GREECE has quarantined a refugee camp in the country’s mainland – home to 2,300 people – for at least two weeks after 20 of its residents tested positive for Covid-19.
Doctors Without Borders (or MSF), along with other NGOs, is calling for the camps to be urgently evacuated to avoid the pandemic spreading through vulnerable communities already lacking basic healthcare.
And Greece’s Ministry of Migration announced on Thursday that movement from the Ritsona camp will be heavily restricted and monitored by police. All of those who tested positive showed no symptoms, the ministry reported.
The measures came as authorities tested dozens of people in the camp, after a woman who had been living there was found to have the infection as she gave birth in a nearby hospital last week – in the first recorded case of a refugee contracting Covid-19. Health officials are currently investigating the source of the infection, and are testing more camp residents to establish how many have the virus.
The International Organisation for Migration (IOM), one of the official actors in Ritsona which will continue to have a presence during the quarantine, was attempting to protect the site, located some 70 kilometres (43 miles) north of the capital Athens, from a more serious outbreak.
An IOM spokesperson told Al Jazeera they would begin to distribute food baskets and hygiene kits to camp residents, adding that people would continue to have access to medicine. The spokesperson said there would be a heightened police presence around the camp to ensure the lockdown measures were adhered to.
The cases have come amid growing calls from NGOs, doctors and academics for the European Union to evacuate refugee camps during the coronavirus pandemic. But thousands in Greece live in packed and squalid camps, and are therefore at high risk.
Kayvan Bozorgmehr, a doctor and professor from the School of Public Health at Bielefeld University in Germany, told Al Jazeera that the conditions in Greek refugee camps were potential hotspots for the virus to spread.
‘Refugees in camps are at high risk of acquiring infectious diseases due to crowded conditions with poor hygiene and sanitation,’ said Bozorgmehr, who is among the academics calling for the evacuation of Moria, Greece’s notoriously overcrowded camp on Lesbos island.
‘It is very likely that refugees will become infected with the … virus in host communities or in hospitals. An uncontrolled spread in camp contexts, such as those on the Greek islands, may lead to a public health disaster as measures of social distancing and quarantine are impossible in these settings.’
The first case of Covid-19 was confirmed on Lesbos island three weeks ago, affecting a Greek national. As yet, there are no confirmed cases in Moria – which hosts nearly 20,000 people in a space designed for just below 3,000.
Parwana Amiri, a 16-year-old from Afghanistan living in Ritsona, has been raising awareness among the camp residents in anticipation of an outbreak. ‘Refugees have to know how to protect themselves against the virus,’ she told Al Jazeera, adding that everyone she knew was worried. ‘As young people, we have the most important role in the family.’
Amiri encourages others her age to talk to their family members about the best way to wash hands to prevent transmission. ‘This virus does not have any borders and treats all equally,’ she said. ‘While you stay at home, we have to stay in the camp where there is no guarantee of health safety.’
In response to calls to decongest the islands, Greece’s Ministry of Migration has offered a series of what they say are preventive measures. These include effective lockdowns of the island camps, and in Moria only 100 people an hour are permitted to leave. Any remaining NGOs have to submit a list of staff who will be working in the camp.
Mainland camps such as Ritsona were already subject to measures in line with the rest of the country’s population. For instance, everyone in Greece must now provide a form detailing one of six reasons to be outside, and carry identification.
As of Wednesday evening, Greece had 1,415 confirmed cases of the virus and a total of 50 deaths.
- Meanwhile, German activists have collected funds to start airlifting refugees and asylum seekers from the Greek islands to Berlin. ‘If the governments say yes, we can start immediately. It is a matter of organisation with a flight broker, which means it could take two days,’ Axel Steier of the German NGO Mission Lifeline, told EUobserver last Tuesday.
Steier, who co-founded the NGO, says they collected 55,000 euros in donations following plans by city of Berlin state politicians to relocate 1,500 people – or possibly more stuck on the Greek islands – to the German capital. He says German church affiliated charity organisations like Diakonie and Stadtmission Berlin have agreed to help when it comes to housing the new arrivals.
The money collected covers two flights, but the NGO is seeking more donations to continue future airlifts. ‘We try to finance more now so we can make an airlift between Lesbos and Berlin, and if there is more money and more willing local governments, we can bring more,’ said Steier.
Some 42,000 refugees, asylum seekers and migrants are spread out across five Greek Aegean islands. Of those, around 20,000 are crammed into Moria, a camp on the island of Lesbos whose facilities are designed to accommodate 3,000.
Faced with deplorable conditions, described as among the worst in the world when it comes to refugee camps, fears are mounting of a looming Covid-19 outbreak amid reports by Human Rights Watch that Greece is also arbitrarily detaining nearly 2,000 people on the mainland.
The urgency of the efforts to decongest the islands has since led to a new proposal by the Berlin state government to bring in the most vulnerable.
In an interview with German media outlet Der Tagesspiegel, Berlin’s justice minister Dirk Behrendt said the idea had received cross party support at the state level and that the city is ready to take in people. ‘The red-red-green state government is completely on the same page,’ he said, in reference to party coalition colours spanning the Social Democratic Party, Left Party, and the Greens.
‘If something doesn’t happen very quickly at the federal level – and for me this is more a question of hours than days – then Berlin is also prepared to take its own steps together with civil society organisations and fly people out of Lesbos.’
He noted that while Germany was able to repatriate 170,000 holiday-makers around the world in a matter of days due to the pandemic, the federal government is still dithering about on earlier pledges to relocate unaccompanied minors from Greece. ‘There is apparently a reluctance in Germany because there are fears of playing into the hands of the AfD (Alternative for German, a far-right political party) with a large-scale evacuation operation,’ he told Tagesspiegel.
The EU had earlier this year cobbled together a plan to evacuate 1,600 unaccompanied minors in the aftermath of Turkey’s failed efforts to force political concessions after opening its borders for migrants to cross into Greece.
Croatia, France, Germany, Ireland, Italy, Luxembourg and Portugal were among the first to agree to take in the minors, but the proposal stalled following the outbreak of Covid-19. Some states, such as the Netherlands, have flat-out refused. ‘We are not willing to take over children,’ said Dutch migration minister Ankie Broekers-Knol earlier this month.
- The leader of the International Rescue Committee IRC’s Covid-19 response, Vice President of Emergencies and Humanitarian Action, Bob Kitchen, has reported as follows on ‘how we are fighting the virus and what’s at risk’ for the three countries he’s most worried about.
‘I have been working in the global emergency response field for over 20 years. What we are seeing with Covid-19 is unlike anything we’ve experienced in our lifetimes. The last global pandemic was the 1918 influenza outbreak … While this new disease threatens to overwhelm many nations’ health systems, I believe we can still take actions to minimise the spread of Covid-19 and save lives.
‘As the leader of our Covid-19 response globally, I am coordinating International Rescue Committee teams in more than 40 countries, including the US. Our staff of over 13,000 aid workers are well established around the world and thus in a unique position to help.
‘We released the IRC Covid-19 Risk and Response Plan 17 days ago, which I believe sets the humanitarian response standard. We shared it with staff and team leaders around the world, as well as governments and donors. I’m starting to see elements of the plan being implemented in government planning.
‘We’re also sharing it with our sister aid organisations that might not be as fortunate as we are to have health experts available. They are … appreciating our outreach. Refugees do not have the luxury of social distancing.
‘When this virus hits a war zone, as it did this week in Syria, it reaches into populations already at high risk. Restricting movement in and out of refugee camps will be a nightmare. These camps are dependent on inflow of supplies, services and materials, and refugees routinely come and go for work.
‘Everybody who works for the IRC will be tasked with distributing key messages. Refugees … will listen to us about the risks they face, how to stay healthy, and what to do if they feel ill. We’ll encourage people who are sick to get treatment and self-isolate.
‘We can promote safety in crowded refugee camps by increasing the supply of fresh water and the number of hand-washing stations, infection control points and public health communications. Our staff on the ground is acting swiftly.
‘In the coming weeks, we will also be scaling up our “SignPost Project”, a game-changing online engagement platform that can be accessed from mobile phones. Within a week of its launch, 80,000 people in Europe logged on and accessed information specifically about Covid-19. We are currently relaunching in Greece and exploring how we can scale up the platform’s impact in other countries.
‘The SignPost Project includes building on our impressively large Facebook presence with refugees across Europe, which allows us to reach vulnerable populations with posts, videos and podcasts.
‘A large team of moderators are constantly answering questions, engaging communities, and advising people on how to access services and stay safe.’