and isolation rules imposed by the Greek government. The asylum and migration minister Notis Mitarachi has made it clear that there will be serious consequences for refugees and asylum seekers who will break the rules regarding quarantine and social distancing. These individuals will be stripped of the right to ask for asylum and will be deported back to their homelands or Turkey. Such a decision has been viewed very critically from human rights activists and advocates, since the international borders remain closed to the free travel of people. Human rights advocates have also raised the question of whether these lockdown measures in the refugee camps are respecting the human rights (Carassava, 2020). Despite claiming to preparations for welcoming tourists and lifting the lockdown measures for its population, the Greek government extended the duration of the lockdown measures in the refugee camps until reportedly the 7th of June (Fallon, 2020).
Despite the constant appeals to evacuate people from these camps (Grant, 2020), the EU in collaboration with the Greek government started the evacuation of asylum seekers and refugees in May. According to the agreement reached with the Greek foreign minister, 1600 minors were evacuated from these camps and reunited with family in other EU countries and the UK (Ekathimerini, 2020). During April, The International Organization for Migration pledged to evacuate 2,380 asylum seekers and refugees from the camps in the Aegean islands to other camps in the mainland within two months. In close collaboration with the Greek authorities, the IOM is trying to create new establishments, as well as furnish existing spaces to house 5000 refugees. This would allow for a larger possible evacuation of the refugees from the overcrowded camps and allow them to live in better hygienic conditions that would decrease the probability of an outspread of the virus (IOM, 2020; Infomigrants, 2020).
As calls for evacuation of the refugees from the overcrowded camps become louder, the Greek government is replacing refugees in the mainland with those scheduled to be evacuated from the islands. This move is in accordance with a new law passed in the Greek parliament in March, that reduced the period for newly recognized refugees to move out of the organized accommodation from 6 months to 30 days. In the first days of June about 9000 recognized refugeed began leaving their accommodations on the mainland to make way for the evacuated refugees from the islands. Officially the refugees are entitled to social benefits and the authorities encourage them to find work. The reality is that they face numerous barriers and strong bias against them when seeking employment. The uncertainty and lack of employment during this pandemic is an additional obstacle they must face. Such an unphased approach may force many refugees who struggle to find alternative accommodation and a source of income, to end up homeless (Siegfried, 2020). The rise of the numbers in homelessness may provoke unrest in communities and also increase the difficulty of containing the pandemic.
Additional concerns regarding refugees, were expressed by the international community after an article published in the legal forum Just security of NYU with testimonial information coming from Deutsche Welle, reported more than 10 incidents of asylum seekers being deported from the Greek islands in inflatable rafts and pushed into Turkish territorial waters since March 2020. These asylum seekers reportedly reached the Greek islands, remained under custody and supervision for several hours and were thrown back into the sea. It is no secret that the islands themselves are immensely overcrowded and are struggling to function under the lockdown imposed by the pandemic even without additional arrivals, however, the denial of asylum procedures to asylum seekers is a serious violation of the international law as well as that of the EU. Greek authorities have denied their involvement in these instances (Reidy, 2020).
The Greek government is obligated to provide the basic sanitary and health conditions of living not only to its citizens but also to the people who are currently living within its borders and under its protection. Athens has declared that Greece is fulfilling its international obligations and will continue to do so. The reports and evidence coming from the refugee camps decidedly prove otherwise. The neglect from the Greek government regarding the conditions these camps offer for the people living in them and the reluctance to offer aid in improving them is undeniable. There are no real measures being taken to provide the basic hygienic conditions that the country is obligated to provide to people especially not only during the pandemic but also in normal times. Attempts at evacuating part of the population of the camps, remained on paper for two months, as the risk of a fatal outbreak of coronavirus was at an all time high and the help offered to the refugees in these camps at an all time low. Athens has repeatedly declared that they are doing all they can and have pledged to do more to alleviate the gravity of the situation. Results, however, are yet to be seen.
Author: Keti Bocaj