As COVID-19 sweeps across Europe, many humanitarian and human rights organisations have repeatedly sounded the alarm that the situation on the Greek islands, deteriorated by Turkey’s move to open its borders in March, is a tinderbox waiting to ignite. A possible coronavirus outbreak could decimate already vulnerable asylum seekers crammed in the reception and identification centres around the Aegean.
The European Parliament has joined NGOs in calling on Greece to immediately decongest the refugee camps and protect people trapped on the Greek islands. On the island of Lesvos alone, almost 20,000 people - including people with disabilities, chronic illnesses, the elderly, and families with children - are living in conditions that are far from humane, facing an uncertain future, in facilities made for less than 3,000.
We know that the virus thrives in locations where populations live in close quarters with limited access to sanitation. Imagine the reality for refugees and asylum seekers in Moria, Greece, where there are a staggering 203,800 people per km2, according to the IRC’s analysis, with as many as 1,300 sharing a single water tap in some parts of the camp.
“Europeans are staying at home, cleaning their home, washing themselves, not going to crowded places. But here? We have to stand in line for food. We have to stand in line to shower. And these lines are really crowded. I see so many old people in those lines and it makes me feel really sad because I know that if coronavirus comes, most of them will die,” says 24-year-old RA from Afghanistan, one of the beneficiaries of our psychosocial programme on the island of Lesvos.
There is no doubt that overcrowding in the camps needs to be dealt with immediately, but the question remains how to do so effectively, amidst a Europe-wide collective lockdown. While the first attempt to use empty hotels for quarantining a thousand of the most vulnerable migrants on the Greek islands has just been announced by the European Commission, more remains to be done.
Empty hotels are a problem but can also be a solution
Greece entered lockdown in early March, with all hotels and tourist accommodation ordered to close from 15 March until 30 April, with a possibility of a further extension. For hotel owners and their staff, it is a recipe for yet another disaster that the hospitality sector will need to face head-on. With over 38,000 tourist accommodation establishments, including hotels, hostels, rooms for rent and over 1,340,000 bed places, this means a severe blow for the Greek economy. Ιn 2019, a quarter of Greece’s GDP came from tourism, which employed 411,000 people.
As EU member states struggle with COVID-19 exit strategies, potential travel restrictions in the following months remain a great unknown. Hotel owners and employees all over Greece are rightly concerned about their businesses with the uncertainty of the upcoming tourist season looming. At the same time, thousands of refugees on the Greek islands are concerned about their survival, as they cannot isolate and protect themselves from COVID-19.
Facilitating refugee access to vacant accommodation on the islands, and establishing a fair payment scheme for the owners under available EU funds, is a solution that can benefit both refugees and locals. Back in winter 2016, in the wake of severe snowfalls in Greece, this solution saved many lives. Last week, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) launched a call for a tendering process for refugee accommodation on the respective islands, aiming to provide people with safe shelter for a period of three months. Given the obvious benefits this solution would bring to the Greek businesses, we are counting on the hotel owners to respond positively to this call. A similar model is already being used in several European cities, such as Brussels, where an empty hotel was turned into a safe shelter for homeless people or Madrid, with a resort hosting refugees during the ongoing coronavirus crisis.
However, hotels can serve only as a temporary fix. What refugees and asylum-seekers need in the long run are solutions accepted by the local communities, ensuring that they can find themselves in dignified settings that promote their integration, psychological wellbeing and give them a chance to gain control of their own futures. These should be boldly promoted far beyond the current emergency to avoid the scenario of overcrowding, dire living conditions and deadly risks currently seen on the Greek islands from repeating itself anytime in the future.
The European Commission has just announced the expansion of a financial package for emergency support for refugee integration and accommodation, which means fresh hope for people languishing on the islands. And as shown by the International Rescue Committee's own experience in running a supported living programme for unaccompanied children in Athens, providing refugees with proper accommodation and personalised support is an approach that works.
Transferring people out of camps and investing in alternative models of accommodation, including apartments, or supporting hotels to host the evacuees, is not only a powerful act of solidarity with refugees, but also a life-line to a now-struggling hospitality sector and Greek people severely affected by this crisis. But whatever steps are implemented now to fight COVID-19, they should constitute part of the solution to permanently address the humanitarian crisis in Greece, which started long before the coronavirus dominated the headlines.
The pandemic has not created the need for more humane conditions or decongestion of the reception centres. It has exposed, however, how the void left by a lack of coordinated EU response to the situation on the Greek islands painfully impacts the most vulnerable populations within Europe’s borders in the wake of a sudden health crisis.
- Dimitra Kalogeropoulou is the Greece Country Director at the International Rescue Committee.
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