Refugees in Greece Extremely Vulnerable to COVID-19 Outbreaks

Updated: Jul 16, 2020

By Daniel Farber Huang

May 24, 2020


Water shortages, no soap, no doctors


CHIOS, Greece, May 24, 2020 - As fears of COVID-19 continue to put much of the world on high alert, refugees detained in camps across Greece are highly vulnerable and unprepared to prevent the spread of coronavirus.


The Vial refugee camp on the island of Chios in Greece is located on a military facility surrounded by sparse fields and rural neighborhoods. Located only 5 miles from the Turkish coast, Chios is a hotspot for refugee boat landings.


According to the UNHCR, the Vial camp was originally intended to hold just over 1,000 residents, but currently holds between 4,500 to 5,000 detainees at any given time. People are crammed into “rub halls” holding a minimum of 40 people, smaller shelters, plastic tents and, for the least protected, makeshift shelters scattered wherever space permits. During the wet winters, temperatures drop down to freezing, and into the 90s and 100s in the sweltering summers.


According to Erfan, one of the thousands of men detained at Vial, the camp’s medical care is “very weak.” Communicating through Facebook messenger in late April, Erfan, who is a refugee from Syria, wrote, “Doctors don't accept any kind of sicknesses except fever. If corona gets here it will spread very quickly.”


Greece’s National Organization of Public Health reports 2,760 cases and 155 deaths from COVID-19 across the entire country as of May 13. About one-fifth of the cases are considered to be the result from overseas travel, and half are from the spread of local infection.


In early April, Reuters reported the first cases of coronavirus in a refugee camp at the Ritsona camp, located north of Athens, where 23 asylum seekers tested positive. The camp was quickly placed in a 14-day quarantine. Additional cases have been reported at the Malakasa camp, also located in north of Athens; at the Moria camp in Lesvos, which is Greece’s largest camp; and in the southern town of Kranidi.


Similar to the rest of the Chios island, the Vial camp does not have naturally potable water so the thousands of detainees are issued about 1 or 1.5 liters of bottled drinking water each day. Accord to a relief worker with detailed knowledge of the camp and situation who asked to remain anonymous for fear of being denied access to Vial, water for washing and sanitation has to be trucked in by a local relief organization, and is available for only three or four hours each day for the detainees.


Detainees at Vial, and many other camps across Greece, are not provided with basic items, including soap, by the authorities. Compounded by the lack of running water and general sanitation, Erfan said, “the situation of the toilets is awful.”




Unsanitary living conditions at the Vial refugee camp are commonplace.

(Photo provided by a camp detainee living inside Vial)

On April 11, Europe Must Act monitored the water availability at three sites inside the camp. At Site 1, running water was available for only 20 minutes, at Site 2 one hour, and 2.5 hours at Site 3, leaving countless people without water for sanitation that day.


In desperation, people have resorted to hand digging wells in search of water.

Europe Must Act interviewed a resident who said, "This is our suffering for days. There is no water and there is a large line if there is water. We wash in drinking water, how do we drink water if we wash with it?”


At Vial, detainees have resorted to hand digging wells in search of water.

(Photo credits: Europe Must Act)


Greece’s Ministry for Citizen Protection has posted information posters online in multiple languages, including Arabic, called “Coronavirus: Don’t fear – Protect Yourself”. The first recommendation is to wash hands frequently and thoroughly using soap or alcohol-based hand sanitizer.


“Preventing people from being able to keep clean is short-sighted as a matter of public health and downright inhumane but many governments are reluctant to expend resources for humanitarian needs,” Bill Frelick, Human Rights Watch Director of Refugee and Migrant Rights wrote on HRW’s website in April. “And some choose to dehumanize refugees, asylum seekers, and migrants to make them less sympathetic so it’s easier to reject their claims or to deter more from coming.”


In December 2019, according to the same relief worker with intimate knowledge of the camp reported that 50 unaccompanied minors suffered from scabies due to prolonged unsanitary conditions, including lack of soap. Over a year earlier, that same source reported another outbreak of scabies in June 2018 among more than 50 detainees.


According to the CDC, human scabies is caused by microscopic itch mites that burrow into the upper layer of the skin where they live and lays eggs. Scabies mites are usually is spread by direct, prolonged, skin-to-skin contact with a person who has scabies and can spread rapidly under crowded conditions where close body contact is frequent.


"It would be impossible to contain an outbreak in such camp settings in Lesvos, Chios, Samos, Leros and Kos,“ Dr. Hilde Vochten, Medecins Sans Frontieres’ Medical Coordinator said on MSF’s website. “To this day, we have not seen a credible emergency plan to protect and treat people living there."


Men, women and children continue to seek safety in Greece, crossing the Turkish border by foot in the north, or by boats launched from the Turkish coast and landing on the closest Greek islands, including Chios. According to the Greek news site Astraparis in early April, Chios authorities signed a seven-month lease at a cost of nearly $50,000 for a facility to quarantine newly arrived refugees and immigrants for 14 days before transferring them to the Vial “reception and identification center”, as the camp is formally labeled, or elsewhere.


As reported in Chios News Online on April 14, the Chios Medical Association recommended to Greece’s General Secretariat for Civil Protection that the new quarantine location needs to ensure individual isolation, separate bathrooms, that detainees not be allowed out into the community, and all admitted people are examined for possible infections.


The Vial camp is administered by the local Greek authorities. Non-governmental organizations also provide relief services, however in recent months their access to Vial has been restricted or eliminated, leaving the detainees with even fewer services and supplies than before according to relief workers who have recently been restricted from working at the camp.


Tensions have skyrocketed in recent months on Chios. In February, violent anti-refugee protests were met with teargas by local police, as reported by the website Chiosin.gr.


On Feb. 299, according to the New York Times, Turkish President Recep Erdogan re-opened his country’s border to allow refugees to travel onward to the EU, saying that Turkey could no longer handle the massive numbers of people fleeing the war in Syria.


“What did we do yesterday?” he said in a televised speech in Istanbul. “We opened the doors.”


The recent influx of new arrivals resulted in sometimes violent clashes with Greek authorities, both on land and on the waters between the two countries as an influx of new refugees arrived in the country.


Video released by the Turkish government and circulating widely on Youtube shows the Greek coast guard aggressively blocking a refugee boat’s advance, firing bullets from a rifle into the water as a warning, and striking the passengers with a gaffer pole. A coast guard vessel is shown speeding in front of the overcrowded inflatable boat, intentionally tossing the refugee boat around in its powerful wake.


In contrast, since the beginning of the current refugee crisis in 2015 until more recently, the Greek Coast Guard had often been commended for their lifesaving efforts as over a million refugees entered their country.


The Greek Coast Guard fires warning shots in front of a refugee boat heading toward its shores. Image taken from video recorded by the Turkish government (Source: The Telegraph)


On Facebook this year, relief organizations in Greece have reported anti-refugee protesters burning and destroying warehouses and safe spaces.


A riot broke out inside Vial on April 18 after an Iraqi woman died in the camp. According to the advocacy group Europe Must Act, earlier that day the woman was taken to Chios hospital for medical reasons. She was examined for COVID-19 and tested negative. She was returned to Vial and detained in her container shelter.


“Her incarceration and condition first lead to a panic attack. At 12pm today she was found dead in her container,” they reported.


Volunteers from another advocacy group, Are You Serious, reported protests arose from inside the camp after the woman died from a suspected heart attack. Police were reported to use tear gas as the protest swelled into a “full scale riot”. Several shelters, rub halls, and administrative buildings were burned and destroyed, as well as three police cars.

Rioters set tents and buildings on fire on April 18, 2020, after an

Iraqi refugee died in the camp. (Photo credit: Europe Must Act)


On April 18, according to The Guardian, a riot broke out inside Vial after a 47-year-old asylum seeker from Iraq died in the camp. Two Afghans and an Iraqi have been arrested in relation to the unrest.


According to residents, as reported by Europe Must Act on their Facebook page, riot police used tear gas to quell the unrest. Several housing structures and other buildings were destroyed, leaving hundreds of people already vulnerable people without shelter. Due to lockdown rules, during the rioting many detainees were afraid to seek safety in the nearby fields for fear of being arrested outside the boundaries of the camp.


Europe Must Act made the point that “In the midst of an emergency, people feel pressure from all angles.”


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