Protests Highlight Dangers of COVID-19 for Greece Refugees

Protests Highlight Dangers of COVID-19 for Greece Refugees

The unrest at the Vial refugee camp on the Greek island of Chios on the night of April 18th has highlighted the dangers the COVID-19 pandemic poses to the tens of thousands of refugees left stranded in Greece’s overcrowded camps after neighboring Balkan countries shut their borders four years ago. Those protests, which began after an Iraqi asylum seeker died of what fellow refugees suspected was COVID-19, resulted in a fire which left many of the Vial camp’s facilities ruined.

Since the start of the health crisis caused by the SARS-CoV-2 virus, public health officials and humanitarian organizations have feared for the safety of refugee populations in Europe but also across the Middle East. Many of the millions of people displaced by conflicts in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, and other countries are now housed in conditions that leave them extremely vulnerable to potential COVID-19 outbreaks.

Struggling to provide access to hygiene

Greece’s struggles with housing its population of asylum seekers is a microcosm of the broader issue facing the Mediterranean region as a whole. The Vial camp, for example, is meant to house roughly 1,000 people but is instead home to over 5,000. The most overcrowded camp in Greece, Moria on the island of Lesbos, was built for a maximum of 3,100 residents but is now home to as many as 20,000. Camp Moria already saw protests against poor living conditions and the grueling asylum process before the height of the pandemic in February. Conditions in the camp, which aid workers point out is equipped with only 300 toilets connected to a failing sewage system, leaves residents at risk for COVID-19 but also a number of other diseases.

A report from the International Rescue Committee (IRC) released earlier this month highlights the dangers a highly communicable illness like COVID-19 poses to people living in overcrowded refugee camps. Those conditions make it impossible for refugees to practice the type of social distancing that European governments are now obligating their citizens to follow. Comparing those facilities to the infamous Diamond Princess cruise ship, where 24 people were quarantined per 1,000 square meters and where the SARS-CoV-2 virus spread four times faster than in Wuhan at the height of the Chinese province’s COVID-19 outbreak, the IRC determined that Camp Moria forces 204 people into the same amount of space.

EU aid fails to produce results

The financial assistance provided to Greece by the European Union thus far has failed to improve conditions for the 100,000 refugees housed at Camp Moria, Camp Vial, and other facilities across Greece. The Greek government has thus far received over €2 billion in EU funding to help cope with the migration flows, although suspicions of corruption surrounding the use of those funds by senior Greek officials surfaced in 2018. All the same, Commission president Ursula von der Leyen promised additional assistance in March after Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan allowed thousands of refugees housed by Turkey to advance towards Greece.

Could this new threat force the Greek government and its EU partners to revisit their approach to the deeply flawed asylum process currently in place? The tens of thousands of people currently trapped in Greece can only hope so.

Image credit: Mstyslav Chernov/Wikimedia Commons

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