Migrants under pressure as isolation threatens Lesbos camp

Moria (Greece) (AFP) –


Social distancing is an alien concept in the Moria camp on the Greek island of Lesbos, as thousands of refugees jostle in the queues for toilets and showers.

International recommendations on how best to avoid contracting or passing on the coronavirus can seem light years away -- only a handful of people wear masks but even those are often homemade.

"What is the point of wearing a mask when I share the same toilet as 100 other people?" asks Hasmad, 36, from Kabul as he lines up to use a tap.

Greece has ordered confinement for all migrant camps to prevent the spread of the coronavirus -- and the 19,000 asylum seekers crammed into Moria are more at risk than most.

So far, they have escaped infection but the restrictions are tight.

"We are no longer allowed to go to town to go shopping," says Hasmad.

As a result, hundreds of residents rush to small open-air markets outside the camp.

At the entrance, refugees and volunteers from the NGO Asterias distribute soap and antiseptics.

"We tell them to stay away from each other but when we see the queues, it's impossible," Afghan doctor Ahmand Sina Taha, who works for the NGO Kitrinos, tells AFP.

In an olive grove near Moria, where rubbish accumulates in the ditches, thousands of men, women and children live under tents and in sheds due to lack of space in the camp.

Said, a 17-year-old Afghan, says he learnt about the pandemic from the internet but cannot convince his parents to take precautions.

"When someone comes to our house, my mother will kiss them, it's our culture," he tells AFP.

- 'Avoid panic' –

So far, Moria has been spared from the pandemic but others have not been so fortunate.

On Thursday, the Ritsona camp near Athens was quarantined because 23 asylum seekers tested positive for coronavirus out of the 2,720 migrants who live there.

On the island of Lesbos itself, a dozen of the 80,000 islanders have been infected.

Taha prefers to say nothing to migrants about COVID-19 cases on the island "to avoid panic".

Pathologist Nassos Galis points out that if the virus appears in the camp, it will not be via the refugees.

"There is a constant back and forth of camp workers without adequate measures being taken. The solution would be to unclog the camp," he says, echoing the opinion of many NGOs and the governor of the northern Aegean region.

The Greek government has promised to transfer thousands of migrants from the islands to the mainland but given the lack of places, this is a slow process.

On Friday, the International Organization for Migration urged the government to accelerate these transfers because with overcrowding on the islands it is "very difficult to take preventive measures".

"If COVID-19 appears in Moria, the camp will be placed in quarantine," says Galis, who will work in a medical unit created outside the camp.

"We are only looking at suspected cases to try to lighten the work at the city hospital," he says. "What we do is just a drop in the ocean".

A second medical centre is on the verge of being set up in front of the camp and an isolation space is being put in place.

"But how will this space work, how will we trace the contacts of an infected person in such an overcrowded camp, how will people react in the event of quarantine?" asks Galis. "It will be panic."