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Greek island migrant camps 'not prepared for COVID-19': Human Rights Watch

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Migrant boys play with a ball outside a hotel in Kranidi town, about 170 kilometers southwest of Athens, Tuesday, April 21, 2020
Migrant boys play with a ball outside a hotel in Kranidi town, about 170 kilometers southwest of Athens, Tuesday, April 21, 2020   -   Copyright  AP Photo/Thanassis Stavrakis
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The charity Human Rights Watch is calling on Greek authorities to do more to protect people most at risk of contracting the new coronavirus in the country’s overcrowded migrant 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," Belkis Wille, senior crisis and conflict researcher at Human Rights Watch, said in a statement on Wednesday.

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

The warning comes after Greek authorities announced on Tuesday (April 21) that 150 people tested positive at a locked-down migrant hotel in the country’s south.

The rented seaside hotel just outside Kranidi, some 170 km southwest of Athens, has been quarantined since 16 April after an employee tested positive. The hotel houses 470 asylum-seekers, mainly from African countries, including many children.

None of those infected showed any symptoms, according to the International Organization for Migration, which manages the facility. The agency has urged authorities to avoid stigmatising migrants during the pandemic.

"It is very important for these people to receive continued support and assistance," Gianluca Rocco, IOM Chief of Mission in Greece, said in a statement.

"Stigmatisation and discrimination against migrants during the pandemic are not only harmful to migrants themselves, but also to the society as a whole, and may jeopardise efforts made to prevent or mitigate the spreading of the virus."

Overcrowded island camps

Some 100,000 asylum seekers are currently stranded in Greece. And while authorities have so far managed to contain the spread of coronavirus in the general population – with considerably fewer cases and fatalities than in other southern European countries like Italy and Spain – there are concerns about outbreaks in the country’s cramped migrant camps.

Nearly 35,000 people currently live in overcrowded camps on the Greek Aegean islands of Chios, Kos, Leros, Lesbos, and Samos, according to Human Rights Watch.

No confirmed cases have yet been identified in these island camps, which have been under lockdown since mid-March, but aid workers fear it’s just a matter of time before an outbreak comes. Two camps on the mainland have already registered cases and been placed under quarantine.

Human Rights Watch is urging authorities to identify migrants at greater risk from COVID-19, including older people and people with underlying medical conditions, unaccompanied children, people with disabilities, pregnant women, and those with newborns.

The charity argues that they and their families should be offered alternative accommodation such as hotels or apartments. It says they should have access to food, water, sanitation, health care, and other basic necessities and be able to stay at a safe distance from other families.

Migrants and aid workers in the Greek island camps have consistently described extreme overcrowding and dire hygiene conditions. They say there is no way for people in these camps to comply with social distancing measures while waiting in line – often for hours on end – to get food, see a doctor, wash or use the toilet.

On Tuesday, Greece’s Minister for Migration and Asylum Notis Mitarachi said that 5.3 per cent of migrants living in island camps had already been moved to the mainland since the beginning of the year, and that those relocations were ongoing.

By the end of this week, another 2,380 asylum seekers will have left the islands to be housed in hotels on the mainland, he said.