Migrants being examined by medical personnel as they arrived from the island of Lesbos at the Malakasa camp east of Athens, Greece | Photo: EPA/GREEK MINISTRY OF IMMIGRATION
Migrants being examined by medical personnel as they arrived from the island of Lesbos at the Malakasa camp east of Athens, Greece | Photo: EPA/GREEK MINISTRY OF IMMIGRATION

Greece's government was accused of "neglect" and "risking migrants' lives" by the human rights organization Human Rights Watch (HRW) over what they claim has been poor handling of the COVID-19 crisis relating to health and safety measures at refugee and migrant camps around the country.

HRW said that the Greek authorities have simply not done enough to address the dangerous overcrowding and lack of health care, access to basic human needs such as adequate water, sanitation, and hygiene products to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in camps.

"While the Greek government is working to stop the spread of the virus, the images of the squalid conditions in camps on the islands make clear that it's not complying with minimum preventive and protective measures against Covid-19 there," said Belkis Wille, senior Crisis and Conflict researcher at Human Rights Watch. 

"Even handwashing and social distancing are impossible in these circumstances." 

34,875 migrants and asylum seekers are living on Aeegan islands 

According to the latest figures, a total of 34,875 migrants and asylum seekers are living in the migrant reception centers on the Greek Aegean islands of Chios, Kos, Leros, Lesbos, and Samos, which is more than six times their collective capacity. 

And HRW stated that Greece's government needs to take more immediate measures to protect those most vulnerable to COVID-19 in those camps to avert a full-blown, public health crisis. 

For its part so far, the government has extended restrictions on the movement of refugees and migrants living in camps or accommodation centres throughout the country until May 10, following confirmed COVID-19 cases at, at least two facilities hosting migrants and refugees on the mainland. 

The first came earlier this month when health officials 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 the virus. And on Tuesday, it was confirmed that 150 people had been infected at the Kranidi camp in Southern Greece, although none of them had developed any symptoms of COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus.

Minister, 'measures are adequate' 

Deputy Civil Protection Minister Nikos Hardalias visited the camp and called for calm. "There is no reason for panic," he told reporters outside the facility. "The measures [we have taken] are adequate to contain the spread of the virus." 

That is a view not shared by HRW, who continue to improve conditions at camps, and reduce overcrowding by speeding up transfers from the islands to the mainland. "The authorities should urgently identify people in the camps at greater risk of serious illness and death from COVID-19, including older people and people with chronic diseases and serious underlying medical conditions, and other especially at-risk groups, as well as unaccompanied children, people with disabilities, pregnant women, and women who have recently given birth," added Wille.

"They and their families should be safely transported to alternative and accessible accommodation such as hotels, apartments, and other housing units, where they should have access to food, water, sanitation, health care, and other basic necessities. These facilities should be spacious enough and equipped to make social distancing possible, and the authorities should provide information about how and why social distancing works." 

HRW also said that the authorities should supply adequate sanitary and hygiene products and ensure accessible continuous running water so that camp residents can follow the guidelines of the National Public Health Organization (EODY) and the World Health Organization (WHO) for protection from COVID-19, and that all camps need to ensure frequent disinfection of common areas, bathrooms, and toilets, as well as the timely collection and removal of waste.

Willie added: "COVID-19 exposes that the lack of EU solidarity on addressing the congestion in the Greek islands has not only made the situation worse but is now putting thousands of lives at risk." 

"The Greek government and the EU should show they can win this race against the clock while addressing in a humane way the massive overcrowding that has been a problem for years." 

Transfers out of islands continue, but at slow pace 

Against this backdrop of criticism, Greece's government continues to try and ease pressure at the overcrowded reception centers on the north eastern Aegean islands. 

According to local media reports, approximately 1,500 people from the notoriously cramped Moria camp on Lesbos are set to be transferred to the mainland on Saturday, despite restrictions on movement. These people will be the first from a total of 2,380 members of "vulnerable" groups, such as people with health problems, disabilities, women and children, who will be transferred over the next few weeks.

Still, HRW said that this is not adequate considering the desperate overcrowding. "This plan is not enough to relieve the severe overcrowding," Willie concluded. 

"Also, the plan also does not address the continued gaps in water, sanitation, hygiene products, and health care -- nor the lack of accessibility for people with disabilities -- in the camps and adjacent overspill sites for those who will remain."

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