The Corona excuse

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Photos by Yousif Al Shewaili, written by Romy Bornscheuer, translated by Cati Ana Moragues

7 months without human rights: The Greek Government has extended the lockdown once more, but only for refugees. While locals go back to their normal lives, with restaurants and shops reopening, refugees must wait another month in Europe’s largest refugee camp — even though there’s not a single confirmed case of coronavirus in Moria; the same can’t be said from the local population. What does the lockdown mean for the people behind the gates of the camp?

Toxic conditions in the refugee camps

The organisation Médicins Sans Frontières (MSF) offers medical assistance in the island of Lesbos and declared on a recent press statement: “the restrictions of movement imposed […] have proven to be toxic for the thousands of people contained there [in the camps].” The consequences of these extreme restrictions are visible at many levels.

“Covid-19 is an excuse to keep people in the Greek islands looked up.”

The refugees have been locked up for months —locked up in a confined space, not able to escape this nightmare even for a few hours a day. Basic daily chores such as grocery shopping, taking public transport to the pharmacy to buy medicines or simply going on a walk have been forbidden for months. What this means, in reality, is shown daily in cases like that of the three-year-old Amal*, who suffers from a chronic cough. Her mum hasn’t been authorised to leave the camp to pick up the medicines that Amal needs. As a result, the young Afghan girl could suffer permanent lung damage.

Photo by Yousif Al Shewaili

Violence is on the rise

There has been a dramatic increase in domestic violence. Especially women and children are at risk. Women sleep in some sort of self-made nappies out of fear of being robbed or raped if they need to leave the tents at night. Unfortunately, their fear is not unfounded as it is shown again and again.

However, police violence is also becoming a major source of concern. Access to legal assistance is extremely limited, which means that the police do not fear any reprisals for their actions. People in Moria are exposed to frequent and random acts of violence. Unaccompanied minors are often victims of violence, as they live in separated areas. These attacks do not only leave visible physical marks, but also, and more importantly, they can have long-lasting psychological effects. Children fleeing from war are being re-traumatised on European soil. Europe was their hope for security, but here they are once again confronted with violence. They have no one to rely on and yet at an age in which they should only care about school, they are forced to make decisions about life and death. Not only for themselves, but also for their younger siblings or ill parents.

Photo by Yousif Al Shewaili

The lockdown has not only aggravated the situation in Moria, projects for and with refugees have also been brought to a halt for months: schools, women houses, playgrounds, sewing workshops, swimming courses, therapy groups… However, social projects aren’t the only ones forced to stop. Ironically, facilities such as those of Becky’s Bathouse (BBH), an organisation which offers a place for women to shower and distributes hygiene packages, have also been forced to close. “We are convinced that this is a strategy to separate the camp from the rest of the island, since Greece’s priority is tourism. And to take the rights of the refugees away,” says a representative from BBH. The lack of sanitary facilities and medical care will make the fight against coronavirus practically impossible.

The Covid-19 centre forced to close down

“Covid-19 is an excuse to keep people in the Greek islands looked up,” concluded MSF a few days ago. The measures are discriminatory and unsustainable. The people locked up here are not dangerous, quite the contrary, they are at risk of being stigmatised. Suspected cases, such as those with cough, fever or other common symptoms of coronavirus had until recently been screened and isolated in a centre in Moria. Yet at the same time when the Greek government announced the extension of the lockdown for refugees, it also forced the closure of the centre. The official reason for the closure and the high fines: a breach of the urban planning regulations.

MSF built the centre at the beginning of May. “It’s astonishing that we are being hampered by local authorities while trying to protect vulnerable people, when, just next to us in Moria, we see an enormous violation of human dignity, with thousands of people trapped in inhumane conditions,” says Oberreit from MSF. The Head of Mission adds: “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… we had to unwillingly close a crucial component of the COVID-19 response.”

The authorities haven’t found an alternative yet, but MSF had to discharge its patients from one day to the other. The only thing we know for sure is that the lockdown will last, at least, until the end of the month. And another extension? It does not seem improbable.

*Name has been changed for privacy reasons.

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