Asylum seekers, migrants and refugees, disembark from a ferry in the port of Kavala, northern Greece, 21 March 2020 | Photo: EPA/LASKARIS TSOUTSAS
Asylum seekers, migrants and refugees, disembark from a ferry in the port of Kavala, northern Greece, 21 March 2020 | Photo: EPA/LASKARIS TSOUTSAS

Greece will begin moving hundreds of elderly and ailing asylum seekers out of overcrowded island camps to protect them from the coronavirus, the migration ministry said on Thursday.

The ministry said 2,380 "vulnerable persons" will be moved out of camps on Aegean islands to apartments, hotels and other camps on the mainland.

The transfer is planned to begin after April 19, Orthodox Easter, and is expected to be carried out over a two-week period.

"This additional protective measure aims to further reduce the risk of a (virus) outbreak," the ministry said.

Those to be moved include 200 asylum seekers over the age of 60 who will be accompanied by their families, AFP reports. Another group of 1,730 includes people with prior ailments and their relatives, the ministry said.

No coronavirus case has been officially reported in camps on the islands of Lesbos, Chios, Samos, Leros and Kos. But there have been outbreaks in two camps on the mainland (Ritsona and Malakasa)

Transfer organized by IOM, UNHCR

The International Organization for Migration (IOM) is organizing the transfer of more than 2,000 "COVID-19 vulnerable" migrants in cooperation with the UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), as revealed by Greek IOM chief Gianluca Rocco.
According to Rocco, the IOM plans to temporarily house those transferred from island camps in hotels and apartments on the islands and the mainland "within two months". 

A safety measure due to coronavirus 

The measure comes hot on the heels of a similar call by the UNHCR which issued an invitation for the rentals of hotels and ships. The latter would dock at the ports on the islands of Lesbos, Chios, Samos, Kos and Leros, and the contracts would cover 15 days for quarantine, with the option of extension to two months, ANSA reports.

Greece's migration ministry has approved the plan and it is being funded by the European Union. 

Rocco said in an online press conference that "hoteliers are interested in housing migrants at this point for a limited amount of time, while the ongoing UN program to house refugees will continue as well." 

In addition, Rocco said that the "Greek authorities and the IOM are trying to create facilities to house up to 5,000 asylum seekers within the next two months, including refurbishing older buildings and using prefabricated homes." 

Meanwhile, in related developments, the IOM's integration program Helios has helped grant asylum to 7,753 beneficiaries, of whom 1,294 are receiving a rent subsidy.

Rocco added that one of the urgent issues after the pandemic is over will be for those people to find jobs, for which they will need support because of the limited access they will have to the local job market. 

Covid-19 Crisis Adds To Problems 

Only two weeks ago, health officials in Greece placed the Ritsona refugee and migrant camp close to the capital city of Athens in quarantine after 20 of the asylum seekers staying there tested positive for Covid-19

Greece's government has also been accused of trying to use a "herd immunity" policy in quarantining migrants and refugees on the camps on the North East Aegean islands following the COVID-19 outbreak. 

Migrant camps like Moria on Lesbos and similar facilities on Chios and Samos are already desperately overcrowded, with new "closed" centers planned by the government to be built on each of those locations still not completed. 

And with Greece on lockdown following the COVID-19 outbreak, the situation for thousands of people living in poor living conditions has become even more difficult with many people living on the outskirts of camps without basic sanitation. This has caused increased tensions at all of the camps.

Media observers and local communities on the islands have criticized the government's handling of the situation in what they see as a perceived lack of care for migrants while also putting the local communities in danger.

Based on reporting by ANSA, updated with information by AFPE, dpa

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