Greece: Locals “stay at home” while migrants “stay invisible” – part I

By Heleen Tummers|April 30, 2020|Uncategorized|0 comments

Blog series by Yannis Dirakis. Yannis works in Vathi Camp on the Greek Island of Samos and writes, in 3 parts, on the impact of Covid-19 on the already fragile refugee situation in his country.

Part I – Covid-19 and the current situation in Greece

Across the globe, there is evidence that the most prominent victims of the coronavirus pandemic are the economically weakest; such as those excluded from or with limited access to medical care, the labour market, decent housing and social life in general. Most asylum seekers, refugees and immigrants in Greece fall under all these categories, living in a society that for the most part has long lost its sense of solidarity with its most vulnerable members. Toxicity and racist narratives monopolize the public sphere, with pressure for even more drastic measures to limit any social, legal and democratic rights that migrants still hold in the time of the pandemic.
Because of the Covid-19 pandemic, asylum seekers, refugees and immigrants in Greece experience a double (or even triple) confinement that exacerbates the state of exception they were already living in, burdening them further physically and psychologically.
As de facto “bare lives”, following the Greek and EU migration management policies, especially those detained in the Reception and Identification Centres (RIC) of the North Aegean islands, the Pre-removal Detention Centres (PRO.KE.K.A.), in refugee camps, and police stations are now witnessing the rise of new fences around them, both real and symbolic.
The Greek government recently made the unprecedented and illegal decision to “temporarily suspend the lodging of asylum claims by all people entering the country illegally” in March 2020. The few migrants who made it to Greece remain homeless and completely unprotected on beaches, in chapels, on mountains and plain fields for up to 25 days.

The situation on the Greek islands
According to the National Coordination Center for Border Control, Immigration and Asylum (NCCBCIA), there are currently around 38,990 asylum seekers and refugees on all Aegean islands, which has a total nominal capacity of 8,754 in RICs, apartments and other hosting facilities. There are currently 18,619 in Moria (which has a capacity of 2,757 persons), 6,903 in Samos’ RIC (which has a capacity of 648), 5,140 in Chios (which has a capacity of 1,014), 1,997 in Leros (which has a capacity of 860), and 2,594 in Kos (which has a capacity of 816).
There are currently about 5,200 unaccompanied children in Greece, many residing on the islands. These children and young adults who were participating in formal or informal (provided by NGOs and international organizations) educational or skills training programs, no longer have access to any educational, recreational or psychosocial activities, as the RICs entrances remain closed to almost all the organizations that were offering such services in the past.
There is a clear need to remove people from this terrible situation and more needs to be done. The immediate move of 2,380 vulnerable persons from the islands to the mainland, after Easter, was announced by the Greek government . “European solidarity”, on the other hand, has been so far translated into the mere acceptance of 47 unaccompanied refugee children in Germany and 12 in Luxembourg.

The situation on the Greek mainland
The first Covid-19 cases among migrants emerged in two refugee camps near Athens; Malakasa and Ritsona . Both cases were immediately put in a strict 14-day quarantine. In Ritsona, where a young woman was diagnosed after giving birth in a hospital in Athens, there are 3,000 people living in containers meant for 5-7 people. In Malakasa, where a 53-year-old man tested positive for the virus, 2,000 people live in containers and tents, including 500 minors. Contrary to locals who have been diagnosed with Covid-19, the authorities decided to turn some containers into confinement spaces and keep the remaining close to 5,000 people in both camps locked inside, putting everyone’s health at risk.
Instead of a mobilizing the medical authorities and sending help, the government decided to strengthen the camps’ surrounding fences and to send even more police forces to guard its gates. According to the KEERFA (“united against racism and the fascist threat”) movement , whose members visited Malakasa on 12/4, there is a large shortage of fresh fruits, vegetables and other essentials in the camps. Additionally, people with chronic health diseases, not related to Covid-19, as well as people with disabilities, have been left without any care. Refugees complain about not having access to paracetamol for their sick children, in addition to the shortages of more difficult-to-find medicines they need. Hundreds of people live in tents, set up right next to each other, under large army sheds, or inside old warehouses with no windows or ventilation.
On the Greek mainland, the living conditions in refugee camps are in some cases as miserable as on the islands. One typical example is the new camp in Kleidi, near Serres in the north. It is a makeshift and unsuitable structure that was set up in just a few days at a dangerous location (that could flood in case of heavy rain). It is meant to house 600 refugees who arrived in Greece after the 1st of March, who until recently didn’t even have the right to apply for asylum . As in many other places around Greece, various solidarity initiatives are running campaigns to collect essential materials, since the pattern of their abandonment by the authorities has further burdened the closed (due to the Covid-19 pandemic) structures.

Conclusively, the situation in the Greek camps was already very concerning before the outbreak of Covid-19. The current crisis and the consequential response of the Greek government has made the situation even more worrying.

In his next blog, Yannis elaborates on the “stay in the camps” approach of the Greek authorities to the Covid-19 crisis and the lack of (international) protection for asylum seekers and refugees residing in the Greek camps.



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