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

By Heleen Tummers|May 7, 2020|Uncategorized|0 comments

Yannis Dirakis works in Vathi Camp on the Greek Island of Samos. He writes, in 3 parts, on the impact of Covid-19 on the already fragile refugee situation in his country. In Part I, accessible here, he wrote about the already worrying refugee situation in Greece before the Covid-19 outbreak. In Part II, he discusses the lack of protection and the Greek approach to Covid-19 in the camps.
Disclaimer: all the posts are written in the perspective of the author himself.

Part II – Lack of Access to (International) Protection and the Greek “Stay in the Camps” Scheme

Access to international protection

Under the pretext of protecting those living in Reception and Identification Centres (RIC) on the Greek islands, all asylum services suspended their operations for an initial period of two months, from March 13 to May 15. All relevant procedures, including the lodging of international protection (asylum) applications, asylum interviews, renewals of applicants’ cards and residence permits, decisions of the applications etc. have been halted until it is considered safe for the asylum services to resume as normal. Thousands of asylum seekers and recognized refugees are consequently missing deadlines and therefore miss out on their rights, while their extended waiting intensifies their despair.

Access to public health care for refugees and asylum seekers in Greece

One of the very first acts of the new government of Nea Dimokratia, was to revoke a decision of the previous SYRIZA government (signed just one month before the elections) that allowed asylum seekers to be issued a National Social Security Number (AMKA). This number ensures access to the Greek public health care system and several other public services and is the equivalent to a labour and social security ‘ID card’ that gives them the same entitlements as Greek citizens possessing one. For several months, asylum seekers had no access to services except for hospital emergencies. This had major consequences for people with chronic and serious health issues, who were only able to see doctors in refugee camps, where health centres are understaffed and unable to deal with the situation of thousands of vulnerable people.

Recently, during the Covid-19 pandemic, the possibility to issue a “Foreigner’s Temporary Social Security and Health Care Number” (PAAYPA) was announced, so asylum seekers could finally obtain access to medical care. The PAAYPA  is supposed to be abolished in case of a negative decision on their asylum claim and to be converted to an AMKA if their claim is approved. However, given the suspension of the asylum services operation, the issuing of the PAAYPA has yet to start, leaving asylum seekers still prevented from accessing most public health services.

The recent death of a 47-year-old Iraqi woman in Chios island illustrates the seriousness of this lack of access to public hospitals, along with the lack of preventive measures taken at refugee camps. The woman visited the Chios hospital with arrhythmia problems but was sent back to the VIAL camp, where she was quarantined as a suspected Covid-19 case. Two days later, she was found dead by her husband. Her death was recorded as being “by unknown cause”, sparking riots at the VIAL RIC in Chios.

The “Stay in the camps” scheme on the Greek Islands (Lesvos, Chios, Samos, Kos, Leros)

To minimize the risk of a Covid-19 outbreak among the migrant population in the camps, the Greek government and Ministry of Migration and Asylum have announced the “stay in the camps” scheme. It imposes a strict quarantine, whose implementation is enforced by excessive numbers of very determined – and in some cases violent – police forces. The gates of the refugee camps have been sealed, allowing only a bare minimum number of people to exit each day, in order to serve their most pressing needs or for a simple “decompression” walk.
At the same time, the monthly cash allowance through the UNHCR’s “ESTIA” program was suspended until – at some point in the indefinite future – there ATMs will be placed inside the RICs. However, this measure was later reversed, since the decision is – luckily – not under the jurisdiction of the Greek authorities. Right now, the monthly allowance is allotted to the applicants’ cards and can only be used for direct purchases from food markets etc., with no possibility to withdraw any money from ATMs. The “stay in the camps” measures also include the conversion of containers into quarantine spaces and the distribution of posters and flyers containing Covid-19 related information in several languages.

Τhe instructions for those staying in the camps are clear: wash and sanitize your hands, disinfect surfaces, maintain a 2m distance from other people, and in some cases the use of masks and gloves are recommended. Nevertheless, in Moria and most of the extremely overcrowded camps on the islands, it is impossible to implement this advice. There is a lack of facilities: one water tap is available for hundreds of people; running water is just available for a few hours a day; there is garbage, mud and sewage everywhere; there is a lack of personal hygiene and cleaning products, masks and gloves; and large crowds must join long queues  for food, bottles of water or a visit to the doctor. There are very few doctors available (just one per 6900 asylum seekers in Samos), and even the most common medicines are rare, while there are almost no medicines for people in need of special treatment.

A protection or anti-migration scheme?

The “stay in camps” scheme, according to the Migration and Asylum Minister, Notis Mitarakis, aims to “isolate the ‘migration element’ from the life of urban centres and local communities”. That is a much broader aspiration than just protecting migrants and local communities from the coronavirus epidemic.

Since the beginning of the coronavirus crisis several calls have been made for the immediate evacuation of the overcrowded RICs on the islands, including from dozens of international organizations and NGOs, 5000 doctors, the UNHCR, 124 MEPs from a wide range of political parties including the head of the European Parliament’s civil liberties committee, and many others.

Due to the extreme overcrowding, severe shortages and the inability to keep basic health measures, these hotspots are a time bomb for the health of both the vulnerable population and the locals.

Indeed, a “stay in camps” approach does the exact opposite and creates more problems than it claims it solves. It rather seems to be part of the “let’s make their lives unbearable” campaign, while satisfying the demands of the most xenophobic societal groups in Greece.

In his next blog, Yannis will elaborate on the further discrimination of migrants in Covid-19 measures and migrants organising to create awareness of and better solutions to the current situation.



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