Refugees on the Aegean islands: At the mercy of the pandemic

Arbitrary restrictions, overcrowded facilities in quarantine, stigma, discrimination and a number of significant shortcomings in safeguards, sanitation and healthcare personnel characterize the Greek government’s handling of Reception and Identification Centres (hotspots) six months after the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic in Greece. The extremely chaotic situation after the catastrophic fires in the Moria hotspot last week and the abandonment of 12,000 refugees in the surrounding roads and fields, highlight very serious planning deficiencies that put human lives at risk. At the same time, during the pandemic and despite the strong reactions and the aggravated climate, the government insists on the transformation of hotspots into closed-controlled structures and the confinement of refugees on the islands despite the reactions of the local communities. Further, the government decided also to extend the restriction of movement measures to all camps around the country.

At a time when international organizations[1] point out that quarantines in refugee camps are not the right tool to stop the spread of Covid-19, as they are areas of high concentration and gathering, the Greek government decided a few days ago to impose a two-week quarantine on the hotspots of Samos and Leros after the detection of Covid-19 cases within these facilities. At the same time, restrictive measures were imposed on all camps around the country for the same period. These measures have been preceded by the imposition of a quarantine in Moria hotspot after the appearance of the first Covid-19 case on September 2 and the detection of at least 35 other cases, and the catastrophic fires on September 8 and 9. On September 15, the authorities announced the arrest of five third-country nationals in connection with the fires in Moria. It should be noted that the controversial extension of restricting movement in the islands’ hotspots and Evros continues for six months in the framework of the “Agnodiki” emergency plan, although the restrictions for the general population had been lifted by the beginning of May and the islands were opening for tourists after June.

The residents of the hotspots on the islands have been faced with an unjustified discrimination and stigma when compared to the measures that have been taken for the rest of the population of the areas where the facilities are located and have been under conditions that put their lives at risk. Extensive extensions of these restrictions of movement measures in the hotspots were taken as a precaution, despite the fact that until the beginning of September there were no reports of suspected or confirmed cases.

The continued extension of this restriction of movement was carried out without any substantial efforts being made to improve the conditions in these camps and without the timely provision and operation of the necessary sanitary facilities. As mentioned in the relevant Joint Ministerial Decision, the restriction of movement measures for hotspots, provide for the movement of a limited number of people and at predetermined times of the day[2]. In practice, the emergency measures restricting movement are applied differently in each hotspot with controlled entry and exit. According to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) , it has been observed from time to time that in some hotspots there has been a stricter enforcement of local measures (such as the imposition of administrative fines on Chios or the smaller number of people allowed to leave the hotspot on Kos) while in others greater flexibility from the authorities regarding the movements of refugees (i.e. on Samos before the imposition of the quarantine)[3].

Insufficiency of necessary sanitary facilities

It should be noted that the “Agnodiki” plan, which is part of the broader national crisis management plan of the General Secretariat for Civil Protection, provides areas for control, treatment and isolation outside the facilities. According to reports, the creation of these sites is still in its infancy on the islands of Samos and Chios, while the effectiveness of the plan is controversial due to the fact that it does not focus on prevention and protection while many of the details of its implementation remain unclear[4].

According to reports, after tracing the first patient with Covid-19, in the hotspot of Chios, the refugee was hospitalized in the local hospital while three others from his environment who were later found to have contracted the virus, were isolated in a space inside the hotspot in unsuitable conditions that did not meet the standards for isolation and treatment, despite the fact that a quarantine area has been rented on the island.

Those vulnerable to Covid-19 remain on the roads of Lesvos and in the hotspots of the other islands

Despite the commitment of the Ministry of Migration and Asylum in mid-April to remove some 2,400 vulnerable / vulnerable to complications in Covid-19 from the islands, only a smaller number was eventually transferred from the overcrowded reception facilities. According to the UNHCR more than 1.000 people on all the islands have been moved to better conditions (ESTIA accommodation, hotels), but there are still a few hundred who are considered Covid-19 vulnerable (elderly and people with underlying conditions) that remain in completely unsuitable conditions in the hotspots. In a statement following the imposition of the quarantine in Moria, Doctors Without Borders said that more than 200 people with such a profile remained in the camp. After the destruction of the hotspot, these people ended up helpless and homeless. In the overcrowded Moria hotspot, there was no specialized emergency plan from the authorities in case of fire or other disaster, even during Covid-19, while the facilities of the structure did not meet the basic safety standards. During the fires, no evacuation plan was implemented and there was no plan for an alternative shelter, while the distribution of food and water those affected by the fire was significantly delayed. When it started, it was not coordinated to meet the existing needs of the refugees.

Nine days later, the refugees are forced to sleep exposed to the weather in the fields, on the main road, under trucks, in playgrounds and even in cemeteries, in the area between Moria, Panagiouda and Karatepe, but also in the burned area of ​​the former hotspot. For nine days on a row a significant number of refugees are in the street and face lack of access to water and food and no access to sanitation facilities, Covid-19 protection equipment, medicines, clothing and electricity. These conditions make them even more vulnerable to the spread of Covid-19 as there are people among these refugees who have been diagnosed with the virus. It should be noted that according to the Lesvos NHS Doctors’ Association, the commencement of the operation of the Covid-19 ward highlighted the serious shortages in healthcare staff in Lesvos General Hospital.

The refugees remain trapped in these places for days, as strong police forces do not allow them access to the city of Mytilene or other places such as Panagiouda to get food or to charge their mobile phones. As of Thursday morning, a police operation was launched near Kara Tepe to transport refugees inside the new camp. According to reports, more than 5,000 people had been transferred by Thursday afternoon. For those still trapped on the road, meals and a bottle of water are distributed only once a day in a designated area, while access to the distribution is not guaranteed for everyone. The testimonies of refugees published by the Refugee Support Aegean last week, reflect their anxiety to survive in these conditions and their fear for their lives.

But even those who have entered the new facility under pressure and absence of another alternative describe an unacceptable situation. “Conditions are miserable. The tents are completely empty, without mattresses, without blankets, without anything. There is no water in the toilets and bathrooms … They distribute food and water to us once a day. We stay 8 people per tent. We are not allowed to leave the camp for any reason,” said an African refugee. Entry to the new camp that started operating since 12 September requires testing for Covid-19. By Thursday afternoon, 135 Covid-19 cases had been identified. All of them were placed in health isolation in a special area, which has been created in the camp. The new facility has been characterized as temporary according to the Government Gazette despite the fact that there is a provision for renting the space until 2025.

Long queues everywhere, social distancing impossible

Refugees we spoke with said that in the hotspots there is not enough water supply; the conditions in the sanitary facilities remain poor; and the provided health measures cannot be implemented. Refugees also say they have to wait in the queue for hours to use the toilets, pick up food, visit the doctor and the Asylum Office and thus are not able to adhere to social distancing. In many cases, the daily life of refugees in the hotspots is characterized by a constant waiting in a queue.

Without adequate means of protection

Refugees living in the hotspot in Vathi on Samos that spoke to use before the quarantine, stressed that they had not been given adequate protection means for Covid-19. “We live among rats and snakes. There are no masks or soap. When we went to the supermarket there was an antiseptic [at the entrance] and there you clean your hands. If we went to an organization that has a doctor, they would give us a mask but then take it back. They can’t give masks for 5,000 people!” said Ahmad * from Syria, who has been living in a tent outside Samos hotspot for a year, awaiting a decision on his asylum claim. According to information there is currently only one EODY (Greek National Public Health Organization) doctor in the hotspot. This has forced many refugees to seek medical assistance from NGOs outside the hotspot.

“In order to be able to visit the doctor of the facility, one often even has to sleep outside the doctor’s office to ensure that he can be served,” explains Ahmad.

In the hotspot of Kos, the number of residents has decreased significantly in recent months and as a result there are no more tents and the refugees stay in containers. Nevertheless, refugees here also point out to significant shortcomings. “They do not give us masks. If someone goes to the hospital to help as a translator, for example, the police give him a mask, otherwise he cannot get in a taxi,” says Nasim* who has been living in the Kos hotspot in Pyli for a year.

Questions without answers

According to testimonies of refugees on Kos, leaving the hotspot is very difficult. “We can go out once a week with the permission of the police. The people here have nothing to do and they are fighting with each other. They start going crazy. We cannot sleep all night. We play games in our mobile phone. … We are in our room. We look at the walls. We do not see anything else. If we say something about our rights, the police tell us: go to your country. We get no answers to our questions,” Nasim* said.

On Samos, the imposition of total quarantine significantly burdened the mental health of the camp’s residents. “These restrictive measures are not fair. They have not taken the same measures for everyone living on the island, but only for us. They treat us like we have the virus. It is terrible. I did not imagine that this could happen to us. I heard that they will turn the facility into a closed centre. This is even worse for us. I do not feel safe inside the hotspot. As soon as they announced the quarantine, all services were closed and the staff left the facility”, said Ahmad* from Syria.

According to Lisa Papadimitriou, Advocacy Officer of the Doctors Without Borders in Lesvos, the restrictions on movement had an impact on the mental health of people with mental health problems and children. “They told us they saw no way out and expressed general fear,” she said.

Without any hope - Recognized refugees in the hotspots

Some of the recognized refugees who were forced to leave for Athens had to return to the miserable conditions of the hotspots due to lack of alternatives, as shown by the example of the first Covid-19 case found in Moria hotspot, a vulnerable 40-year-old Somali beneficiary of international protection treated at Vostaneio Hospital in Mytilene.

Some other recognized refugees are still in the hotspots and told us about the serious difficulties they are facing in the midst of a pandemic due to the interruption of their cash benefits following the positive asylum decision and their inability to join the only integration program HELIOS (implemented by the International Organization for Migration) and to find work.

Abbas *, a recognized refugee from Iraq who lives in a tent in the hotspot in Vathi, Samos, told us: “Since I was granted asylum, they have cut off money and food. I have to buy masks or borrow them from someone else. They do not give me water, I have to buy it myself “. The young man also stresses the pressure on those residents who had been granted asylum to leave the facility before the total quarantine was imposed earlier in the week. “Every day there is a control in the tents [to chase those recognized]. I wake up at 8 in the morning to see when (they will come to check) and to hide. I have nowhere to go. I will end up in the streets. We are under a lot of pressure because of this and Covid-19 and we do not know where all this will end “. Mohammedi *, a recognized refugee from Afghanistan, lived in a tent in Moria hotspot. Now he is looking for a way to leave the island, as he is still sleeping in the streets. “A friend of mine and I went the day before yesterday and asked to enter the new camp. We were told that now they only take families and not just men. Yesterday and today there was a huge queue in front of the entrance. I have nothing here anymore. I want to leave this island and go to a relative in the mainland. But because of the quarantine, I do not know if they will let me go.”

A pre-text for the creation of closed-controlled structures

Since the end of 2019, Refugee Support Aegean has noted with particular concern a multidimensional extension of detention for migration and asylum purposes as a result of legislative changes that will lead to the systematic detention of asylum seekers, for longer periods of time and with less procedural guarantees.

The reforms introduced in the asylum legislation in May 2020 and announced at the end of 2019 also provide for the creation of closed controlled structures (KEDN) in the islands of the Eastern Aegean. These reforms have raised many questions and concerns about the regime of deprivation of liberty that could be applied to these structures and who will be responsible for managing them. In recent weeks, the first case of Covid-19 detected in the Moria hotspot and the fires that destroyed the camp, as well as the fires that broke out in Samos were used as a pretext by the Ministry of Migration and Asylum to justify the problematic and questionable policy of closed-controlled structures.

The authorities’ plans[5] to create new closed-controlled structures are likely to further affect not only the physical but also the mental health of the thousands of vulnerable people living there. Khaliq * is a victim of torture by Syria. When Refugee Support Aegean spoke to him before the destruction of the Moria hotspot, he referred to his despair about the prospect of the hotspot becoming a closed structure: “I do not know what to do if they close the camp. Many times during my stay in Moria, I thought of committing suicide. Doctors and other people helped me not to do it. I left prison in my country and now they will put me in prison again? “.

The restriction of movement of refugees in the midst of a pandemic is a measure which, in addition to the fact that it is not compatible with international standards and the recommendations of international organizations, brings to their limits the already exhausted population in the Aegean hotspots and the staff in these facilities. Authorities on the islands are on high alert and vigilant after the destruction of Moria hotspot and most reception facilities in the mainland are full. The need to strengthen local structures with doctors and the necessary medical equipment to deal with the pandemic is extremely high. At this moment in time, the immediate transfer of refugees from the islands with the assistance of other European countries is the only realistic solution.

* Names have been changed for privacy and security reasons

Footnotes

  1. A technical report of the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control on 15 June stated: “There is no evidence that quarantining whole camps effectively limits transmission of SARS-CoV-2 in settings of reception and detention, or provides any additional protective effects for the general population, outside those that could be achieved by conventional containment and protection measures”.
    https://www.ecdc.europa.eu/en/publications-data/covid-19-guidance-prevention-control-migrant-refugee-centres
  2. Representatives of families or groups of residents can go out of the camps to meet their needs to the nearest urban centres from 7:00 in the morning to 19:00. In areas where it is possible to travel by public transport, this is done without causing overcrowding in the vehicle. In cases where no means of transport are available, one hundred people are allowed out per hour, in groups of less than ten people.
  3. UNHCR Written Response to Refugee Support Aegean, dated 7 September 2020
  4. https://www.kathimerini.gr/society/561064591/koronoios-to-schedio-ektaktis-anagkis-agnodiki-gia-ti-moria/
  5. “The recent fires in the centres on Mytilene, Samos and months ago on Chios, demonstrate the need to immediately close the unrestrained open reception centres for refugees and migrants and tocreate closed and controlled (facilities),” said on September 16 the Minister of Migration and Asylum Notis Mitarachi.
    https://twitter.com/nmitarakis?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw%7Ctwcamp%5Eembeddedtimeline%7Ctwterm%5Eprofile%3Anmitarakis&ref_url=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.mitarakis.gr%2F

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