6th June 2020

COVID-19: The Greek Island of Lesvos

Eyewitness Report: Irish volunteer in Lesvos and United Against Racism member Grainne Farrell reports on the conditions in Moria refugee camp. Grainne returned to Ireland recently after working 6 months in Lesvos.

A spread of COVID-19 within Moria camp will be catastrophic. Many lives will be lost, without emergency evacuation of the camps it will be impossible to control the spread.

Moria camp, a former military camp was set up as a temporary-emergency response to the ‘2015’ refugee crisis, which saw thousands of refugees landing on the Greek islands, coming from Turkey. Up until the implementation of the 2016 EU-Turkey deal on the 20th of March 2016, refugees were able to move from the islands to the mainland, relieving pressure on these small island communities. However, overnight, the EU-Turkey deal restricted refugees’ freedom of movement, and introduced a policy of confinement to the islands. As a result, the numbers in Moria camp began to grow, whilst the conditions inside continued to deteriorate. Today, Moria camp is ‘home’ to over 21,000 people, of whom roughly thirty percent are children. Conditions inside the camp are beyond destitute, with tents crammed on top of each other. Food lines are over four hours long, there are roughly 90 showers and 90 toilets inside Moria and medical services on the ground are completely overwhelmed. The end of January 2020, saw tensions on the island boil over, where the situation on the island became extremely tense, violent and dangerous. When the new government was sworn into power on the 9th of July 2019, they had promised a complete overhaul of Greece’s migration policy, de-congestion of the islands and 10,000 deportations within the year[1]. However, instead the islands saw a massive increase in arrivals to their islands, and very few transfers to the mainland. In November 2019, the government announced plans to build closed detention centres on the islands and to close the camps[2]. The locals of Lesvos voiced their disapproval of these centres, in protests that took place on January 22nd 2020[3]. Then on the 26th of February, the PM sent 14 units of riot police from Athens to Lesvos, tasked with ensuring the construction of these centres began[4]

Over the next two days, the island of Lesvos shut down, with thousands of locals filling the street in protest over the government’s decision to send riot police and the construction of these detention centres. Over the two days, there were violent clashes between locals and the police[5]. Following a partial retreat of the riot police, the attention then turned on locals who stood in solidarity, ngo workers and refugees. We witnessed ngo cars attacked, vans burnt out, houses targeted, and refugees and journalists beaten in the streets[6]. It’s important to note that these acts of violence were being committed by an extremely small minority of residents from Lesvos, and do not represent the majority of Lesvos locals. However, their voices were loud, and their actions even louder. On top of this, Turkey announced on February 28th that it would no longer be closing the borders to refugees hoping to cross to Europe, leading to local groups and armed vigilantes patrolling the coast of Lesvos and the land border. Overnight, around 30,000 refugees had made their way to the Greek-Turkey border, unaware that they were being used as pawns in Turkey’s political games. They became trapped between Greek and Turkish forces, heavily tear-gassed and subject to arbitrary arrest[7]. In response to the opening of the borders, the Greek government announced the implementation of an Emergency decree on March 3rd, suspending the right to apply for asylum for anyone who arrived in Greece since March 1st, for one month[8]. A complete disregard for the internationally recognised right to apply for asylum, an abolition of the Geneva Convention.

On the 9th of March the first case of COVID-19 was confirmed on Lesvos, sending a wave of panic through the island. NGOs on the ground have been calling for an emergency evacuation of the camps on the Greek islands, described by MSF as ‘an ideal breeding ground for a rapid spread’ of coronavirus[9]. Instead, the government decided to lock refugees inside of the camps. From March 20th, a curfew was imposed further restricting people’s freedom of movement. Between 7am and 7pm, 1 member per family is permitted to leave the camp to purchase essential goods. As you can imagine, in a camp of over 21,000 people this is extremely difficult to control. So it was decided a maximum of 100 people can leave the camp at one time, in groups of 10, accompanied by Greek police. On top of this, it was announced the 90 euro monthly allowance would be suspended until ATMS are installed within the camp[10]. The official advice by governments across the globe is to wash your hands, sanitize and engage in social distancing. All of this is completely impossible if you live in an overcrowded camp, where you have to queue for hours every day without thousands of people to get food, use the toilet or access medical care. Where there is limited sanitation, where you share 1 tap per 1,300 people.

A spread of COVID-19 within Moria camp will be catastrophic. Many lives will be lost, without emergency evacuation of the camps it will be impossible to control the spread. As governments around the globe extend acts of solidarity to one another, and encourage us to stay home, the most vulnerable of society are yet again left behind and forgotten about. Before COVID-19, Moria camp already posed great risks to people’s lives. Now, this added threat has left people in extreme states of fear. A spread in the camp will inevitably claim the lives of many. With only 6 ICU beds on Lesvos, the containment of 21,000 people inside Moria camp is essentially a death sentence. 1 medical centre has opened outside of Moria to assess people displaying possible coronavirus symptoms; however determining who has symptoms in a camp where influenza is common will be extremely difficult[11]

We are calling on the Greek government to immediately evacuate the camps and to transfer people to the mainland, to facilities where they can practice social distancing. The solutions are there, there are empty hotels, apartment blocks and housing facilities that people can be housed in. The problem we are facing is a lack of political will, to change the situation on the Greek islands. To save the lives of those who will not survive a mass contagion outbreak. We must put pressure on our political leaders to act now. Please follow #EuropeMustAct for more information on the campaign[12].


[1] https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2019/09/greek-plan-deport-10000-migrants-move-thousands-mainland-190930182446507.html

[2] https://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2019/nov/20/greece-to-replace-island-refugee-camps-with-detention-centres

[3] https://www.irishtimes.com/news/world/europe/we-want-our-islands-back-greeks-protest-against-asylum-seeker-burden-1.4159530

[4] https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/europe/greece-refugee-migrant-protests-lesbos-chios-riot-police-tear-gas-a9357511.html

[5] https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/feb/25/police-and-protesters-clash-on-greek-islands-over-new-migrant-camps

[6] https://www.rte.ie/news/world/2020/0304/1120264-lesbos-greece-turkey/

[7] https://www.hrw.org/news/2020/03/17/greece-violence-against-asylum-seekers-border

[8] https://euobserver.com/migration/147621

[9]https://www.dw.com/en/msf-moria-refugee-camp-an-ideal-breeding-ground-for-a-rapid-spread-of-coronavirus/a-52824830

[10] https://www.keeptalkinggreece.com/2020/03/28/moria-coronavirus-medical-center/

[11] https://www.keeptalkinggreece.com/2020/03/28/moria-coronavirus-medical-center/

[12] https://www.europemustact.org/

File photo. Asylum seekers demonstrate outside the Moria refugees camp on Lesvos island, Greece, on 2 March 2020. The protesters ask to let them go free to their destination. [Orestis Panagiotou/EPA/EFE]

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Grainne Farrell
About Grainne Farrell 1 Article
Grainne Farrell is an Irish volunteer working in Lesvos, Greece. She is also a member of United Against Racism