Experts Sound Alarm At Danger COVID-19 Poses For People In Refugee Camps

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People are in a burnt area after a fire in the Moria camp on 16 March.

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LONDON – In Europe's largest refugee camp, social detachment is simply not possible.

There is also no place to wash your hands frequently, nor access to medical or testing facilities with life-threatening conditions.

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Aid groups are warning that the coronavirus could pose a catastrophic threat to people living in Greek camps and, by extension, to everyone who lives in the country. Many people fleeing violence in countries like Iraq, Syria, Libya and Somalia arrive in Greece because of their position in the Mediterranean in south-eastern Europe.

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Aid workers have been calling for overcrowded camps for years to be evacuated due to the risk of disease transmission. The spread of the new coronavirus makes this even more urgent. The Greek government implemented a total blockade this week in response to the coronavirus and asked residents to stay at home.

The European Commission is working with Greece on an emergency plan to address a possible outbreak in the camps. Greece recorded 821 cases of COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus and 23 deaths. At least two of the cases are on the island of Lesbos, which houses the Moria's huge refugee camp, Largest in Europe. Moria was originally built in 2015 to house 3,000 people, but now it houses around 23,000.

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People in the Moria camp sew handmade protective masks at the facilities of the NGO Team Humanity on March 25.

There are no documented cases of coronavirus among refugees in Greece, but this is likely because there have been no tests. There are virtually no tests available for refugees in Greece – in fact, there are very few for the population across the country, health experts say.

Dozens of aid groups are urging renewed urgency for the most vulnerable in Greece's camps to be evacuated. Doctors Without Borders (MSF) called for the urgent evacuation of Moria. The fields, the groups say, are a time bomb for the coronavirus.

The same logic applies to all refugee camps in the world. Most countries in the world are now experiencing the virus, and refugees, who generally do not have access to needs such as health care and water, will experience some of the most difficult circumstances of the pandemic.

Peter Aldhous / BuzzFeed News

Total cases and deaths by country.

"When the virus hits overcrowded settlements in places like Iran, Bangladesh, Afghanistan and Greece, the consequences will be devastating," said Jan Egeland, secretary general of the Norwegian Refugee Council, said on March 16. "We must act now."

George Makris, MSF coordinating physician in Greece, described the water and sanitation conditions in Moria and other fields in the country as "tragic". His organization tried to improve access to water, he said, but it was not enough.

"The transmission of the virus cannot be contained there," he said. "We have warned this repeatedly in the past in the context of other outbreaks of infectious diseases such as meningitis and measles."

"Our message is simple," he added. "As health officials are saying that all mass meetings are prohibited, mass containment must also be avoided."

More than 40,000 refugees are scattered across camps on the Greek islands, including Lesvos.

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People walk their dogs on a hill overlooking the Acropolis in Athens on 24 March.

As in other parts of Greece, the Greek government suspended movement within the camps. But, given the unsanitary conditions, humanitarian groups say it will not be enough to contain an outbreak.

"It is true that the coronavirus is a draw because it does not care about ethnicity or social status," said Epaminondas Farmakis, founder of HumanRights360, an NGO that works with refugees in Greece. "But it also exposes the big gaps in terms of access to healthcare."

Farmakis also said he feared an outbreak would further stigmatize refugees, who are already accused by right-wing politicians of transporting diseases to the country. In reality, he pointed out, it was the Greeks who were traveling on holiday to Italy and Israel who are probably responsible for introducing the coronavirus into the country.

Overcrowding and other problematic conditions within the camps are what make them ideal spots for the spread of the virus.

Manolis Lagoutaris / Getty Images

People are leaving the Moria camp after the March 16 fire.

"In life in the refugee camp, wherever it is – Greece, Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Kenya – sanitary conditions are the opposite of what is recommended," said Amed Khan, founder of Elpida Home, which works with refugees in Greece. “There is no way to keep your distance or wash your hands. You cannot socially distance yourself from a crowded refugee camp. "

"Even the models from the best fields are literally a disaster in this scenario," he added.

The Greek government effectively imposed a daytime curfew within the camps, between 7 am and 7 pm, and closed some camps completely. The curfew is imposed by the police. Newcomers to the camps, who have not undergone health checks in the past, are now being tested for fever.

"We’ve literally been saying the same thing since 2015 and it never happened. You can’t keep humans in places like this,” said Khan. "People are going to pay the price for it."

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