Refugees gather at a camp in Greece.

Greece Is Weaponizing the Coronavirus Against Refugees

The government blames refugees, who cannot leave their camps, for the spread of the virus.
November 13, 2020, 4:43pm

On the island of Chios, as of this week, most residents must send a text to a government number when they go to the grocery store or out for a walk, and are kept inside with a 9:00 p.m. curfew. Twenty minutes away, refugees at the camp of Vial are virtually held captive. None of the 4,000 or so asylum seekers or refugees can exit the area for a walk, no one can go to the town’s grocery store, and police are stationed on the surrounding roads. In tents and containers strewn across craggy olive fields, people must just sit and wait.

“It’s the worst experience I’ve ever had.” said Dalmar Hassan, 22, an asylum-seeker from Somalia. Hassan has lived on the Aegean island of Chios for over a year, waiting for his asylum claim to process. “It’s like someone taking the only hope you got. There is no life in there.” 

Inside the camp, tents are erected feet away from each other, making social distancing impossible. Dozens of people are forced to use the same squalid showers, and while face masks are required, procuring them is almost impossible. When Vial refugee camp was placed in a strict two-week quarantine on October 14, no one was surprised when, two weeks later, the quarantine was extended. Two weeks after that, it was extended yet again. 

“They just don’t care.”

“When they tell you you are in prison, and you will be released and then they tell you your sentence has been extended, that is how I feel now,” Hassan told VICE News. “They just don’t care.”

Vial similarly spent all summer under an ever-extending lockdown, as Greece’s Ministry of Migration or the camp managers announced every two weeks that the measures had been extended. These measures applied to camps across the country, impacting tens of thousands of refugees. 

Early in the pandemic, Greece was praised for its response as the country enacted an almost two-month-long lockdown that largely curbed the spread of the virus. But in early May, as the rest of Greece opened up, dozens of refugee camps and accommodation structures remained shuttered. These lockdowns were extended, expired, and reinstated multiple times in different forms, despite low infection rates. Even as many lockdown restrictions have shifted, instead of protecting refugees, the Greek government has weaponized COVID-19 regulations against migrants in the country and has linked them with the spread of the virus. 

Greece is currently on its second lockdown, but many residents of the country’s refugee camps have been kept behind lock, key, and barbed wire for months. 

When COVID-19 first entered Greece in late February, one of prime minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis’s first moves was to announce increased border controls around the Aegean islands and the land border with Turkey. He explicitly linked the novel coronavirus with “illegal entries” into the country, though the first several cases of COVID-19 in Greece were reported to have come from Italy. 

This kept with the government’s anti-refugee rhetoric: Since coming to power last July, Greece’s New Democracy party has made migrant returns and deterrence a key part of its platform. In the first few months of control, the government heightened border security, called for closed detention camps, and asserted that only migrants of a certain profile should enter the country. 

Days after the outbreak began, a government spokesperson and the Minister of Migration repeatedly stated that only closed refugee camps would allow for the health checks needed to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. On March 18, Greece announced a month-long restriction on the movement of refugees in camps around the country. They instituted a curfew and only permitted one member of each family unit to leave their homes for essential trips. At the same time, the country entered a general lockdown. All nonessential shops were closed, and residents were required to fill out a form stating their reason for being outside. 

On May 4, Greece re-opened for Greek citizens, and the government announced that the lockdown in the country’s migrant camps and reception centers would continue until May 21. In June, Greece began an aggressive campaign to entice foreign travelers to vacation on the country’s islands, with slogans like “Greek summer is a state of mind.”  Meanwhile, the government extended the quarantine on the camps, and over the summer, the lockdown on refugee camps was extended more than five times, despite the fact that most of the camps did not have positive cases. 

“Inside they were healthy, the danger came from outside, from us,” a translator at a camp near Orestiada in the north of Greece, who wished to stay anonymous out of concerns regarding job security, told VICE News. He said social workers trying to service unaccompanied minors were unable to do so over the phone, and for months most of the legal and medical services in the camp halted, including his work. The residents languished inside.  

“We told them that there’s a lockdown on the camp, for just two weeks, and then we will see. And then after two weeks they extended it,” he added. “In that period the kids got really upset. They got tired psychologically, frustrated, disappointed, a lot of things. I feel sorry for these children.”  

“The only thing everyone is waiting for is their documents. So when there is a lockdown all the system stops,” said Hassan. “No one is working, it’s just the refugees staying here. Whether you got coronavirus or not.”

A man lies on a cot in a refugee camp in Greece.

A man lies on a bed at a makeshift camp next to the Samos refugee camp in Greece. (Photo by ANGELOS TZORTZINIS/AFP via Getty Images)

The Vial camp on Chios did not have any confirmed coronavirus cases until August. For months, people waited as access to social workers or lawyers or asylum procedures diminished to almost zero. The two camps that did have cases over the summer were placed in a strict quarantine, and no one was allowed to leave at all. 

Semin Ahmadi, 22, was exhausted with the difficulty of accessing basic care during the camp lockdowns. An asylum seeker from Afghanistan, Ahmadi has lived on the Greek island of Lesbos for 12 months. During the summer lockdown of the island’s infamous Moria refugee camp, Ahmadi’s family had difficulties accessing necessary medical assistance for her mother, who has chronic throat and stomach problems, and a permanent leg injury from a Taliban attack. Instead, they were trapped in the camp with over 13,000 people, packed together in tents or hand-made shelters, with almost no access to running water. “There was no safety, no security, no showers, no school, no good doctors,” Ahmadi told VICE News. “We didn’t have a normal life.”

Moria had been in lockdown for almost six months before there was a single confirmed coronavirus case. On September 2, the first person in Moria tested positive for coronavirus, and the camp was put under an even stricter quarantine. Less than a week later, the camp erupted into flames. Europe’s largest refugee camp was reduced to smoldering heaps of tarp within two days, and thousands were left to sleep on the street. 

Officials and aid workers stated the fire was started as a desperate objection to the enforced quarantine, but the Greek government chastised migrants for protesting. “I recognize the difficult conditions,” stated Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis. “However, nothing can become an alibi for violent reactions to health checks. And, much more, for riots of this magnitude.”

“We are humans, not animals.”

After the fire, residents spent days protesting. They were then pushed to a new camp nearby that was outfitted with temporary summer tents. Residents are now only permitted to exit the new camp from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday through Friday and from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. on Saturday. Over Whatsapp, Ahmadi explained her frustration with being locked inside: “It’s wrong, it’s wrong that everyone in this camp has coronavirus. It’s a lie,” said Ahmadi.  “We are humans, not animals. They should not make a closed camp for us.” 

“To be limited with wires and fences is a very bad feeling,” said Parwana Amiri, a 17-year-old asylum seeker from Afghanistan in Greece’s Ritsona refugee camp, one of the two camps first placed in strict quarantine. This quarantine was extended several times over the summer and into the fall. She told VICE News that both entrances to the camp, located an hour north of Athens, were locked and guarded by police buses through October. The processing of asylum cases in the camp slowed to almost a complete stop, almost no one could get out, even for a doctor’s visit.

Amiri arrived in Ritsona with her family early last year, after spending four months in Greece’s Moria refugee camp. Eager to enroll in the local high school, she was told to wait for the next school year. She spent hours studying English and German and Greek, but after eight months she was told that because the camp was in a quarantine, she would not be permitted to attend. 

Amiri started leading demonstrations inside Ritsona camp, posting photos online of children marching behind barbed wires while demanding access to education. “Coronavirus cannot be an excuse,” she said. “What about our safety? Not only our education but our safety. They don’t think about the safety of the children inside the camp.” 

Last week, on November 7,  Greece entered a second lockdown. The country’s primary schools remained open, while middle and secondary schools were moved online. But the children in Ritsona still have no access to classes. According to the International Organization for Migration, which helps manage sites on Greece’s mainland, around 3,852 children at seven mainland accommodation sites or refugee camps are similarly prevented from going to public school specifically due to COVID-19 lockdown measures. 

“What we see is a kind of double standard.”

Human rights organizations have critiqued the disparate ways pandemic measures have been implemented in Greece. “We warn against using quarantine as a blanket measure. It should only be implemented when people’s basic rights can at the same time be protected,” said Adriana Tidona, a researcher at Amnesty International. “This can be seen in access to economic and social rights. The restrictions are impacting access to services, to lawyers or other essential services because people are basically unable to enter the cities.”

“What we see is a kind of double standard,” Andrea Contenta, Regional Advocacy Representative for Doctors Without Borders, told VICE News. “From a medical point of view we believe that the measures that have been taken are more for containment rather than really addressing the medical needs of the population.” 

The Greek government, in continuing these biased lockdowns, has conflated refugees with the coronavirus. In September, the government spokesperson, Stelios Petsas, asserted in a radio interview that “half of the cases in Attica are in the center of Athens with a very large participation of people with a refugee / immigrant profile.” He has also stated that Greece would not rule out the possibility of locking down specific neighborhoods with larger migrant populations, while Greece’s Minister of Health, Vasilis Kikilias, has argued in favor of quarantining “asymptomatic young people…mainly immigrants, refugees with COVID, so as not to create a further problem in the center of Athens.” The Greek Ministry of Migration has not responded to repeated requests for comment. 

Their arguments, however, are not backed up with data. The National Organization of Public Health often tabulates foreign infection rates separately from those of the general population, but none of the counts done by the organization indicate that migrants or refugees have caught COVID-19 at a higher rate than Greek citizens. 

Still, anti-refugee rhetoric has spread nationally: In March, local newspapers ran articles arguing that coronavirus and migrants proved a similar threat to the country’s growth, and that migrants didn’t follow hygiene rules. In April, Greece’s largest paper reported that there was a Turkish plot to send migrants with the coronavirus to Greece and Europe. Headlines frequently covered migrants who “broke out” of coronavirus quarantines, and in late September, local news channels reported that 10-15% of the country’s ICU beds were occupied by foreigners, and foreigners were the majority of COVID-19 patients. These numbers were often reported to the papers by anonymous sources, and not reflected in the official counts done by the National Organization of Public Health.

Refugees protest camp conditions.

Refugees protest in front of the Greek Parliament in in Athens, Greece. (Photo by Nikolas Kokovlis/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

“People that are dehumanized or on their way to being dehumanized are seen as contaminating,” David Livingstone Smith, professor of philosophy at the University of New England and author of On Inhumanity: Dehumanization and How to Resist It told VICE News. “The feared or despised or hated population is seen as carrying disease. Or are represented as disease entities themselves, which are infecting the body of the nation.” 

Smith warned that the impact of this rhetoric could be long-term: “The realistic fears about the pandemic are only one component of this,” he said. “But these xenophobic sentiments, these racist sentiments aren’t going to go away when the pandemic goes away. They will just take a different form.”

Eleonas Refugee camp also spent all summer in a lockdown, and then in September was placed under an even stricter quarantine. This quarantine was extended several times, and finally expired at the end of October. Eleonas is home to some 2400 refugees and asylum seekers from over 31 countries, crammed between warehouses and industrial debris on the outskirts of Athens. On a normal day, access to food, water, sanitation, healthcare, and education is difficult and through the fall, residents regularly had demonstrations calling for better conditions and an end to the camp lockdown.

“Believe me I like this country, I want to stay. But they do not support me. They play with us.”

“It was very bad. All the people were depressed,” said Aman Allah Khajahgere, a refugee from Iran who has lived in Eleonas refugee camp for over a year. “There [are] a lot of children in the camp. It’s very bad for them. There’s no class, no place to play, all the time they are fighting together, fighting together.” 

Khajahgere spends hours every week volunteering to bring basic supplies like diapers, clothes, and food to other camps near Athens.  “They didn’t bring enough support. How can people stay inside?” He asked. “They say they want it closed to protect the people, but if there is coronavirus in the camp, they should bring people outside.” 

Khajahgere is worried about the impact of the government regulations on the children in the camp, and about what kind of future is possible for him in Greece. He is also exasperated at the suggestion that regulations on the camp are simple public health concerns. “Everything is about the politics. They play with the refugees,” he told VICE News. “Believe me I like this country, I want to stay. But they do not support me. They play with us.”