While we are all finding our own ways to cope with the demands of a protracted lockdown, we are conscious of the very many people for whom social distancing and other safety precautions are an impossibility. Residents of refugee camps the world over are living in a state of heightened anxiety because of the risks posed by this unseen enemy to anyone without access to adequate sanitation, shelter and healthcare.
The situation was already dire for the populations of the severely overcrowded camps on the Greek islands – where almost 40,000 people live in facilities designed for a few thousand. In February doctors reported that widespread untreated respiratory conditions among people living in damp conditions could lead to a major public health crisis.
Greece has been praised internationally for its very effective response to the Covid 19 outbreak. To date it has seen 2,710 cases and 151 deaths. Miraculously, only two cases have been reported in the island camps. Both of these arrived by sea from Turkey between 6-10 May (among 70 asylum seekers who were the first to reach Greece in more than a month as coastguards prevent boats arriving). They were quarantined before reaching Moria camp on Lesvos and potentially risking the lives of 20,000 people. Several hostels and camps on the mainland have been locked down since April, and despite a gradual relaxation of measures in Greece, the lockdown of facilities and camps hosting asylum seekers has been extended until at least 21 May.
The latest UN statistics estimate that one third of those stuck on the Greek islands are children, and of those, 6 in 10 are under the age of 12. There are a huge number of unaccompanied and separated children, exposed to severe risks including exploitation and violence, or in generally precarious conditions. They are in urgent need of durable solutions, including expedited registration, family reunification and relocation. There has been huge pressure from grassroots organisations and repeated requests from the Greek government for assistance in rehoming 1,600 of these unaccompanied children.
At last, a number of European countries have responded: Germany has taken the first 47 of a promised 350 children; Luxembourg has taken in 12, and Finland, 100. Switzerland and Belgium are taking 22 and 18 respectively, while Portugal has stepped up with a promise to take 500. Bulgaria, France, Croatia, Ireland and Lithuania are also part of this initiative.
In a separate move, the UK has brought a group of 52 vulnerable migrants from Greece, including a group of teenagers, who have a legal claim to join their families in this country. This welcome reunification was made possible through the joint efforts of NGOs and British Labour Peer Alf Dubs. Regrettably the UK, like several other European countries, has not volunteered to be part of the initiative to evacuate unaccompanied children from the Greek islands.