Medics say closure of Greece’s migrant Covid-19 camp is ‘disastrous’

Médecins Sans Frontières has been forced to close its refugee coronavirus centre in Greece due to new regulations

Refugees on the Greek island of Lesbos are facing a fresh crisis as the medical charity Médecins Sans Frontières has announced the closure of its coronavirus unit.

The frontline charity, known as MSF, says it has been forced to shut the dedicated centre after authorities imposed fines and potential criminal charges on it.

The charity says its closure will be disastrous for the refugees because it was the only place for those with coronavirus symptoms to isolate on Lesbos.

“We've been forced to close our Covid-19 isolation centre in Lesbos after local authorities imposed fines and potential criminal charges,” MSF tweeted. “For refugees living in Moria camp, an outbreak could be disastrous - this is the only place to isolate on the island.”

Moria camp at five times capacity

More than 15,000 refugees and asylum seekers live in the Moria camp, which was originally built to house just 3,000 people.

The move also means that many people living in the overcrowded camps, some with serious medical conditions, are now unable to access healthcare or see a doctor.

A girl wears a protective face mask at a makeshift camp for refugees and migrants next to the Moria camp, during a nationwide lockdown to contain the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), on the island of Lesbos, Greece April 02, 2020. REUTERS/Elias Marcou

Due to urban-planning regulations that have been introduced in Greece, the charity says it is being hampered by fines and the threat of criminal charges. It is now calling on the authorities to work with it to find a solution.

“We are deeply disappointed that local authorities could not quash these fines and potential charges in light of the global pandemic, despite some efforts from relevant stakeholders,” said Stephan Oberreit, MSF’s head of mission in Greece.

“We have had to unwillingly close a crucial component of the Covid-19 response for Moria.

“The public health system on Lesbos would simply be unable to handle the devastation caused by an outbreak in Moria - which is why we stepped in.”

The isolation centre had opened in May to provide a safe space for people from Moria with coronavirus symptoms to be isolated and treated.

However, the charity says that since July the local authorities have used urban-planning regulations to impose fines and potential criminal charges against it.

“These fines and potential charges are being levied against MSF despite the fact that the Covid-19 centre is part of the emergency preparedness plan set out by the Minister of Migration aimed at preventing the spread of Covid-19 among the men, women, and children living in the Moria camp,” it said.

The centre was originally created to support the local hospital.

“It’s astonishing that we are being hampered by local authorities while trying to protect vulnerable people,” Mr Oberreit said.

“In Moria, we see an enormous violation of human dignity, with thousands of people trapped in inhumane conditions.”

Unsanitary conditions

Oxfam's warning in April of the problems coronavirus could cause refugees has proved prescient.

MSF says that the thousands of people in the camps have little space and limited access to soap and water, making it impossible to carry out preventive measures against Covid-19 such as physical distancing and regular handwashing.

It's astonishing that we are being hampered by local authorities while trying to protect vulnerable people

“This is not the first and it probably won’t be the last time that we and other humanitarian organisations face these types of obstacles as we try to cover the gaps left by European and Greek authorities in assistance to migrants and refugees,” said Bertand Perrochet, MSF’s director of operations.It estimates that more than 300 people in the camps are at high-risk of contracting coronavirus due to their age or chronic medical conditions, and is calling for the “immediate and urgent” evacuation of the most vulnerable from Moria.

“For the past five years, we have seen the terrible harm inflicted by containment policies on people trapped in reception centres where refugees are living across the Greek islands. Now, during a global pandemic, MSF has been prevented from responding to a public health risk that the authorities have neglected.”

The EU chiefs warned that a failure to support Greece would trigger broader problems for the European Union as it seeks to bolster support for a bloc migration policy.In March the European Union promised Greece 700 million euros and extra border guards to help tackle the continent's most serious migration crisis since 2015.

“Greek worries are our worries,” The head of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, had said

“It’s not only the Greek border but also the European border.”