Coronavirus has reached the doorstep of the world’s worst refugee camp

3 boats with refugees are arriving to the beaches of Skala Sykamia, in the background you can see another 2 boats, Lesvos island, Greece (photo taken in 2015)
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The first case of coronavirus on the Greek island of Lesbos has been registered at the local hospital in Mytilene. A female supermarket worker has been placed in isolation after contracting COVID-19.

Around 20,000 people living in squalid conditions

Meanwhile, refugees on the island are forced to live in squalid and crowded conditions. And at the same time, attacks on refugees by racists and fascists are continuing.

According to the Aegean Boat Report, 21,770 refugees are currently on the island of Lesbos and there were 816 new arrivals to the Aegean islands from 2 to 8 March. Most of those refugees are held in the EU-financed Moria detention camp, which has often been called “the worst refugee camp on Earth”.

One journalist tweeted from the island:

‘Lethal for vulnerable populations’

The tens of thousands of refugees on Lesbos are especially vulnerable to a COVID-19 outbreak. Are You Syrious (AYS), a news group providing daily updates on the refugee crisis, wrote:

Although COVID-19 is not in itself a very deadly disease, it can be lethal for vulnerable populations, such as those who are already ill. Many people in camps on Lesvos or other islands have preexisting health conditions that have not been treated due to inadequate medical facilities. There are only a few doctors for thousands of camp residents and they are already overburdened — their workload if an epidemic spreads through the camps would be unbearable. People cannot access healthcare outside of the camps due to discrimination and their lack of [social security] numbers.

AYS points out that even hand washing is nearly impossible for the camp residents:

Sanitary conditions in the camps are also horrendous. Most people do not have access to soap and hot water, making one of the most important precautions against infectious diseases — washing hands — nearly impossible.

500 detained on a military ship

Nearly 500 people are being held on a military boat just off the port of Mytilene. They are the first arrivals to the island since Greece announced that it would not accept new applications for asylum. German newspaper Der Spiegel obtained shocking footage of the crowded conditions inside the ship. One onlooker tweeted:

‘Fearmongering’ and ‘xenophobia’

The Greek government has used the coronavirus pandemic to justify harsher border controls. These controls have resulted in Greek riot police firing tear gas, stun grenades, and reportedly live ammunition at refugees at its land border with Turkey.

The fact that the first coronavirus case was contracted not by a refugee but by someone returning from a holiday shows the inherent racism in the Greek state’s COVID-19 rhetoric.

According to AYS:

It is ironic that it is a Greek person who is the first case of a COVID-19 infection on Lesvos after weeks of fear-mongering against people on the move. Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis used fears of coronavirus to justify setting border controls to “maximum deterrent” levels. He is not alone as his ideological bedfellows across Europe, for example [Hungarian prime minister] Viktor Orban, also used fears of coronavirus to justify increased border violence. However, facts are not likely to stop xenophobia. As the arrival of coronavirus on the Greek islands moves from a possibility to a reality, the possibility of hate crimes and violence will also become very real.

‘Every death on the islands would be due to deliberate negligence’

The crisis on Lesbos has been created by the border controls and racism in Greece and the EU. Since the 2016 EU-Turkey deal, refugees have been confined to the Aegean islands. They’re unable to make their way to the mainland.

The Canary reported in 2019:

Access to the Greek mainland has been tightly controlled since the 2016 EU-Turkey deal. This has transformed the Aegean islands into what is effectively an open air prison for refugees.

Local politicians, meanwhile, have been stoking hatred against the tens of thousands of refugees stuck on the island. This has resulted in organised fascist attacks, including the burning of the One Happy Family refugee community centre in Mytilene.

According to AYS:

As a coronavirus epidemic in the camps becomes more and more likely, its consequences are likely to be tragic. It is important to remember that none of this was inevitable but that every death on the islands is due to deliberate negligence by the Greek and EU governments.

Featured image via Ggia – Wikimedia

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Get involved

  • Find out about volunteering on Lesbos.
  • Check out the No Borders Kitchen Lesbos website.
  • Support Cars of Hope’s solidarity work in Greece.


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