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6th Apr 2020

Coronavirus

Coronavirus: Greek island refugees in semi-lockdown

  • Moria has some 20,000 migrants and asylum seekers. It is designed for 3,000 (Photo: Save the Children)

The Greek government is imposing a curfew on refugees and migrants in the overcrowded Moria camp on the Greek island of Lesbos, as part of its response against the coronavirus pandemic.

The measures come as Athens bans large public gatherings and demands social distancing to curb the spread of Covid-19, a highly-contagious virus with no known cure.

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But in Moria, where some 20,000 people are already stuck in a camp designed for 3,000, the move comes amid heightened fears of an outbreak.

The latest raft of government restrictions means only one person per family will be allowed to leave per day. They then must return by early evening at which point the camp is on lockdown until the next morning.

According to the Greek Council of Refugees, an NGO, the measures apply to those hosted inside the facilities, or roughly a third of the asylum seekers on the island.

Peter Casaer of Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), speaking to EUobserver over the phone from Moria, said the plans could provoke violence.

"We have some doubts. This might incite acts of violence, we don't know yet," he said on Wednesday (18 March), noting the government plans were broadcast in several languages over loudspeakers throughout the camp.

One tap: 1,300 people

One of the main recommendations to prevent outbreaks is to wash hands regularly. But with limited access to clean water, the idea falls flat for those in a camp equipped with one water tap for some 1,300 people.

"With one tap for 1,300 people? It is not possible, some people don't have access to soap," he pointed out, noting many are forced to share tents and queue for basic services like food.

MSF has a clinic just outside the camp that deals with mental health, child care and other medical services.

With Covid-19 now a global pandemic, Casaer says MSF staff are preparing "to distinguish possible suspect cases" in Moria.

Meanwhile, the island's main hospital in Mytilene only has a few beds to isolate people in case of infection, he said.

There are no known cases of Covid-19 in the camp. But last week a local Greek Lesbos-island resident tested positive for the virus.

Over 3,000 arrived on the island in January and February this year, many of them families.

Moria has for the past four years, along with other smaller camps on the Greek Aegean islands, shamed Europe for its callous treatment of refugees, migrants and asylum seekers.

Oxfam, an NGO, in a recent report said parents are afraid of bathing their children, in fear that they may catch a cold or, worse, die.

Dimitra Kalogeropoulou, the Greece director for the International Rescue Committee, said the only way to ensure refugees and asylum seekers are equipped to deal with the spread of the coronavirus is to relocate them off the islands.

She said priority should be given to unaccompanied minors, families with children, the elderly and people suffering from existing health conditions.

"Today, more than ever, swift relocation is crucial to protect the health and lives of people trapped on the Greek islands, in light of the Europe-wide developments relating to the pandemic," she said, in an emailed statement.

For its part, the European Commission said it was unable to comment directly on the Greek proposals on the island.

"It is not in the commission's ability to assess the appropriateness or not of health related measures that member states are taking," a commission spokesperson told reporters in Brussels.

Efforts to relocate some 1,600 unaccompanied minors seeking protection from Greece to a handful of EU states appear to have also since stalled.

"Propagation of the virus puts a spanner in the works," said the spokesperson.

Berlin ready to airlift Greek island refugees

Berlin's justice minister Dirk Behrendt has said the city is ready to airlift up to 1,500 asylum seekers and refugees stuck on the Greek islands, as German activists collect money to pay for the evacuation.

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