There are almost 20,000 refugees living in Moria refugee camp on the Greek island of Lesvos.
They’ve risked their lives coming across from Turkey in packed, flimsy boats. They’ve escaped bombs, abuse and persecution in their home countries. Now, along with the rest of the world, they’ve found themselves living through a global pandemic: the coronavirus. But instead of being trapped in their homes, they’re trapped in a refugee camp.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) has been clear about how we can help to protect ourselves from the coronavirus: wash your hands frequently, maintain social distancing, seek medical care if you have difficulty breathing and stay informed about the virus.
Here are five reasons refugees will struggle to follow the WHO’s advice:
1. It’s incredibly overcrowded
Moria is six times over-capacity. There are 20,000 refugees crammed in a place built for just 3,000. It makes maintaining one or two metres distance from someone impossible. Thousands of families are forced to live in flimsy tents or in make-shift homes right next to each other. Many have been living in these conditions for months, and even years, waiting to have their asylum cases heard.
The International Rescue Committee continues to put pressure on the European Union to relocate people off the islands to mainland Greece. There, they can live in proper accomodation with the space to practice social-distancing. Now is the time for governments to act and save lives.
We are all living so close together – it’s not possible to ‘stay home’ or practice ‘social distancing’,” RA*, a refugee from Afghanistan who is living in Moria, told us.
2. There’s a queue for everything
In all the European countries, we’ve been told to stay home and only go out for essentials. But for refugees in Moria, those essentials come with having to wait in enormous queues. To get water, have a shower or collect food people have to stand in lines with hundreds of other people. They don’t have the luxury of leaving a two metre gap as there’s simply not enough space. People frequently become frustrated and anxious in the queue as food is limited. Pushing and barging often happens, increasing the levels of contact between people.
I see so many old people in those lines and it makes me feel really sad because I know that if coronavirus comes – most of them will die.
3. Water is limited
The taps only come on for a few hours a day in Moria. With that water, people need to wash their clothes, their cooking utensils and themselves. Washing your hands frequently is out of the question. In some parts of Moria, people share one tap between 1,300 people.
The IRC provides clean water and toilets in Kara Tepe camp on the island, where vulnerable people live and we’re working to install more toilets in Moria. In Kara Tepe, we’re also giving out hygiene kits - with things like soap, shower gel, masks, gloves and toilet roll in.
4. There’s not enough doctors
Around the world, healthcare systems are being pushed to their limits by the coronavirus. There’s not enough doctors or personal protective equipment (PPE) to deal with the coronavirus in wealthy countries like the UK or the US. In Moria, the medical teams are severely understaffed and under-equipped. Hundreds of people are not seeing health care professionals when they need to. If the coronavirus starts spreading, medical teams will be stretched even further and won’t have enough oxygen or ventilators to keep people alive.
The IRC is calling on the Greek government to ensure the islands are adequately staffed with healthcare professionals to deal with COVID-19.
5. It’s hard to get good information
The WHO recommends people keep up with the latest updates on coronavirus, but in Moria, getting the right information can be challenging. Rumours and misinformation spread quickly and people are left feeling anxious, their questions unanswered.
The IRC provides information about the coronavirus to people in Lesvos in several languages, in person and through leaflets, to ensure they understand what the virus is and what they can do to help protect themselves. We’re also setting up a Refugee.Info service which uses Facebook groups and instant messaging to help answer people’s questions about the virus.
The people we serve tell us that living in Moria is like living in hell - and this pandemic is only going to make it worse. Our mental health team is committed to continuing to provide counselling in protective equipment or remotely - a lifeline during these tough times.
*Name changed on request