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Coronavirus: asylum seekers left in limbo as Greece hunkers down amid pandemic

Aid groups forced to scale back support for refugees as restrictions bite

Greece's mainland migrant camps have been placed under strict lockdown rules. AFP
Greece's mainland migrant camps have been placed under strict lockdown rules. AFP

Greece faces a significant challenge in protecting its refugee camps from a pandemic outbreak.

The isolation measures Athens is taking have severely restricted the activities of the hundreds of aid groups that support refugees.

The organisations face staffing shortages and new limits on the scope of help they can provide.

Olivia SeQueira, 25, works for the Danish charity Drapen I Havet (Drop in the Ocean) at the Skaramagas camp just outside Athens.

“We’re all working with very reduced manpower,” Ms SeQueira told The National.

“In my organisation everyone’s left. They’ve gone back to their home countries, apart from my team in Athens.

“We’ve had to pull out of the camp.”

Ms SeQueira said volunteers could only make one visit to the camp each week, and only to deliver essential supplies such as nappies.

Greece’s overstretched asylum system has also ground to a halt amid the coronavirus pandemic, leaving thousands of refugees confined and uncertain.

About 2,500 people, most of whom have fled conflict in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan, are in lockdown in Skaramagas.

“It’s yet another obstacle for them,” Ms SeQueira said.

“The asylum office is closed at the moment, which means no interviews are taking place.

"First hand, I can tell you that means people who have been waiting for more than four years for their interview have now had that postponed indefinitely.

“Obviously that has some impact on mental health and the uncertainty of when those interviews resume is very stressful, and is just another thing that is not going their way.”

She saw “no sense of urgency from the asylum office”, as refugees in the camp continue to live under “the very real threat of eviction”.

Children in the camps have had their access to education reduced, with Greek schools closed as part of lockdown measures.

Before coronavirus restrictions hit, Drop in the Ocean provided English lessons, activities and psycho-social support to residents of the camp.

It also ran a women’s space and a youth centre for the refugees.

The pandemic has also hit the group’s funding.

“We’ve had to dramatically reduce our operations and reduce our expenditure during this time,” Ms SeQueira said.

The first confirmed cases of the coronavirus in Greek migrant camps were reported last week, leading to two camps on the mainland being quarantined.

Strict lockdown measures imposed by the government have brought isolation and boredom to residents, but not fear.

Camp residents, Ms SeQueira said, were “not as concerned about the virus as the rest of us.

“Being told not to go outside and having our movement restricted is huge news to the population as a whole, but is actually something that they have been used to for a long time,” she said.

An hourly announcement over the camp’s public address system, broadcast in Arabic, Farsi and French, reminds residents to wash their hands, not touch their faces and try to stay apart.

Ms SeQueira said residents of Skaramagas were lucky to have better access to hygiene than Greece’s more overcrowded and unsanitary camps.

The Danish Refugee Council, which manages the camp, hands out soap to residents.

“We haven’t got any known cases of coronavirus in the camp at the moment,” she said.

Ms SeQueira, who used to work in the Samos camp originally built to hold about 600 people but now home to more than 4,000, said she was concerned about the possibility of an outbreak in one of Greece’s island camps.

“If there is an outbreak in one of those camps, it will be impossible to contain,” she said.

Updated: April 8, 2020 11:01 PM



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