The World

The Looming Refugee Coronavirus Disaster

Greece’s camps were a public health menace already.

Refugees stand in line wearing masks.
Migrants arrive at the port of Mytilene in the Greek island of Lesbos on Friday.
Manolis Laboutaris/Getty Images

ATHENS, Greece—On the Greek island of Lesbos, living conditions for the few thousand asylum-seekers in the notorious Moria refugee camp were already dismal when Mohsen first arrived in early 2017. The overcrowding, understaffing, and lack of adequate health care made the camp into a hub for illnesses.

Over the past three years, the 38-year-old Iranian asylum-seeker watched the camp’s population swell around him. With Moria’s residents now numbering an estimated 20,000, Mohsen fears that COVID-19 could eventually hit the camp, where, having fled war and economic devastation in countries from Syria to Somalia, thousands of people live in tents and makeshift shacks in the olive groves surrounding the camp’s perimeter, exposed to the elements and all sorts of illnesses.

As the coronavirus spreads across Greece, Mohsen says the camp’s shortage of doctors, supplies, and food could create a disastrous situation. “There are a lot of people in the [fields],” he said. “They don’t have anything to keep them warm [or] clean, and there’s no electricity.”

Although none of the 695 confirmed cases in Greece have been refugees, many living in the camps fear it is only a matter of time.

According to the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, there are more than 42,000 refugees and asylum-seekers—two-thirds of whom are women and children—living on the Greek islands of Lesbos, Samos, Chios, Kos, and Leros in conditions that, even under normal circumstances, are deplorable.

In a global pandemic like the one the world is currently witnessing, these conditions could quickly become deadly. During a time when governments across the world are calling for social distancing and self-isolation, Moria residents are forced to live 15 to 20 people per 45 square meter (480 square feet) per container.

Understandably, news of the first COVID-19 case on Lesbos island last week sparked fear of a potential massive outbreak at Moria. Every day, the camp’s residents find themselves standing in close proximity to one another: waiting in line for food distribution, to see the medical staff, to see the camp staff, and to use the toilets and showers.

“The food line is [still] happening and people are just too close to each other all the time,” says Estelle Jean, director and founder of the nongovernmental organization Yoga and Sports for Refugees. “There’s nothing: There isn’t enough water, there isn’t enough soap, the showers and the toilets are still in the same state,” she continues.

Women and children endure especially “difficult conditions,” Mohsen told us.

With very few options, refugees are often forced to find their own solutions to these problems. “I’m very late [going] to the food line,” says 15-year-old Masoud Alizada from Afghanistan. While his strategy allows him less contact with others, it also means less food. Alizada is one of the more than 1,000 unaccompanied minors on Lesbos and one of an increasing number of asylum-seekers without access to Greece’s public health care system.

In July 2019, the newly elected Greek government stopped issuing all newcomers with the unique social security numbers that had allowed them access to free-of-charge public health care. In February, the government made a decision to start a new program to grant access to social services for asylum-seekers; however, they have not given any indication as to when this will begin and how people will be able to register for it.

In the meantime, hundreds of asylum-seekers have been left stranded without health care, which would be concerning enough under normal circumstances.

“In some cases many people don’t have access to health services unless it’s an emergency,” explains Boris Cheshirkov, a spokesperson for the UNHCR in Athens. Which is why the UNHCR is advocating for the full inclusion of asylum-seekers into the public health care system.

Signs about proper hygiene and social distancing have now been placed around Moria camp in Arabic, Farsi, French, English, and Greek, and a general lockdown has been implemented under which only a certain number of refugees can leave the camp at a given time to do their shopping in town—after signing up on a list—and can only leave between the hours of 7 a.m. and 7 p.m.

But as the Greek government has strongly advised its citizens to remain home as much as possible with the hashtag #μένουμε_σπίτι (#StayHome) that went viral this week, many wonder what that means for refugees and asylum-seekers who have only a tent to call home, or who don’t have a home at all.

“Imagine if you are living in a tent and you cannot go outside because you are scared of getting the virus, but then you also have to get food for your family [standing] in a line where you might get the virus and you have nothing to do just to wait,” says Jean, the Yoga and Sports for Refugees director.

Jean fears that incidents like the early morning fire that broke out in Moria last Monday, killing one child and leaving many more without shelter, will occur more often. “It’s getting really bad in terms of security and the safety level, if people have to stay in the camp and they cannot go out because of this, it’s going to be worse,” she says, especially for the most vulnerable.

Meanwhile, the panic has afforded some right-wing politicians the opportunity to drum up fear over the refugee population.

In early February, the government announced plans to build closed detention centers on five Aegean islands, which will replace refugee camps on the islands and function more like prisons for new arrivals. At the time, the announcement sparked condemnation from human rights organizations and advocacy groups, while some local populations protested and rioted. Yet, the government is now pointing to the pandemic as justification for warehousing asylum-seekers in the closed centers.

On Kos island, the mayor vowed to strip refugees of their freedom of movement as a “precautionary” measure.

The situation isn’t much better for refugees living outside of the camps, either. Since coming to power in snap elections last July, the right-wing New Democracy government led a campaign of evicting refugees and migrants from squats in Athens and elsewhere, many of whom ended up sleeping in the streets or were relocated to the camps.

For those living in Athens and other large cities, the lockdown has left them unable to access valuable resources and support networks.

Along with other volunteers in the Our House humanitarian group, Arash Hampay operates a café in central Athens where refugees and migrants can get a free meal and a coffee. Earlier this month, when the government ordered all restaurants, bars, and cafés to close, the café also had to shut down.

“We [humanitarian groups] cannot do anything, and on the other hand, I’m worried about the refugees,” he told us, expressing concern that not enough is being done to provide asylum-seekers in Athens with reliable information, shelter, and access to medical supplies, such as masks and gloves.

Noah, a Syrian refugee who fled war-torn Idlib last year, worries that the coronavirus could reach the refugees and migrants currently held in closed detention centers such as Amygdaleza, where he has been locked up for more than three months.

In early March, even as news of COVID-19’s spread reached Greece, Noah said that the staff at Amygdaleza had not started implementing proper health checks for new arrivals. Stuck living in a cramped container with 17 others, he complained that the often broken showers and toilets put the camp’s detainees at even greater risk. “In Greece, there is no such thing as law,” he told us. “They treat us like animals.”