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As Covid-19 claims more lives around the world, NGOs are sounding the alarm over the conditions inside overcrowded migrant camps on Greece’s islands. While the European Union is pledging more funding and the use of empty holiday accommodation to enforce “social distancing” for migrants, questions remain over whether enough is being done to keep both asylum-seekers and local populations safe.
Hotels and holiday apartments hired to temporarily house migrants; 1,600 unaccompanied child asylum-seekers being relocated around eight European Union member states and €350 million in extra funding. These were just some of the measures outlined by the European Commission on Thursday amid growing calls to improve conditions in Greece’s overcrowded migrant camps, and protect those being housed there from Covid-19.
Two Greek ministers, two European Commissioners and the director of the European border agency Frontex were among those who took part in a video meeting on April 2, organised by the European Parliament’s Civil Liberties committee.
Deep alarm among refugees
Greece’s Minister for Migration and Asylum Notis Mitarachi told participants that his country had recorded 1,500 cases of Covid-19 to date, and that twenty-one of those who had tested positive were migrants at the Ritsona camp close to Athens.
The positive test results are cause for deep alarm among refugees, as well as aid groups working in and with the camps.
As European states enforce social distancing measures among their citizens with the aim of halting the spread of Covid-19, the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) is among those to have flagged up overcrowded conditions as the most pressing issue within migrant facilities. The UNHCR says there is particular cause for concern on the Aegean islands, where Greek authorities acknowledge there are more than 35,000 people housed in sites intended for just 6,000.
Greek authorities urged to transfer more people away
The UNHCR is urging Greek authorities to transfer more people away from island reception centres. But this idea was rejected Thursday by Mitarachi, who said that this would simply transfer people from areas currently unaffected by Covid-19, to places where infections were already recorded.
For Imogen Sudbery, Europe director of Policy and Advocacy for the International Rescue Committeed, this stance is “disappointing on several levels”.
“We have been flagging the lack of capacity on the mainland for at least three years,” she told FRANCE 24.
“The European Commission and many other organisations have found that it would be perfectly feasible to put in place the necessary health screening arrangements” for a transfer of asylum-seekers to the Greek mainland.
‘Unbearable’ conditions on Greek islands
One day before the meeting, the International Rescue Committee released a report showing that Lesbos’ Moria camp has a population density twenty times greater than that of the Diamond Princess, a cruise ship which became a notorious coronavirus cluster in March, with 712 of the 3711 people on board falling sick.
European Commissioner for Home Affairs Ylva Johanssen described the crowded conditions on Greek islands as “unbearable”, as she outlined how the European Commission would like to invest a further €350 million. This included building new “multi-purpose” reception centres for migrants on the Greek mainland, as well as renting more temporary accommodation in hotels and holiday homes to increase short-term capacity.
As for other ways of preventing a future coronavirus outbreak in existing facilities, Greek Migration and Asylum minister Mitarachi said that there are contingency plans. These, he said, include quarantine areas within camps and in their vicinity – but little other detail was offered.
Agencies are exploring restarting the asylum process using Skype
Mitarachi also insisted that Greek authorities have resumed processing of asylum requests as of April 1. The Greek government suspended these on March 1 – in contravention of EU law – as Turkey permitted thousands of asylum-seekers to approach its borders with Greece and with Bulgaria.
Mr Mitarachi stated that agencies were “exploring restarting the asylum process using Skype and other platforms” to work through a backlog of approximately 125,000 asylum applications.
As the coronavirus pandemic accelerates in Europe and other member states restrict their asylum-processing operations, Sudbery says this issue remains a particular concern: “It’s really critical we don’t see Covid-19 used as an excuse not to allow people to access the asylum system,” she told FRANCE 24.
“Particularly in Greece, if you can’t show you have registered for asylum you then don’t have access to healthcare, food, and other basic provisions.”