Even the thought of a coronavirus outbreak in refugee camps is horrifying to the people forced to live there. Day and night, at Moria Refugee Camp on the Greek island of Lesbos, thousands of refugees are crammed in crowded and unsanitary environments with very few facilities. Even before the pandemic, they had little or no access to medical treatment or necessities. Most of them are terrified that they will contract the virus.
Camp Moria was originally set up to house less than 4,000 refugees. Today, 20,000 people live packed together in tents and Conex shipping containers side by side. But what is even more troubling is that people are forced to wait in long lines for food and medical services for hours, without any social distancing being observed.
Even one infection could lead to the deaths of thousands of human beings who have braved death in search of safety and a better future. Most of them have traveled from Turkey by sea to reach Lesbos, and many of them have been waiting for months and even years to find out where they will end up.
One refugee currently working on the camp’s medical team told IranWire that hundreds — sometimes thousands — of people line up every day outside doctors’ tents or other medical facilities in the hopes of finding out whether they or their children have contracted the virus. Fear can be seen clearly on their sunburnt faces and in their desperate eyes. The refugee said doctors in the camp prescribe that people "drink mineral water frequently” to treat any ailment. “It makes no difference whether the sickness is a headache, a common cold or a pulmonary disease,” he said.
“There are eight or nine doctors from various countries like Germany, Belgium or the US in the camp and each is accompanied by a volunteer translator,” he said. “They can only treat fever, tremors, sore throats, colds and illnesses like that. They have no equipment, work from 8am to 3pm, and can only prescribe one kind of pill plus mineral water for patients.” They are certainly not set up to deal with coronavirus, he said.
The moment refugees feel any cold-like symptoms they worry they have coronavirus and join the long line in front of the doctors’ tents. So far, there have been no reported cases of the virus at Camp Moria — if there have been any, doctors or camp officials have not told anybody else about it.
The group Doctors without Borders (MSF) has set up its own tents outside Camp Moria but, according to the refugee IranWire spoke to, they are primarily there to help children under the age of eight. “If the child's illness is not critical and can be treated, these doctors treat them, but if they are seriously ill they are transferred to the big hospital in the middle of the island,” he said, adding that their services include psychiatric treatment as well.
According to him, if a refugee displays coronavirus symptoms, he or she is evacuated from the island and transferred to a hospital in mainland Greece.
The Greek government has not provided any protective clothing or equipment to the refugees of Camp Moria. Instead, a charity has stepped in to help. “They prepare food for those with illnesses like diabetes,” IranWire’s source said. “They have a playground for the children and women who know how to sew can make masks and distribute them among the refugees in tents and Conex shelters.”
The World has Changed — But Nothing has Changed Here
Even so, many of the refugees are not wearing masks. Photographs of the camp sent to IranWire after the pandemic started show that life there is pretty much as it was before the health crisis began. It appears as though nobody in the camp has heard of the guidelines issued by the World Health Organization.
The source told IranWire that things changed after a group of refugees who were supposed to be representing people in the camp colluded with delivery drivers bringing in the food. “You had your own [identification] number to get your food,” the source told IranWire. “But a few Afghan representatives colluded with Greek drivers to sell the food to the refugees. They were arrested by the police, but after that you could get food without a number.” According to refugees in the camp, most quarrels and fights — some of which end in fatalities — break out in the food lines.
“There are many fights inside the camp at night,” the refugee told IranWire. “Every week, two or three people get stabbed. The police do not care and say it is none of their business if a refugee kills another refugee. Just a few nights ago an Afghan citizen killed another Afghan by stabbing him in the stomach.”
The Greek government and a number of European countries have started taking action, working to reduce overcrowding in the camps and to remove children without guardians. But research conducted by IranWire journalists reveals that the situation remains dangerous and thousands of refugees are vulnerable and at risk of catching coronavirus. A recent agreement reached between northern and western European countries stipulated that approximately 1,500 children who have no one to care for them will be transferred out of Greek refugee camps to other countries but so far only a small number of them have been lucky enough to leave the islands.
During the first week of May, the Greek government distributed travel tickets to Athens to 1,500 refugees, but it is reported that only 400 people — mostly families — have gone to Athens. Even for those who have made it to Athens, the situation for refugees is dire there too. After their bitter experiences in the camps on Greece’s islands, many of them do not want to stay in Greece and hope to somehow find their way to western Europe.
The refugee IranWire spoke to said it did not look as if there would be a complete evacuation of Camp Moria, and that, most likely, only a small number of refugees will be transferred out of the camp. Prior to the recent discussions about what should happen in the camps following international pressure, the Greek government had said it wanted to close Camp Moria and replace it with prison-like, closed camps. It had even suggested building a fence around the island of Lesbos to prevent the rising number of refugees on the island from increasing any more. Human rights organizations sharply criticized the plan, stating that such an action would both violate the right to seek asylum and would endanger the lives of thousands of people who continue to try to reach the island by sea.
The coronavirus pandemic continues, and it is not clear how long it will last. As the International Red Cross has repeatedly said, refugees are the most vulnerable group in the current crisis. They are the last to receive any help or protection and, at the same time, they are not able to look forward to any promising future prospect, a future for which they have already risked their lives.
Refugees Across Europe Fear Coronavirus Outbreak, 27 February 2020
We Do Everything, I Mean Everything, To Escape From Our Greek Hell, 28 January 2020
Moria Camp and its Prison on Lesbos Island, 22 May 2019