The Corona time bomb is ticking in the Greek migrant camps

Athens The northeast wind drove dark clouds on Friday from the Turkish coast over the island of Lesbos. Showers fell. As always, when it rains, the trails in the Moria refugee camp turned into mud deserts. The water flushes the garbage down into the valley, seeps into the tents, soaks blankets and mattresses. “We have to act before it is too late,” says Fotini Kokkinaki from the aid organization “HumanRights360”.

For years, helpers have drawn attention to the terrible conditions in which tens of thousands of people have to live in the migrant camps on the Greek Aegean Islands. Doctors kept warning about the risk of epidemics. The fear of the corona virus is now widespread in the camps. “If the virus arrives in the crowded camps, the consequences will be devastating,” Kokkinaki warns.
Curfews, closed schools, shops and restaurants: For weeks the Greek government has been fighting against the spread of the corona virus with new bans. However, the authorities initially paid little attention to the situation in the overcrowded migrant camps. The contagion drive there is particularly great because of the large spatial confinement in which people live.

So far, according to the government’s official statement in Athens, there are no known cases of infection in the migrant camps on the islands. But that says little, because there are no systematic tests at all.

The temperature is only measured for newcomers. According to official information from the end of this week, 40 703 residents live in the five so-called hotspots, the initial reception centers on the Aegean islands of Samos, Lesbos, Leros, Chios and Kos – crammed into camps that are designed to accommodate 8896 people.

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19 283 migrants live in the notorious Moria camp on Lesvos, with space for 2757 residents. Because the official warehouse built from residential containers has been overcrowded for years, an estimated 15,000 people, including many families with children, live in the adjacent olive groves. They pitched camping tents there or made slats, cardboard and plastic tarpaulins.

Experts fear that the virus has long been rampant in Moria and the other camps, even if it has not yet been detected. The Greek Ministry of Migration and Asylum is trying to ban the impending danger with a twelve-point plan.

Visits to the camps

This includes bans on visits to the camps. They also apply to employees of non-governmental organizations that used to play an important role in the care of people. The freedom of movement of the camp residents is also restricted.

So far, they could move freely on the islands. Now they are only allowed to leave the camps in small groups for shopping between 7 a.m. and 7 p.m., but only one person per family.

Sports events and school lessons in the camps are discontinued. The sanitary facilities and common areas should be disinfected regularly. It is also planned to set up isolation stations. But it is difficult to imagine how this should be implemented in the chaotic camps.

With multilingual leaflets and loudspeaker announcements, the camp residents are informed about the precautions they can take to reduce the risk of infection. But the recommendation to keep your distance and avoid crowds of people must sound like a mockery to the camp residents.

You cannot avoid each other. Camp Vathy on Samos was built for 648 residents, but currently houses 7264 people. There are 816 places in the camp on Kos, but 2969 residents. The camp on Chios is five times overcrowded with 5363 residents.

Experts warn of uncontrollable conditions if the virus spreads in the camps. “Given the circumstances, it would be impossible to control the outbreak of the epidemic in the hotspots – thousands of lives would be in danger,” says Antigone Lyberaki of the aid organization Solidarity Now. “There is a time window to deal with the situation, but this window closes quickly.”

Government refuses to close camps

The human rights organization Human Rights Watch appealed to the government this week to immediately evacuate the island camps. The EU Commission asked Greece to take at least particularly vulnerable people, such as the elderly, the sick and families with children, from the overcrowded camps and to place them elsewhere on the islands.

The aid organization Doctors Without Borders (MSF), which tries to provide at least minimal medical care, especially for children, in the camps on Chios, Samos and Lesbos, demands a complete eviction: “The horrific living conditions are in the crowded hotspots on the islands an ideal breeding ground for Covid-19, ”says the MSF call.

The government has so far refused to close the camps and move migrants to the mainland. The reason: The virus is already rampant on the mainland. On the other hand, migrants are safer on the islands, as there have been almost no proven infections there, except for two cases on Lesbos, outside the camp.

Another reason why the government is hesitant to evacuate: Migration Minister Notis Mitarakis faces a problem that can hardly be solved. He doesn’t know what to do with the more than 40,000 migrants on the islands.

Because the 28 migrant camps on the mainland have long been overcrowded. The planned construction of new warehouses mostly meets with strong resistance from the population and local politicians in the affected communities.

Refugees Greece

Refugee women from the Moria migrant camp in Greece sew respirators.

(Photo: AFP)

There have also been local protests in the past against the accommodation of migrants in hotels and pensions that are now empty. The fear of the epidemic is likely to further fuel the resentment against migrants that is felt in many places.

The government in Athens has been calling for redistribution of asylum seekers to other EU countries for years – to no avail. In view of the corona epidemic, there is probably even less to think about than now.

After all, there is a small ray of hope: the reluctant transfer of 1,600 unaccompanied minors from the camps for weeks could finally get going, despite Corona. EU Interior Commissioner Ylva Johansson hopes the move can begin next week.

Seven EU countries have agreed to accept the minors, including Germany. A total of around 5500 unaccompanied migrants under the age of 18 live in Greece. According to the UN refugee agency UNHCR, around 2,000 of these are on the islands.

Regardless of the corona crisis, the federal government is in favor of quickly receiving minors from the refugee camps on the Greek islands. Interior Minister Horst Seehofer stand by his promise, said ministry spokesman Steve Alter on Friday in Berlin.

Looking at the organization of the EU Commission, he said: “According to our knowledge, there is movement in there.” He could not say exactly when it will happen, but “we also see progress”.

Whether Germany will eventually accept 250 or 400 minors is still as unanswered as the question of when they will leave Greece. “The Federal Government is in intensive exchange with the European partners to ensure prompt takeovers from the Greek islands,” said the Interior Ministry.

More: Greeks flee to the islands for fear of the virus: More and more Greeks are taking refuge on one of the islands. But the townspeople are not welcome there.

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