Athens Takes Advantage as Corona Comes to the Camps

Calls from all corners to evacuate the refugees are so far falling on deaf ears.

What had long been feared came to pass last week, with the first case of Coronavirus appearing in Moria Camp.

Its source was not a boat coming from Turkey, as some expected. No, the virus came from Athens. A 40-year old Somalian, whose refugee claim had been recognized earlier this year, returned from the Greek capital to his former island-prison home and soon after began displaying symptoms.

Why a refugee would return to a place routinely described as ‘hell on earth’ in the first place begs some thought. The answer is that, after being released from detention and making his way to Athens, the man found himself in the position of many recognized refugees in Greece – without support, without means of finding work, without housing. Facing life on the streets, he preferred to return to the Moria where, whatever else, he might have found some semblance of community.

Since then, 35 more cases have been confirmed and the camp has been completely locked down. Until at least the 15th of September, only security personnel will be allowed to enter or exit the site. '

[Moria Camp has been locked down. Credit: Stonisi]

That may well protect those outside the camp from further spread of the infection, but it will only increase the risk for those trapped inside. 13,000 people still live in the facility designed to accommodate 3,000, in what Doctors Without Borders/ Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) described all the way back in March as “overcrowded and horrific living conditions… provid[ing] the perfect storm for a COVID-19 outbreak.”

In a statement last week, Oxfam detailed the specific conditions refugees are facing there. According to them, there are up to 160 people using the same dirty toilet and over 500 people for every shower. In some parts of the camp, 325 people share one tap and there is no soap. 15 to 20 people can live in a single shipping container, or in tents or makeshift shelters.

“It would be impossible to contain an outbreak in such camps settings in Lesbos, Chios, Samos, Leros and Kos,” according to MSF Medical Co-ordinator for Greece, Dir Hilde Vochten. “To this day we have not seen a credible emergency plan to protect and treat people living there in case of an outbreak.”

[Camp conditions make hygiene measures and social distancing impossible. Credit: Stonisi]

Since the initial detection, the government has sent teams to the camp to carry out mass-testing, with an initial aim to have taken 2000 samples over the weekend. Those samples are being taken at the COVID clinic donated just a few weeks ago by the Dutch government, which, besides only being installed six months into the pandemic, was not even staffed until this first COVID detection. It remains under-staffed with plans for it to be fully operational “within the month of September.”

That is sure to be too late for the inhabitants for the camp, where “even handwashing and social distancing are impossible,” according to Human Rights Watch researcher Belkis Wille. “The squalid conditions in the camps… make clear that [the Greek government] is not complying with minimum preventative and protective measures against COVID-19.”

That’s a view held not only by NGOs and rights groups, but also by the Lesvos Medical Association, whose president wrote a letter to the president of the Greek public health authority, declaring that “the conditions in [the camp] make it practically impossible to trace [cases].” They also submitted a series of urgent requests to immediately improve the response to the outbreak, including “to staff the [Dutch-donated COVID clinic] IMMEDIATELY.”

[Testing has been started but the Dutch-donated facility is understaffed. Credit: Stonisi]

All observers agree: the government has been negligent in its preparation for this entirely foreseeable event. Not only that, it has actively undermined efforts of NGOs to make their own preparations. There already was a COVID clinic for refugees set up on the island earlier this year, but local officials forced its closure with threats of fines and even jail-time for city-planning violations.

It’s clear the government’s priority isn’t protecting the refugees – or the citizens of Lesvos. Instead, it’s pressing ahead with long-held plans to transform the Moria Camp into a closed detention centre, from which refugees will no longer be allowed to leave at all.

Contracts have already been inked between the Greek government and private firms for the preparation and construction of the new site, which is envisaged to be ready by early November, according to official documents.

Authorities are keen to paint their 70-million-euro scheme – the current camp cost 10 million – as the solution to the outbreak. Minister of Immigration and Asylum, Notis Mitarakis, noted that “the current incident demonstrates the need to create closed and controlled structures.” Meanwhile, the commander of Moria Camp, commenting on the outbreak, said that “unfortunately, these are the problems of open structures. If it was a closed structure, it would not happen.”

The fact that there were no recorded cases of Coronavirus for six months while the camp remained relatively open seems lost on the minister and the commander. ‘Relative,’ because the camp has still already been subject to entry and exit controls – though not full lockdown – for the past few months, anyway.

Nor does there seem to be any consistency in the approach being taken with the rest of Greece, where the coronavirus situation was recently described by one member of the country’s Covid-19 Committee of Experts as ‘critical,’ following the upward trend observed in most countries in Europe, but nonetheless ‘manageable,’ with its 7-day rolling average of daily new cases hitting 200 last week, twice the greatest extent of the first wave in April that saw the whole country shut down.

Or the situation on the rest of Lesvos which, the Medical Association noted in its letter, was currently experiencing “perhaps the highest [number of cases per 100,000 inhabitants] in the country.”

Yet they are still not subject to anywhere as draconian a lockdown as the refugees, leading NGOs to accuse the government of – in the words of a statement from NGO Lesvos Solidarity – “instrumentalising the first confirmed case of COVID-19 in Moria camp to continue their toxic rhetoric and carry out their repressive agenda.”

[Aid groups accuse the Greek government of taking advantage of the crisis. Credit: Franziska Grillmeier]

Opposition to the construction of a new, closed camp comes not only from NGOs, but from the people of Lesvos, as well. Nikis Tsirigoti, leader of the ‘Popular Coalition’ faction in the municipal council of Mytilene, the island’s capital, said in a statement that “the unfortunate and dangerous request to create a centre… does not represent the [wishes of the] majority of the residents of the area.” Instead, it is “completely disorientating and divisive… and… unquestionably serves the government’s plans to turn our islands into a vast prison of souls.”

The government “did not take any measures to avoid this situation,” she continues. “On the contrary, it seemed to be waiting for this development in order to bring out the plans that it had been keeping in its drawers for a long time.”

The citizens of Lesvos have expressed their opposition to such plans before. The government’s attempt to move forward with a new closed centre on the island was the primary cause of the demonstrations, riots and violence that erupted through March and April. Judging from the statement of Erifili Chiotelli, leader of the ‘With a Compass to the Citizen’ municipal faction, local sentiment has not changed since then. “A government that uses the coronavirus to implement its decision to set up closed centres on the islands should face the dynamic reaction of the local authorities… not silence!... Not only will it not solve any problem but very soon we will witness the problems it will create.”

Local frustration, though influenced by xenophobia and right-wing extremism into opposition to NGOs and refugees, otherwise quite legitimately stems from a concern not only for the citizens of Lesvos, but for the welfare of the refugees themselves. Chiotelli and Tsirigoti agree as to the solution:

“We will not allow our island to become a vast prison…” says Tsirigoti. “We will go forward to prevent the decisions of the government, to demand together with the inhabitants to close [Mora Camp] permanently], to have no new structures in Lesvos, to proceed here and now with the organized, mass release of refugees and immigrants from the island, to transport refugees and migrants to mainland Greece, to public, open and dignified places of residence and then, with rapid procedures, to their countries of destination, to pressure the EU to accept refugee-migrants and under the responsibility of the EU and the UN to organize asylum services in Turkey.”

Those demands are echoed by MSF, who, amongst a range of expanded health measures, also call for “the total evacuation of all residents of Moria camp, with a specific urgency to move these particularly vulnerably people to safe accommodation on Lesvos, the mainland or other EU states.

[Credit: UNHCR/Achilles Zavallis]

The UNHCR, a long-standing critic of the EU’s treatment of migrants, also added its voice to the calls. Assistant High Commissioners for Protection and Operations, Gillian Triggs and Raouf Mazou concluded a four-day visit to Greece over the weekend.

“Greece and its people have shown tremendous solidarity and compassion with thousands of refugees and asylum seekers,” said Mazou at the end of the visit.

“But there are critical gaps and issues that must be addressed, including the urgent need to drastically improve living conditions and reduce overcrowding at the reception facilities in the Aegean Islands, as well as ensuring the full inclusion of refugees and asylum seekers in the COVID-19 response.”

One can only hope that it is not too late for the Government to heed that advice. The lives of many in Moria camp are at stake.

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