There has only been one topic of conversation now for WEEKS. We get it, of course! It’s a big topic. But at GRIOT CREATIVE we are striving to draw attention to the plight of those who were already in crisis, BEFORE COVID-19. As Collette Lette Batten-Turner writes, Refugees, in camps in Southern Europe have dropped off the radar as NGOs fight to keep their stories alive.
By Lette Batten-Turner
As we enter the fifth week of lockdown and the UK government urges us to ‘Stay at Home’, little attention is paid to those in other countries who are unable to do so. The refugee crisis has not stopped with COVID-19. But operations of many NGOs working in the hotspot on the Greek islands have.
On Samos, an island less than a mile off the Turkish coast, a refugee camp built for just 648 people is now struggling under the weight of more than 8,000 people. With a population more than ten times overcapacity, arrivals on the island are forced to live in ‘the jungle’ – the hilly area surrounding the official camp.
They have no access to shelter or safe running water. They share space with a rampant population of rats and snakes. There’s insufficient toilet facilities meaning open defecation is common in the jungle.
The quantity of food is not enough for everybody and is far from nutritious, at a time when immune system health is paramount across the globe.
In these conditions, it is infeasible for people to follow government guidelines on preventing the spread of COVID-19: washing hands regularly being impossible without access to running water and ‘social distancing’ is not an option in cramped and overcrowded conditions.
UNHCR is restrained by the local government. An information point set up near the camp entrance usually directs new arrivals to NGOs. Staffed by volunteers and funded by public donations, they attempt to meet the most essential needs – providing tents and sleeping bags.
However, under the COVID-19 lockdown in Samos, almost all of the NGOs on the island have had to close. Only Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) and Med’Equali Team have remained open; operating with extremely reduced staff due to the evacuation of volunteers to their home countries when lockdown was announced.
Chloé Mandelbaum works for an NGO on Samos. She says the Greek government’s response to the pandemic seems only to have brought greater police presence. They regulate the number of people leaving the camp to walk to Vathy centre.
She claims this is futile in a camp where tents are crammed together, housing entire families and social distancing is impossible.
With a limited government response, NGOs have stepped up to provide information, hand sanitiser and bottled water. But its thought the funds will dry up, as people across the globe look to safeguard themselves against future recession and wallets tighten as a result.
No cases of coronavirus have yet been reported on Samos, but Chloe believes it is only a matter of time. Many people living in the camps have pre-existing respiratory conditions and would fall in the high risk category, which has resulted in individuals isolating for 12 weeks in the UK.
In the camps, isolation is impossible. Across Europe, countries like Ireland, Finland, Luxembourg, Lithuania, Portugal, Croatia and France have escalated the evacuation of unaccompanied child refugees from the Greek islands in recognition of the catastrophe that could occur when COVID-19 begins to spread.
Despite this, British Home Secretary Priti Patel has so far ignored a letter from MSF , pleading with the UK government to accept a number of unaccompanied children with pre-existing health conditions.
The pandemic has exposed the danger of over-reliance on non-governmental organisations, staffed by temporary volunteers and funded by donations, for the provision of basic services to tens of thousands of people living in the camps.
It has been the case for years, NGOs providing to needs that should be met by governments.
Without other European countries accepting a greater share of refugees fleeing ongoing conflicts and political persecution, this burden falls disproportionately on countries at the periphery – countries like Greece.
While the coronavirus provides an all-new threat, NGOs still operating on Samos are trying to continue as usual . But, without a coordinated cross-government response, and increased evacuations, COVID-19 threatens catastrophe on Samos.
Collette has worked extensively with the Refugee crisis across Europe. She will continue to monitor events for us as the pandemic tightens its grip.