“The specter of coronavirus striking severely overcrowded refugee camps in Greece has hovered menacingly for months,” the UK Guardian declared in early April—and not without reason.
At migrant camps on Greek islands facing Turkey, the pandemic could not have hit at a worse time.
Beginning last summer, a surge in refugees arriving in wobbly rubber dinghies swelled occupancy at the camps to an alarming 42,000 by the start of 2020. The latest surge was part of Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan’s quest for geopolitical leverage. Tensions with Turkey came to a head in late February, on the narrow land border between the two countries marked by the Evros River. On February 28, Erdogan announced that his country was opening the Turkish border to refugees wanting to enter Europe. Facilitated by Turkish authorities, thousands of refugees and displaced persons rushed to the region, setting up camp on the Turkish side of the river as they launched efforts to push through fences onto the Greek side. With support from the EU, Greek forces armed with batons, shields, masks, and tear gas fought back, yelling at the refugees to stay back.
The Greek refugee camps had been intended as temporary centers for receiving the roughly one million refugees, largely Afghanis and Syrians, who flooded through Greece during the 2015 migrant crisis. At first, the refugees were typically in transit to the richer countries of the north. With Greece still in an economic depression following its 2010 financial meltdown, places like Germany and Sweden held out real hope for jobs, rudimentary social services, and a new start on life. But Greece’s northern neighbors quickly shut their borders, blocking the route through the western Balkans into the European heartland.
That left the Greek camps open, and Greek authorities tasked with processing their asylum applications. While EU funding and UN expertise helped, progress, even under the refugee-friendly Syriza governments of 2015-2019, has been painfully slow. The application backlog currently stands at just under 100,000.
The renewed refugee surge has overwhelmed the island migrant camps, with the Lesvos camp, built to shelter 2,200, at one point reaching 17,000. As conflicts between desperate refugees and disgruntled locals began to multiply, including incidents of arson at refugee facilities, the recently-elected center-right government began advancing plans to transfer those most vulnerable to new or expanded refugee centers, as well as rented hotels and apartments on the mainland. But local authorities fiercely opposed any resettlement of refugees in their regions.
Ironically, the arrival of Covid-19 cases in both Turkey and Greece seems to have mitigated, at least temporarily, the tensions at Evros and the resistance in Greece to refugee resettlement.
In late March, Turkish authorities, reacting to the rapid spread of infections within Turkey, removed thousands of refugees from the border to the interior, while others abandoned their efforts and returned to the Turkish towns from which they had arrived. The area has now been completely evacuated. In Greece meanwhile, the government intensified its efforts to transfer refugees from the island camps to safer centers on the mainland. Some two thousand transfers have now taken place, and another two thousand are in the works. But even these moves leave the island camps dangerously overcrowded.
The refugee and Covid-19 crises hit Greece at a critical moment in the country’s politics. After years of political upheaval and fragmentation, the country’s challenged parliamentary democracy appears to have regained its footing. Steering the conservative New Democracy party towards the center, its new leader Kyriakos Mitsotakis, a self-confident, business-savvy Harvard graduate, handily defeated Alexis Tsipras and his Syriza party in last summer’s parliamentary elections to form the first majority government in a decade. Syriza’s turbulent reign had itself exemplified the country’s fractured politics, beginning with the January 2015 elections, when Syriza won first place, but with only 36% of the vote. Denouncing the “establishment” parties, Tsipras entered into coalition with a disreputable demagogue, Panos Kammenos, leader of the Independent Greeks, a far-right nativist party, to form a government.
As opposition leader, Tsipras has been struggling to forge a coherent narrative for demoralized cadres in a party now stripped of its revolutionary credentials but has signaled his intention to move Syriza in the direction of social-democracy. This augurs a more conventional “systemic” oppositional posture in parliament. A still stronger indicator of Greece’s democratic resurgence was the collapse of the anti-immigrant, neo-fascist Golden Dawn. Thoroughly trounced at the polls in last year’s elections, the party lost all of its 18 seats in parliament.
As everywhere around the world, the political response to the coronavirus pandemic in Greece has served as a test of its leadership. And on this score, Mitsotakis has received high marks, both at home and abroad. The lockdown measures he swiftly instituted have so far substantially curbed the spread of the virus within the general population.
Needless to say, the prospects of continued viral containment are less auspicious for Greece’s refugee population, not only in the cramped island camps but also in the 30 relatively decent refugee facilities, apartments, and hotel residences scattered across the mainland.
At all of these sites, social distancing is a virtual impossibility.
Following isolated incidents of infection, two of these centers were put under quarantine. And on April 21, the first real outbreak took place at a hotel-based center in the northern Peloponnese, where 150 of nearly 500 refugees, mostly Somalis, tested positive.
Responding swiftly, the government sent the responsible minister to meet with local officials to coordinate the implementation of the requisite infection control protocols. Whether they will be enough to contain the outbreak remains uncertain as of this writing. But so far, so good.
Along with the rest of the globe, Greece is in the throes of a still-unfolding crisis, with uncertain results – especially for the vulnerable and defenseless, who are at greatest risk.
Stan Draenos is a historian and political analyst based in Athens, Greece.