Skip to main content

Migrants and refugees walk on a path next to the Moria camp on the Greek island of Lesvos, on April 2, 2020.MANOLIS LAGOUTARIS/AFP/Getty Images

Fears are rising about a potentially unstoppable coronavirus outbreak in the refugee camps of Greece, as authorities this week quarantined one facility near Athens, and concerns spiked about the sprawling Moria camp on the island of Lesvos.

The International Organization for Migration has warned that an outbreak in Greece’s refugee camps – where health and sanitation facilities are dismal – would put “everyone at risk.”

On Thursday, the Greek government locked down the Ritsona camp, an hour’s drive from Athens, after 23 of the camp’s 2,300 residents tested positive for COVID-19. Dozens of Ritsona’s asylum seekers were tested after coming into contact with a 19-year-old woman – a resident of the camp – who tested positive in a nearby hospital where she gave birth last week.

The new mother was the first confirmed coronavirus case among the estimated 76,000 people living in Greece’s refugee camps. Many of the migrants have been living in the country since 2015 and 2016, when a wave of asylum seekers arrived, hoping to travel onward to other parts of Europe.

Millions of people around the world live in refugee camps, many of which are located in resource-stretched regions such as the Middle East, Africa and Southeast Asia. The cramped living quarters and poor hygiene have led to predictions that the virus could spread even faster in refugee camps than it has aboard cruise ships.

The Moria camp on the Aegean Sea island of Lesvos is one of the most densely populated places on Earth, with more than 20,000 people living in a space designed to hold 3,000. That’s about 10 times as many people per square kilometre as the Diamond Princess cruise ship, which had COVID-19 rip through its passengers and crew, with 711 out of 3,712 people eventually becoming infected. Ten of those on the ship died.

With just one functioning tap for every 1,300 residents of Moria, concepts such as social distancing and rigorous sanitation – the recommended measures for slowing the spread of coronavirus – are nearly impossible. “People are in a close contact with each other every single moment, without having any information about what it is going on throughout the world or ways of protecting themselves and their children,” Parwana Amiri, a 16-year-old Afghan resident of the camp, wrote in a blog posted on medium.com.

Afghans, Syrians and Iraqis are the largest refugee populations in Greece, which also has large numbers of asylum-seekers from Congo and Iran.

Though there have not yet been any confirmed cases of coronavirus in Moria, worries have been high since the first positive test among the Greek population of Lesvos three weeks ago. Over all, Greece has recorded 1,613 cases of coronavirus. As of Friday, 59 people had died.

“The situation is catastrophic here in Moria camp. There is no water, no soaps and no electricity. These refugees are abandoned,” said Mortaza Behboudi, a journalist from Afghanistan who was inside the camp on Friday, reporting for French media. “We don’t know yet [when] doctors [will] test everyone who has symptoms.”

The medical charity Médecins sans frontières (Doctors Without Borders) has warned it would be “impossible” to contain an outbreak in Moria or one of Greece’s other four island refugee camps. Aid organizations have called for the five camps to be evacuated and for asylum-seekers to be moved to shelters on the country’s mainland, something the Greek government says it doesn’t have the capacity to do.

Instead, Athens has curbed the movements of camp residents, allowing only 100 people, and only one person per family, to leave Moria at any time.

Access for non-government organizations has also been restricted. It’s a measure meant to prevent aid workers from becoming inadvertent carriers of the virus – but it’s a decision that means refugee camp residents will receive even less support during the pandemic.

“It’s a government decision and it’s a good one, but without the government capacity to service the asylum-seekers, it just kind of leaves them on their own,” said Devon Cone, senior advocate for women and girls at Refugees International, a non-government organization that promotes the rights of asylum-seekers. “If and when coronavirus takes hold in Moria, it will just spread rapidly.”

Sign up for the Coronavirus Update newsletter to read the day’s essential coronavirus news, features and explainers written by Globe reporters.