With coronavirus spreading, refugee crisis compounds Europe’s deep anxieties

While the EE agreed to increase funds into researching the virus and produce more medical supplies, it is not clear how much of this would reach asylum seekers.
Sunday 15/03/2020
Migrants stand next to a fence installed by Turkish authorities near the Turkish-Greek border in Pazarkule, March 4. (AP)
High risks. Migrants stand next to a fence installed by Turkish authorities near the Turkish-Greek border in Pazarkule, March 4. (AP)

LONDON - As Europe struggles to address a growing refugee crisis on its borders with Turkey, the number of confirmed cases of coronavirus continues to rise, with countries imposing increasingly stringent measures to halt the spread.

After a case of COVID-19 was confirmed at an overcrowded refugee camp on the Greek island of Lesbos, fears were high that the virus could spread quickly through vulnerable migrant communities.

“No country can tackle this [COVID-19] alone and no part of our societies can be disregarded if we are to effectively rise to this global challenge,” said UN High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi.

In an opinion article for Britain’s Telegraph newspaper, Grandi said that, as cases of COVID-19 increase and fears rise, refugees could find themselves increasingly targeted. “If left unchecked, the urge to blame and exclude may soon extend to other groups — minorities, the marginalised or anyone labelled ‘foreigner.’ People on the move, including refugees, may be particularly targeted.”

Reports that a 40-year-old woman at the Moria refugee camp on Lesbos was diagnosed with COVID-19 on March 9 are likely to increase tensions over the flare-up between Turkey and the European Union. Tens of thousands of asylum seekers are believed to have rushed to Turkey’s borders with Europe after Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced that Ankara would open its border with Greece.

Greece deployed riot police, armoured vehicles and 1,000 soldiers, who fired tear gas and bullets, forcibly turning asylum seekers back. While attempts to cross the land border between Greece and Turkey failed, indications are that attempts by sea were more successful.

Greece confirmed that an estimated 1,700 migrants landed on Lesbos and four other Aegean islands from Turkey in recent days, many of them ending up in the Moria camp. It was not clear when the woman diagnosed with COVID-19 arrived at Moria. Athens said she had been put into quarantine and that she had recently travelled to Israel and Egypt.

Greece expressed concern that the virus could spread quickly through the overcrowded camp, which was built to house 3,000 people but is holding an estimated 20,000 asylum seekers. Common medical advice to deal with COVID-19, such as social distancing and self-isolation, is simply not possible at Moria.

The situation at Moria should serve as a warning for how the European Union deals with both its refugee crisis and coronavirus. The situation at Moria appears to have deteriorated, with reports of  doctors and journalists being attacked by vigilantes. Some NGOs halted works in the area and parts of the camp, including warehouses storing food and a school run by volunteers, were set on fire and destroyed.

As for the spread of COVID-19, even as the European Union moved towards greater coordination and cooperation, controlling the spread of COVID-19 at overcrowded and underfunded refugee camps could be impossible.

“We cannot address, prevent or delay this epidemic without coordinating at a European level,” European Parliament Vice-President Dita Charanzova said after an emergency meeting of MEPs March 10.

While the European Union agreed to increase funds into researching the virus and produce more medical supplies, such as testing kits, masks and respiratory machines inside the European Union, it is not clear how much of this would reach asylum seekers.

Speaking to Britain’s Guardian newspaper in February, before the global scale of the COVID-19 was known, Dr Hana Pospisilova, a cardiologist who volunteers at Moria, warned of the potential of a pandemic.

“I saw many people with respiratory problems and even though it’s cold, it’s winter, we are sending these people back to wet tents in an overcrowded camp. I am worried about a pandemic breaking out. They don’t have hot water, they have to wait three hours in the cold for food, they aren’t getting enough vitamins,” she told the Guardian.

“If you read about Spanish flu it was exactly like this that it began to spread, in overcrowded facilities where people had a viral infection that became a bacterial infection that killed them,” she said to the newspaper.

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