In the first month of Summer we are seeing a thawing of Europe’s COVID-19 precautionary measures, after almost 3 months of rigorous policies. The concern of lost revenue from the annual tourism season is pushing most European states to open their borders again. Greece for its part has started to loosen their Corona restrictions for the general population since the beginning of May and European tourist are permitted to enter the country since the 15th of June. While bars, restaurants and hotels are anxiously awaiting the first tourists, refugee camps located on the Greek islands of the Aegean Sea today went into their 4rd round of lockdown lasting until the 5th of July. Until know no significant preventive measures have been implemented in the camps by the authorities, leaving the refugees alone against the threat of a pandemic outbreak.
Anyone who has seen the conditions in those refugee camps knows that it is impossible for the inhabitants to keep ‘social distancing measures’. Moria, the showpiece of European border politics, currently holds around 16.000 people.1 Dense queues line up in front of food and water distribution points due to the lack of space and the much more tangible fear of not being able to provide primary care for their families and themselves. How is it possible to maintain ‘appropriate hygienic standards’ if one toilet should adequately serve the needs of over 100 people and you have to share a water tap with over 1.000 to wash your hands?2
The sanitation standards for the refugee camps were already awful before the pandemic outbreak, nonetheless, COVID-19 has accentuated the threat these people are exposed to on a daily basis. Instead of taking the opportunity to improve the situation at a time where it was already desperately needed, the responsible authorities abandoned the refugees to their own fate. No supplementary hygiene products like masks or disinfectants were provided. Neither of the two medical facilities on the islands were equipped with additional intensive care units. The only measure taken was to set the camps under lockdown. From the 17th of March refugees were only allowed to leave the camps under special circumstances while for most NGOs the access was restricted. Consequently, many fundamental services, including psychological support, medical care, waste management services or legal assistance were no longer available, aggravating the already terrible situation for the inhabitants. The fact that still almost three months later no significant precautionary measures have been implemented, while all of Europe is starting to breath normally again, shows with which ruthlessness refugees are left alone in such precarious conditions.
Not only has COVID-19 worsened the situation for the asylum seekers already on the islands but also for migrants attempting the crossing of the Aegean Sea. In the light of the pandemic threat, Greek authorities have forbidden general sea traffic, blocking human rights monitoring organisation, such as Mare Liberum itself. A large number of asylum seekers have reported being pushed back into Turkish waters during the last months, suggesting that the Hellenic Coast Guard (HCG) isn’t hesitating in using illegal measures to keep migrants away from Greek territory. These so called ‘push-backs’ are documented by the migrants themselves, showing videos of the HGC beating, insulting or using other forms of harassment to scare off the oncoming migrant boats. Apart from risking the lives of those people on board, this behaviour also breaks with EU-law, as it deprives migrants of their right to seek for asylum in European territory. Lately the HGC has even gone a step further in their way of handling of this situation by forcing migrants into floating life rafts and leaving them drifting on the sea, exposing an obviously systematic approach.
The Corona Scenario is also worsening the situations for asylum seekers who have made it to the island. During the time they wait for their COVID-19 test result they have to quarantine in improvised camps by the coast, which only provide the bare minimum of facilities and sustenance to survive. One recent case reports 16 refugees being held in a bus for 11 days, without provisions of food during the initial 24-hours.3 After the warm welcome migrants are transferred to a new camp located in the north of Lesbos, where the 14-day quarantine period restarts with each new arrival of people potentially infected. On one side Corona is taken as justification for the authorities to restrict access to this camp, impeding the documentation of the human rights violations constantly happening inside. On the other side single cases have been reported where migrants are transferred into the camp without even being checked for COVID-19.4
Apart from being exposed to inhumane conditions, the uncertainty of the situation represents a major psychological burden for the migrants hoping to start a new life in Europe. Following the political demonstration of power from Erdogan when he opened the Turkish borders, the Greek government abolished the right of asylum to people who irregularly entered the country till the end of march. Conveniently for the authorities the COVID-19 pandemic allowed for the extension of the suspension of a right which is anchored in the Geneva convention and signed by all EU members for an additional period of 30 days. Over the course of two months refugees who had gone through hell to reach the coast of Greece were confronted with the fear of being deported directly back to Turkey. Due to the unwillingness of the Turkish President to cooperate this fortunately didn’t happen.
On May 18th the asylum centres opened again, rejecting approximately 1,400 asylum applications in one day. To appeal against the decision, refugees are given 10 days. While only 100 appeals are allowed per day and legal centres on the island are understaffed, it would be impossible for all of the refugees to have their cases re-examined. Again, the Greek authorities, overwhelmed by the task of properly attending to the needs of refugees deny them their fundamental rights. As numerously stated, a big part of the problem resides in the lack of support from the European Union and their system containing asylum hotspots on the outskirts of the continent. Before the Pandemic outbreak reached Europe, certain countries agreed to receive approx. 1,500 unaccompanied children from Greek refugee camps. However, once the health situation became aggravated, increasing the urgency to aid and assist the most vulnerable in the camps, these countries backed down from their original plans. This behaviour uncovers one of the central deficiencies of the European migration policy. Refugees are constantly discriminated against European inhabitants, although stated differently in the Refugee convention of Geneva signed by all EU members.
The Corona pandemic is currently being used by the Greek government to continue with this discriminatory policy, not even stopping at life-threatening measures against asylum seekers. The recent proposition by Greece, Bulgaria and Cyprus to implement an emergency clause to abolish the right to asylum during extreme conditions, shows the direction these border states are heading. To ensure that these right-wing policies do not become the European standard, the Union as a whole has to be more consequent implementing its law and single nations should show a higher commitment beyond their own borders to support the countries effected most by migratory movements. In this regard, transferring 12 (Luxemburg), 23 (Switzerland), 47 (Germany) or 52 (United Kingdom) refugees isn’t sufficient, but greater efforts which go beyond token politics are needed. Instead of sealing Fortress Europe and leaving the most vulnerable exposed to this global threat, the EU must stand behind their moral and legal principles. The increasing calls to close those refugee camps, which constitute official European admission sites and have been continuously abusing human rights, cannot be left unheard.
Must it become a dire catastrophe before the EU and its representatives live up to their obligations?