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Further escalation on the Greek islands, as coronavirus hits refugee camps

March 13, 2020
topic:Refugees and Asylum
tags:#Europe, #human rights, #immigration, #Lesbos, #corona virus, #refugees
located:Greece, Germany, Iraq, Iran, Syria
by:Frank Odenthal
The situation in the refugee camps on the Greek islands appears to be escalating every day, since Turkey opened its borders around four weeks ago. Now the coronavirus has also been found.

Thomas von der Osten-Sacken, a German journalist who is currently on the Greek island of Lesbos, tells FairPlanet about the situation.

FairPlanet: What is the current situation on Lesbos?

Thomas von der Osten-Sacken: The situation is completely chaotic. Since March 1st, people can no longer apply for asylum. Around 600 refugees are detained at the port of Mytilini, who arrived in Lesbos after March 1st. They have to sleep there in a naval ship and must not leave the port area. It is terrible: You see women and children standing there shouting "please help me", only separated by a fence, but policemen stand in front of the fence and seal off the people as if they were serious criminals. Their only offence: being refugees.

What about the refugee camps on the island?

The situation is catastrophic, you could say it is apocalyptic. There is de facto no functioning health care in the camps. There are cases of meningitis, presumably also tuberculosis, and flu waves keep breaking out in the camps. The hygienic situation is indescribable; there is a toilet for 80-90 people, hardly any running water, you can hardly take a shower, and there are only a handful of doctors for around 20,000 people. People are often malnourished; in winter they sleep in tents without heating and hardly any electricity. Added to this are psychological stress and illnesses. Even children in the camps have depression and are at risk of suicide! And now there is the Coronavirus.

The Coronavirus has now officially been identified in Lesbos?

The virus could probably be in the camps since a longer time Which is not surprising either. The Coronavirus is out of control in Iran, and is spreading rapidly in Iraq and Syria. Of course it is also in the refugee camps, probably for two to three weeks already. But we don't have exact numbers because there is no suitable test equipment in the camps.

Then where was the virus found?

A local 40-year-old woman from the village of Plomari in the south of the island has been tested positive for the Corona virus. She worked as a cashier in a supermarket. The supermarket has since been closed and the woman has been isolated.

"The situation is catastrophic, you could say it is apocalyptic."

Are the authorities and the population prepared for this?

Nobody is really prepared for this, neither in the local population nor in the refugee camps. The situation is already extremely tense anyway; so the Coronavirus could have really catastrophic consequences. People start hoarding, supermarkets get short of supplies, and the schools are becoming increasingly empty and have been officially closed this afternoon.

The people here now need maximum support from Europe. First, refugees should finally be taken out of the camps, and not just a few hundred, but thousands. And in addition, the appropriate amounts of disinfectants, gloves and breathing masks are urgently needed to contain the Coronavirus, because there is currently almost nothing of this on Lesbos.

The situation on Lesbos has been very tense lately. The locals reacted irritably and aggressively to the new refugees who came from Turkey by boat. There were attacks.

The people of Lesbos are completely overwhelmed by the situation, especially by the developments over the past four months. Mytilini is a small town, a very small town in fact, and now it has turned into an international hotspot for refugees. The Greek islands have been left alone with the problem of refugee inflow for five years now. When the borders with Turkey were opened ten days ago and it was said that thousands more refugees were coming, the local population feared that they would collapse under the strain.

The government had been planning to build a large internment camp in the north of the island since the end of last year, but the locals went on the barricades and there was considerable resistance. People feared a Greek Guantanamo. When the government brought in 300 special police forces with construction equipment in a kind of a cloak-and-dagger operation, civil war-like conditions occurred. The police were finally withdrawn. And when the border was open a few days later, journalists and aid workers were attacked.

"The fact that Lesbos is now portrayed as an island full of fascists is very unpleasant for people here."

As a result, some aid organisations have left the island.

The current image of Lesbos that is drawn in the media is unfair! For five years the population tried to help the refugees as much as possible. The majority are tolerant people. In the island's capital Mytilini one in two is a refugee, they are part of the cityscape, but attacks have hardly ever occurred in all these years. It only happened in the past two weeks. The fact that Lesbos is now portrayed as an island full of fascists is very unpleasant for people here.

However, I find it unfortunate and somewhat strange that some aid organisations have now withdrawn. I have been working with NGOs for thirty years and I think aid organisations should send out opposite signals when things get a little dangerous and should not leave people alone.

Especially now that the Coronavirus has been found.

In the response to the virus, we rely less on foreign NGOs than on the help of the local population and in the camps on the self-organisation of the refugees. The NGO "Stand by me Lesbos", a local aid organisation founded by doctors, teachers, lawyers and committed citizens of Lesbos, to whom I am also available as a consultant, tries to strengthen the coexistence of refugees and locals and is also responsive lead on Corona. We have prepared information boards in Persian and Arabic. Camp committees have been set up to carry out educational campaigns, while others take on medical tasks. A citizens' committee has also been founded on the Greek side, because so far not enough has been done from Greek authorities.

Right-wing radicals from all over Europe also travelled to Lesbos, it is said, Greeks, but also foreigners, probably to scare-off refugees.

Some right-wing radicals from Germany and Austria were spotted pretending to be journalists. But Lesbos is traditionally a left-wing island, and German Nazis in particular are not so well received here, because people still remember the behaviour of the German occupiers during World War II. So it happened that a few German Nazis were beaten up by locals on the main street in Mytilini.

There was also an arson attack on a refugee facility recently.

That happened on Sunday night, an arson attack on the premises of the Swiss NGO "Happy Family", where there is also a school that was built in 2017 as an Israeli cooperation project by Jewish and Arab Israelis, who called it the "School of Peace". And it was a striking coincidence that shortly after the fire broke out, two of these types, well-known right-wing would-be journalists, appeared on the spot. Afghan girls and women who fled the Taliban, who are known to flare up girls' schools in their homeland, were taught at school. Now the same thing happened to them on the soil of the European Union, on the night of March 7-8, International Women's Day. Quite symbolic, I would say.

"If this leads to a catastrophe, the European Union is to blame.“

How do you rate the role of the EU in the refugee issue?

The EU supports the ultra-repressive policies of the Greek government, which implemented them ad hoc when the Turkish border was opened. As of March 1, 2020, incoming refugees can no longer apply for asylum, so the right to asylum is de facto suspended.

The EU is thus violating the Geneva Convention and the European Declaration of Human Rights. Refugees are interned in the port of Lesbos, they are locked up and do not get any information about what is happening to them. They are said to be transferred to internment camps in northern Greece. But what then? Turkey does not take back refugees, since the images of refugee flows are a welcome propaganda tool for Erdogan. And they cannot be deported to countries like Syria or Afghanistan. So what happens to these people?

At the moment there are hardly any boats from Turkey arriving on the Greek islands. Refugees waiting on the Turkish side of the border are well informed that the crossing is currently like a suicide squad, since border guards shoot sharply, boats are being harrassed, pushed or even rammed.

And the EU actually supports this brutal deterrence policy. For years, the EU has not given any signals as to what should happen to the refugees in Greece. The Greeks feel left alone, which is why many support the current rigid government course. If the EU would finally help and start a fair distribution of people, I‘m sure the mood in Greece would change again for the better. It is about time that the EU finally admits that this is a European problem, not a problem for Greece alone, surely not only for the Greek islands in the Aegean. Especially now that the Coronavirus has broken out here too. If this leads to a catastrophe, the European Union is to blame.

The German government has now agreed to accept 1,500 children from Lesbos in Germany.

This has been demanded by the Greek side for years. There are now around 40,000 refugees on the Greek islands. Getting 1,500 children out is a joke! A fair European burden sharing must finally be achieved. Otherwise the Greeks get the impression that the Germans want to take in as few as possible, then delay the whole thing bureaucratically, and ultimately nothing should happen. It would be necessary to finally show European solidarity with the Greek islands, which have been carrying such heavy burdens for years now. But so far there are not even minimal gestures of humanity.

Thomas von der Osten-Sacken is a German journalist and publicist who has focused on the Middle East since the early 1990s. He is also managing director of the aid organisation Wadi, which is active in the Middle East, particularly in Iraq.

Greece announced a series of new emergency measures on Tuesday (17/3) to prevent the potential spread of coronavirus inside the country’s reception centres and camps for asylum-seekers.

Article written by:
Odenthal Frank_Autorenfoto
Frank Odenthal
Greece Germany Iraq Iran Syria
Thomas von der Osten-Sacken
© Thomas von der Osten-Sacken
Thomas von der Osten-Sacken
The refugees are waiting behind high fences and barbed wire.
© Thomas von der Osten-Sacken
The refugees are waiting behind high fences and barbed wire.
The refugees are malnourished and the hygienic situation is catastrophic.
© Thomas von der Osten-Sacken
The refugees are malnourished and the hygienic situation is
There are only a handful of doctors in the refugee camps on Lesbos.
© Thomas von der Osten-Sacken
There are only a handful of doctors in the refugee camps on
Camp committees are carrying out educational campaigns.
© Thomas von der Osten-Sacken
Camp committees are carrying out educational campaigns.
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