By Foteini Nestoridou
As the number of COVID-19 cases has overpassed 3 million worldwide, there is a growing concern about those who lack the means to protect themselves and the people around them. A remarkable example that has attracted a lot of attention is the Reception and Identification Center (RIC) Moria, situated on the Greek island of Lesvos, where roughly 20,000 asylum seekers are currently detained.
To contextualise the response to corona in Greece, the national healthcare system has experienced a gradual degradation in the past years. Paradoxically, the country has the highest ratio of doctors and lowest ratio of nurses per 100,000 people in the EU. Public health facilities experience an immense shortage of healthcare workers due to massive dismissals and a major drop of funding fuelled by the financial crisis and subsequent austerity measures. Throughout the country, those working in the hospitals are denouncing understaffing, a lack of personal protective equipment and ICU beds, with the latter being as low as 6 beds per 100,000 population. Furthermore, human and material resources are unevenly geographically distributed with much higher concentration around urban centres in the mainland, such as Athens and Thessaloniki.
The Greek government was one of the first in the EU to respond to the current pandemic, introducing a national lockdown. On March 10th, schools were ordered to close and within a few days mass events were banned and nonessential shops were shut down. Despite the low number of confirmed cases and deaths, the government announced a full restriction of movement on March 23rd. The response to the outbreak majorly reflects the inadequate capacity of the Greek healthcare system to sustain a wide spread of the virus.
As refugees and asylum seekers living in camps were not considered in the government measures and recommendations originally, a joint ministerial order was published, on March 23rd, to define the measures to be taken in RICS. Among others, these measures include full containment of asylum seekers within the camp, as well as allowing some to exit in order to reach urban centres to buy necessities. All activities within the camps are suspended, except those related to shelter, alimentation and medical care. In RICS, cases of COVID-19 are to be handled in specially designated facilities established within the camps. For this purpose, a container was placed in the entrance of Moria camp, but residents interviewed by Human Rights Watch revealed that they were unaware of whether it functions. At the time of writing, there have been confirmed cases of COVID-19 in two refugee camps, Ritsona and Malakasa, and 148 cases in a hotel accommodating asylum seekers in Kranidi. Instead of providing a space for those tested positive to quarantine, the authorities have set the facilities in lockdown, hence putting everyone at risk of the virus.
The state’s response is easily questionable: how effective could these measures be to realistically “prevent the spread of the virus”? The answer is simple and short, most likely no. Roughly 40,000 asylum seekers are situated on the Aegean islands in RICs, even though the defined capacity is less than 6,000. Moria has been infamous for overcrowding, lack of WASH facilities, and inhumane and squalid living conditions. According to Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), there are parts of the camp where 1,300 people share one water tap and no soap, and where five-member families live in tents of less than 3m2. Once a COVID-19 case appears in a camp under these circumstances, it is highly unlikely for the virus not to spread. The inadequate state’s response has led to various initiatives around the EU demanding safety for all and the evacuation of the camp, among others ‘#SOSMoria’ and ‘Evacuate. Moria. Now.’, as well as protests by asylum seekers in the camps (see photography below). In addition, Moria Corona Awareness Team is a self-organised group formed by people living in Moria aiming at raising awareness around COVID-19 and how people can protect themselves. The team has been also working on managing large amounts of waste laying around people’s tents and recycling plastic water bottles.
Notably, asylum seekers have been hindered from accessing public healthcare since July 2019, a violation of both European and International Law. A new bill on International Protection introduced on November 1st, included a paragraph that was meant to enable access to a temporary social security number.This paragraph was supposed to come into effect on the same day the law was published. However, this did not happen, neither did it on January 1st when the remaining sections of the law came into effect. Prompted by the pandemic, the Minister of Migration and Asylum announced there would be a massive issuing of the temporary social security number by mid-April, however this had not yet been implemented by the time of writing.
Structural barriers coupled with a lack of availability and geographical proximity to healthcare facilities has inevitably led to a serious deterioration of asylum seekers’ health. Particularly, people with chronic diseases who require access to a continuum of care and who are most susceptible to COVID-19’s severe complications are most at risk. Despite urges by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, International Organization for Migration, United Nations Higher Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) and World Health Organization to evacuate camps where people cannot attain their full health, the Greek government has refused to do so to date. Additionally, the temporary suspension of the right to seek asylum in Greece has left 127 people who arrived in Lesvos in March, without access to asylum procedures and shelter. Only on April 27th, and more than a month after their arrival, were these people finally moved to Moria. Upon EU demands, the right to asylum has been finally restored at least in theory, as the Asylum Service, the authority in charge of receiving and processing applications, is not operating until May 15th.
Recently, the UNHCR and collaborating actors announced a massive relocation of more than 2,000 asylum seekers assessed as critically vulnerable to COVID-19, from the islands to the mainland. Nonetheless, the National Public Health Organization halted the relocation of 1,500 people from Moria, claiming security reasons. The Minister instead announced that this would be done gradually by moving small groups of people. As of May 3rd, only 400 people have been relocated from Moria.
The state’s response towards protecting asylum seekers is inadequate and further endangers their health and safety. However, this does not come in a social and political vacuum. In contrast, the national response to COVID-19 is aligned with the government’s anti-immigrant politics, intended to create a hostile environment for third-country nationals while cultivating a racist and xenophobic environment within the country. It is time for Greece and the EU to act towards ensuring the right to health and dignity to all.