Migrants and refugees walk towards the border between Edirne, Turkey and Greece | Photo: Picture-alliance/NurPhoto/D.Cupolo
Migrants and refugees walk towards the border between Edirne, Turkey and Greece | Photo: Picture-alliance/NurPhoto/D.Cupolo

Oxfam is accusing Greece of using the coronavirus as a pretext to suspend the asylum procedures. Numerous other organizations, including the Greek Refugee Council, have called on the Greek government to do more to protect migrants and refugees on the Greek Aegean islands from Covid-19.

International charity Oxfam on Thursday urged the European Commission to sanction Greece for what it deemed violations of migrants' rights.

Earlier this week, the Greek parliament ratified a controversial emergency decree that suspends asylum procedures for one month. The Greek government had introduced the decree in early March, in response to neighboring Turkey declaring that it would stop all efforts to halt migrants from entering the EU.

"Rather than protecting vulnerable people from the spread of the coronavirus, the Greek government is using the crisis to absolve itself from its obligations under international and EU law," Oxfam's European Union migration policy advisor, Raphael Shilhav, said in an online statement from March 26.

"The new law means that people who flee war and persecution have no chance of finding safety and protection when they arrive in Greece," Shilhav added.

He also said that families with children are being held in detention in "absolutely inadequate conditions," waiting to be sent back to their home countries, where they face "threats to their lives and freedom."

Shilhav said this was "a clear-cut violation of EU law and the UN convention on refugees."

The new law, which applies to all people who have arrived between March 1 and March 31, could possibly be further extended.

Tightened policy

Athens introduced harsher policies after Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in late February announced he would no longer stop refugees who want to go to Europe.

As a result, thousands of migrants and refugees gathered at the Greek-Turkish border, where clashes between Greek border guards and migrants ensued and humanitarian conditions subsequently deteriorated considerably.

EU member state Greece resorted to teargas to push back thousands of people trying to cross into the EU. In recent days, however, the number of migrants at the border has dwindled to a few hundred. On Friday, Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis said asylum seekers had pulled back from the border with Turkey, with reports citing coronavirus fears as the reason.

Warnings over situation on Greek islands

Meanwhile, Vasileios Papadopoulos, board president of the Greek Council for Refugees, criticized Greece for not doing more to protect the thousands of migrants stuck in overcrowded camps on the Greek islands in the Aegean Sea.

"In light of the global Covid-19 health emergency, Greece and the other EU governments must act now to prevent a major health crisis in the refugee camps and beyond," said Papadopoulos.

"As a first step, the Greek government should immediately protect the most vulnerable people by moving them to safe and appropriate accommodation," he added.

Papadopoulos also called on the EU to "restore access to fair asylum procedures."

On Wednesday, Oxfam and 120 other NGOs from some 20 EU states called on Greece and the EU in an open letter to take urgent action to prevent a Covid-19 outbreak in Greek refugee camps.

Emergency coronavirus plan for island camps

On Tuesday, the EU Commission said it was working with Greek authorities on an emergency plan to prepare for a potential outbreak of coronavirus in the migrant camps on the Greek islands.

But the EU itself has paused the transfer of the 1,600 unaccompanied children from Greece to at least seven countries in the EU because of Covid-19 .

Last week, Doctors Without Borders (MSF) had called Moria refugee camp on the Greek Aegean island of Lesbos "an ideal breeding ground for a rapid spread" of coronavirus.

With material from AFP

 

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