Greece ready to welcome tourists as refugees stay locked down in Lesbos
In #Moria, Europe’s largest migrant camp, tensions are rising as life is more restricted and the threat of Covid-19 is ever present
Children fly kites between tents in the shadow of barbed wire fences as life continues in Europe’s largest refugee camp. There are 17,421 people living here in a space designed for just under 3,000. Residents carrying liquid soap and water barrels encourage everyone to wash their hands as they pass by, refugees and aid workers alike. While Moria remains untouched by the pandemic, the spectre of coronavirus still looms heavy.
Greece is poised to open up to tourism in the coming months and bars and restaurants are reopening this week. Movement restrictions were lifted for the general population on 4 May but have been extended for refugees living in all the island camps and a number of mainland camps until 7 June.
According to the migration ministry, this is part of the country’s Covid-19 precautions. Greece has had remarkable success in keeping transmission and death rates from coronavirus low.
Calls for the mass evacuation of Moria, on the island of Lesbos, by aid workers and academics, have so far gone unheeded.
The news of the extended lockdown has been met with dismay by some in the camp. “Why do they keep extending it just for refugees?” one resident says. Hadi, 17, an artist from Afghanistan, is distributing flyers, which underline the importance of hand washing. He gingerly taps on the outside of a tent or makeshift hut to hand over the flyer. “People were dancing at the prospect of being able to leave, now they have another two weeks of lockdown,” he says.
Before the coronavirus restrictions, residents were able to leave Moria freely; now police cars monitor both exits to ensure that only those with a permit can get out. About 70 of these are handed out each day on top of those for medical appointments.
Halime, 25, gave birth just over two weeks ago in the Mytilene hospital on Lesbos. She cradles her newborn daughter in the small hut she shares with her husband and two other young children. May is proving one of the hottest on record in Greece and her hut is sweltering. “We always wash our hands of course,” she says. “Corona isn’t our biggest concern here at the moment, how do we raise our children in a place like this? It’s so hot, and there are so many fights.”
Halime left home in Baghlan, Afghanistan, with two children after her husband, a farmer, was asked to join the Taliban and refused. They have been living in the camp for five months, two of which have been under the coronavirus lockdown. “We came here and it was even worse in many ways. Then the coronavirus hit and then we were quarantined and everything shut down.”
Social distancing is an impossibility in Moria. Queueing for food takes hours. Access to water and sanitation is also limited and in some remoter parts of the camp currently there are 210 people per toilet and 630 per shower.
Khadija, 38, an Afghan tailor, produces a bag from the tent she shares with her son and daughter in the overspill site. “When people came around telling us to wash our hands, we asked, how can we do it without soap and water?” she says. She has now been given multiple soaps by various NGOs as her large bag testifies. Kahdija and her family wash using water bottles and towels, creating a makeshift shower outside their tent, instead of waiting for the camp facilities.
At the bottom of the camp Ali Mustafa, 19, is manning a hand-washing station. “It’s really important,” says Mustafa. “There are a lot of people crowded in Moria and if one person got coronavirus it could be very dangerous.” Mustafa, from Afghanistan, hopes one day to be able to live somewhere like Switzerland where he can continue his studies. He is looking forward to the lockdown being lifted so he can go back to his football practice.
Five boats have arrived on Lesbos in the past three weeks: 157 of the arrivals have been quarantined in the north of the island. Four have since tested positive for the virus and have been isolated according to a UNHCR spokesperson, who said they had installed four water tanks in the quarantine camp and are providing food and essential items. “We have generally observed substandard reception conditions across the islands for new arrivals since the start of March,” he adds.
The threat of coronavirus has increased anxiety and led to mounting tensions in the camp. There have been two serious fights in the past few days. One 23-year-old woman has died and a 21-year-old man is in a critical condition.
Omid, 30, a pharmacist from Kabul, leads one of the self-organised teams raising Covid-19 awareness in Moria. He said that the lockdown had been necessary as a preventive measure but was challenging for residents. “There is only one supermarket inside the camp and it’s overcrowded and not enough for people. It also makes people’s anxiety worse to be all the time inside the camp and not able to leave.”
Stephan Oberreit, the head of mission for Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) in Greece, said they were working on the preparation of an inpatient medical unit, which would be able to admit suspected Covid-19 patients and those with mild symptoms. MSF is already running multiple health services, including a paediatric clinic, in Moria camp.
’Moria is a hell’: new arrivals describe life in a Greek refugee camp
Greek asylum services reopened last week after being closed for two months, and 1,400 people have subsequently received negative responses to their asylum claims. People with negative decisions have to file an appeal within 10 days or face deportation but there are not enough permits for everyone to leave Moria within the designated time period to seek legal advice.
Lorraine Leete from Legal Centre Lesvos says that 14 people who came to its offices on 18 May hoping to get legal advice for their rejections were fined by police for being out of the camp without a permit. “All of them had negative decisions issued over the last months and have limited time to find legal aid – which is also inadequate on the island,” she says. “The police have visited our office every day since the asylum office opened, and on Monday they gave out 14 €150 fines, which we have contested.
“These are people who are stuck in Moria camp for months, who have the right to legal aid, and who obviously don’t have any source of income.”
Leete added that she considered that the movement restrictions were still in place for refugees in Moria in the absence of robust efforts to protect and evacuate the most vulnerable in the camp and were unjustifiable. “While people continue to be detained inside refugee camps in horrible conditions where there’s limited measures to prevent the spread of Covid-19, restaurants and bars will be opened this week across Greece. This discriminatory treatment is fulfilling the goal of local rightwing groups of keeping migrants out of public spaces away from public view, abandoned by the state,” she says.
As Greece starts to see some signs of normality returning, each week brings fresh turmoil to the thousands of residents of Moria, who are still living under lockdown in a space not much bigger than one square mile.