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Greek Islands

On Sunday evening, two separate fires broke out in the Samos Refugee camp. There are more than 100 people without even the most basic accommodation as a result.

When I visited Moria camp on Lesbos in November, there were 14,000 people crammed in to a camp designed for 3,000. Now there are approximately 20,000. What was a migration crisis is now also a health crisis.

Greece called for help last October before COVID. A number of EU countries including Ireland have agreed to take in 1600 children. Ireland agreed to take 8. However, to date of the 1600 minors, less than 100 have actually been relocated within the EU. This process has been largely suspended because of COVID. It seems to be easier to transit 200 fruit pickers from Bulgaria than it is to transit 8 vulnerable children from a Refugee camp.

However, there are other vulnerable residents of the camps. I met a number of elderly people when I visited Moria. The mix of women, children and men is a good indication that we are dealing with people genuinely fleeing a well-founded fear of persecution in their country of origin.

Handwashing and social-distancing are virtually impossible in the camps. Moria camp is a few kilometres outside Mytilene, the capital of Lesbos. But as the numbers swelled last summer, new arrivals pitched tents in the surrounding olive groves. Needless to say, sanitation is primitive where it is present at all. There are queues to use the toilets and showers and residents spend hours each day queueing for food.

While there have been no confirmed cases of COVID in the camps, the only way to avoid an outbreak is by decongesting before there are any cases. At present, irregular population movement is more politically toxic than usual. Relocating 20,000 people from a refugee camp in the Aegean is not going to happen. Such free movement as previously obtained in the EU is largely on hold.

I support the urgent evacuation and resettlement of those on the islands. I support relocation to Ireland of those most vulnerable as part of our membership of the EU and our obligations under the Geneva Convention on Refugees. While not a panacea, it will help. Failing this, in the short term, there is much else that can be done to relieve suffering.

First, camps should be organised to provide for a safe zone where isolation and quarantine can occur. Currently, as everywhere else, there are restrictions on movements in and out of the camps as well as on activities in the camps. This is in line with a recommendation from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.

Secondly, the WHO needs to tailor advice specifically for these settings. At present the World Health Organisation’s messaging has been clear and consistent. However, it is based on the assumption that reasonable health facilities are in place and that social distancing is an option. For example, it is reported that on Lesbos there are only 6 ICU beds.

Thirdly, the EU-Turkey deal is at the heart of this failure. The EU needs to take the Syria issue more seriously and appoint a Special Envoy to the Syria crisis. Turkey is no longer accepting returns under the agreement under COVID so Greece is virtually on its own except for funding from the EU.

Finally, donors should provide additional money to Greece and to NGOs working there with a major focus on strengthening the health systems of the islands generally to encourage acceptance in the local community. MEPs pressed the relevant EU commissioners last week that repurposing funding will not be enough. It is essential that new funding is provided.

The EU was built on solidarity and it is not just an emotional response but one based firmly in the Treaties which we have all signed up to. Article 196 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the EU states that “The Union shall encourage cooperation between Member States in order to improve the effectiveness of systems for preventing and protecting against natural or man-made disasters.”

However we have been over this ground before. I am reminded of WH Auden’s poem ‘Refugee Blues’ written in 1939 regarding the refusal of Jewish refugees’ asylum requests.

The consul banged the table and said, "If you've got no passport you're officially dead": But we are still alive, my dear, but we are still alive. Went to a committee; they offered me a chair; Asked me politely to return next year: But where shall we go to-day, my dear, but where shall we go to-day? Came to a public meeting; the speaker got up and said; "If we let them in, they will steal our daily bread": He was talking of you and me, my dear, he was talking of you and me.

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