Protecting Aegean Refugee Camps from Coronavirus: A Complicated Business

As coronavirus continues to spread throughout Europe, we are facing one of the biggest and most dangerous pandemics in recent history. European countries continue to put in place measures to fight its spread, but the consequences of this virus in our societies only continue to grow.

In Greece, the arrival of coronavirus is just another difficulty that the government, local people, and thousands of asylum seekers must now face, creating an even more overwhelming and difficult environment for the people living in the overcrowded hotspots on the Aegean Islands. This comes after Erdogan’s decision to temporarily open the borders, which increased tensions between local people, asylum seekers, and created further challenges for NGOs operating in the field.

Due to these events, asylum procedures have been temporarily suspended and organisations working in the camps have been asked to leave as a measure of protection and safety. This has led to an increasing sense of isolation for the refugee community.

But although the measures Greece is putting in place to limit the spread of coronavirus are in line with other countries, and whilst they may be very reasonable and practical for those who can effectively respect them, they are near impossible to implement by people living in the camps.

Keeping 1-meter distance between each other, using protective masks and gloves, frequently washing hands and avoiding crowded spaces are all measures extremely hard to apply in this context. In the camps, people live in tents or containers with 8 to ten others; asylum seekers must queue for hours to receive their daily food; there is extremely limited access to water and soap; across the board, the hygienic conditions are atrocious.

More and more European governments are now also asking citizens to avoid leaving their homes in order to prevent contamination. Yet how can we consider tents and containers adequate houses? How can we imagine someone spending a significant amount of time in a tent without electricity and access to basic items?

Despite these issues, over the last days, further restrictions in the camps have been put in place. In Samos, Chios and Lesvos, the camp is open only from 7:00 to 19:00. Residents are not allowed to come and go with the same freedom as before, with only one family member permitted to leave at a time.

As the situation grows increasingly worrying, NGOs working on the islands are deeply concerned for those living in the hotspots and under the shadow of a potential outbreak of the virus. Whilst we recognise the need for strong, preventative measures, we must also address the core problems that will only quicken the spread of Covid-19.

Therefore, we call for:

  • the immediate suspension of all but essential travel from the mainland to the islands with the aim of preventing incoming cases of the virus

  • immediate action to relocate asylum seekers from the islands to dignified accommodation facilities across Europe

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