17 newly arrived migrants in Lesbos test Covid-19 positive

The overcrowded camp of Moria in the island of Lesbos. Taking photos at Kara Tepe was prohibited. [Piotr Maciej Kaczyński]

Greece has been lucky – 17 migrants, all from Somalia, are safely isolated at Kara Tepe camp in the island of Lesbos, a show-case reception centre on the island. But at the overcrowded Moria camp on the same island the coronavirus can cause a real tragedy.

On 6 August a boat with 38 people on board reached the coast of Lesbos in Agios Isidoros. Since the outbreak of the coronavirus all new migrants coming to the Greek islands are subject of quarantine and tested for the virus. On 10 August the results came for the new arrivals. 17 of them, all from Somalia, tested positive, as George Katsouris, a spokesperson at the Press Centre of the city of Mytilene, the capital of the island told this correspondent. All infected are isolated in the camp of Kara Tepe.

Michael Batzakis is the manager of the Kara Tepe camp. He says there are 1,011 people in the camp right now. In this part of the island one boat arrives every 5-6 days since early June. The last Covid-19 cases were here back in June, brought by people from mainland Greece, not the migrants. The new cases are first coronavirus cases in the migrant camps on Greek islands.

The Kara Tepe camp is the show-case camp on the island. The conditions inside are the best of all the Greek islands’ camps. For those reasons this camp is frequently visited by politicians and celebrities. Among the visitors were Pope Francis and actress Angelina Jolie. But since the presence of the virus is now confirmed on the site, no external visitors are allowed for time being.

The 17 Somali migrants are completely isolated, Batzakis assured. The infected are guarded by the authorities to make sure no one approaches them and they do not leave their quarters. Meals and sanitary materials are provided by staff wearing masks, gloves and protective clothes.

“We want to make sure those people stay healthy inside the quarantine area”, says Michael Batzakis. To achieve this, people are tested weekly. If the infected will be Covid-positive a week from now, they will spend more time in the quarantine. If the non-infected are clean of the virus next week, they will be let free to register in the registration point for the new arrivals in the Moria camp, five kilometers down the road inland.

The medical protection is provided daily. In case of emergency there is a hospital equipped with ventilators, said Batzakis.

There are some 40 thousand migrants on Greek islands asking for a refugee status. Most of them live in extremely difficult conditions where rules like social distancing are non-applicable. In the Moria camp there are currently about 15 thousand people. If the virus reached this camp there was a real risk of a tragedy, says Sonia Nandzik of a local NGO ReFOCUS Media Labs.

“The tragedy is a result of the fact that in Moria there is no self-isolation possibility. There are no conditions to ensure hygienic conditions or social distancing. The tragedy is even more likely due to the recent closure of the Médecins Sans Frontières hospital in the camp”, Nandzik said.

Asked to comment, the Commission said it was aware of the concrete case and was following developments on the islands very closely. According to the Commission information, there were 18 asymptomatic persons (not 17) who tested positive for coronavirus quarantined in the Karatepe centre in Lesbos.

The EU executive says it has supported the Greek government in carrying out their emergency plan to prevent the virus from reaching the reception centres. The authorities are reportedly taking steps to protect people most at risk and have identified 3,000 particularly vulnerable people who are being moved out of the centres and into alternative accommodation.

Also, some progress has been made on relocations – so far over 300 people have been relocated to 6 member states (Belgium, Luxembourg, Germany, Ireland, Portugal, Finland). More relocations are planned for the coming weeks.

The Commission acknowledges that the pandemic particularly exacerbates the vulnerabilities of migrants and refugees living in reception centres – as physical distancing is more difficult. The EU executive has issued guidance on migration management during the pandemic, and the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control issued guidance on infection prevention and control of coronavirus in migrant and refugee reception and detention centres in the EU.

The Commission didn’t criticize Greece for its handling of the refugee crisis, but said it was the member state responsibility to ensure access to healthcare and suitable accommodation facilities to prevent further transmission of the virus.

“Quarantine and isolation measures must be applied in a reasonable, proportionate and non-discriminatory manner. We have provided significant financial and operational support to member states, including Greece, to fight the coronavirus, and stand ready to provide further support if needed”, a spokesperson told EURACTIV.

Piotr Maciej Kaczyński contributed this article from Lesbos. This publication is supported by the Stars4Media pilot project.

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