Conditions in Greece camps are not enough to fight against the covid-19 pandemic

Verónica Delgado – GHRD, September 2020

The Greek Government must act immediately to protect the human rights of refugees. Refugees ‘lives and well-being have been threatened because of the dangerously overcrowded camps’ conditions, but also because there are not enough measures addressed to prevent and mitigate the adverse effects of the COVID-19.

In Greece, the camps of Lesbos, Chios, Samos, Kos, and Leros for a long time have housed refugees. Camps had hosted individuals in Reception and Identification Centres (RICs), which can host approximately 13.338[1]. However, to date, about 16.918[2] individuals are hosted in the RICs, which means that they are hosting up to almost four times the intended number of persons. Overcrowded spaces increase insecurity and health risks, especially in the context of the COVID-19. The living conditions in camps are inhuman, mainly because access to water, hygiene services, and healthcare are insufficient.

Asking how it feels to live in overcrowded spaces, Martin, a refugee in Samos, expressed:

The camp is full of inequality and discrimination. I see at my level, my family lives behind a container, in a place that is covered with blankets. When the rain came, I saw the drops of rainfall in my home, and we put the plates under the roof to prevent everything from getting wet. The drops of rain gathered in the dishes. I saw then how miserable it is for all the people who live in the camp.”Martin

Greece has undertaken several international obligations and has enacted several domestic laws to ensure refugees’ rights. Thus, at the international level in 1960, Greece ratified the Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees 1951, in which the state assumed the obligation “to accord to refugees lawfully staying in their territory treatment as favourable as possible” (Art. 21), as well as give “the same treatment with respect to public relief and assistance” (Art. 23).

Besides that, Greece, through the ratification of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, the European Convention on Human Rights, among others, must respect, protect and fulfil the human rights of all.

At the domestic level, Greece to improve the effectiveness of protection, provide a basis for seeking solutions to refugee problems, and integrate international law into domestic legislation has adopted several laws. For instance:

  • Decree 3989 of 1959 implemented the Convention of 1951, creating a national refugee determination procedure.
  • Act No. 1975/1991 (replaced by Act 2910/1991) regulates the admission of aliens.
  • Decree 189/1998 ensured the right to work to recognized political refugees, applicants for asylum, and those granted humanitarian status.
  • Decree 266/1999 regulated issues about the social protection of the recognized refugees and asylum seekers.
  • Decree 114/2010 established a procedure to grant the status of refugees.

Despite Greece’s obligation to protect, respect, and ensure refugees’ human rights, the situation of refugees deteriorated sharply. The camps do not have proper space to provide adequate sanitary facilities; they are extremely overcrowding, making impossible social distancing and hygiene services. Most people are trapped in deplorable situations, forcing them to live in conditions that violate their dignity and human rights.

In the refugees’ situation, the COVID-19 could be more devastating as they live in conditions that increase their risk of getting infected. Camps where they live used to be densely populated, social distancing would be impossible and necessary sanitation challenges.

Greece, to combat the COVID-19, has taken preventative measures. In March 2020, the Prime Minister announced a lockdown and ordered to follow special measures within the RICs, including suspension of visits and activities, mandatory thermometry of newcomers, announcements about virus prevention, compliance with general hygiene standards, daily cleaning, and disinfection. Also, during feeding to attend people in portions, and to distribute food once a day.[3] It seems that the government has an appropriate response to combat the COVID-19; however, in practice the reality is different.

The current situation in Samos

Garbage collection in Samos. Photo Credit: google.

The situation in Samos’ camp, located on a military base close to the forest above Vathy, which has hosted refugees in the last years, has been growing worse as it cannot provide enough living conditions to all refugees.

As of 19 October 2020, the population of the island of Samos was approximately 4588, of which 4337[1] were located in the reception and identification center, while facilities have a total capacity of 648.[2]  According to Refugee Support Aegean, by the end of 2019, more than 3.000 refugees are forced to live in tents without protection and lack of access to wash facilities.[3

Agustina Oliveri, who has worked at Samos Volunteers in the past few years as a field coordinator and now as a volunteer, describes the current living conditions within the camp.

“People are sleeping in tents surrounded by rats; they are cramped with up to ten people. Lots of people that should be sheltered in areas are just living in that we call the jungle, alone. The situation is so denigrating, and the human rights violations are so great.” Agustina Oliveri

Conditions outside and inside tents are not adequate; it is almost impossible to live in this situation. According to the last shadow report submitted to the Committee against torture on the situation for asylum seekers and refugees in Greece by several organizations, the camp is infested with vermin, scabies is common, and the lack of space has forced refugees to live in the jungle, without access to sanitation structures and electricity.[4]

“At night, all the insects, beetles, and big rats attack the tents. Most of the people in the camp have insect bites, and I can see their bodies are red and inflamed. It is a dirty place with uncomfortable conditions. I think it is worse than a prison.” Martin

Before the pandemic, the camp was already utterly overcrowded, and to date, the situation in Samos keeps getting worst. About hygiene conditions, there are only eight water access points, less than fifteen bathrooms, two-bathroom units are made for women, which are very far from the central areas of the camp, making difficult for them to go to the bathroom; it is unsafe, especially at night. Access to water is limited; as afternoon, its supply is suspended.

There is no nutritious food; sometimes, there is no food at all, refugees have to stay in a busy line to get food, sometimes it takes two or three hours.  There is no access to electricity in most areas of the camp, and pharmaceutical care for refugees is almost inexistent.

The Greek government decided to close the camps, which means that camp residents cannot leave. This measure allows for a certain level of police brutality that was not allowed before, as police can now send the people back to the camps, which is forcing people to be inside an extremely crowded place.

C, a man in the camp, talks about the situation with officials:

“The camp officials force people to live together inside small containers. Today I saw several single young men who were all living in the same tent. (…) So, it’s my question: do they care about these young men? Don’t they need shelter to live? Or maybe they aren’t human? It’s terrible to see those men badly treated.” C. single young men in camp

On 15 September, the first cases of COVID-19 were announced in Samos. Two weeks later, the camp registered more than seventy cases, and the lockdown was established until 12 October. NGO’s have recently been able to start working within the camp, trying to provide help to prevent infections. For instance, some NGO’s have placed different sanitation points throughout the camp, others as Samos Volunteers have provided two masks for each camp member and bottles of water.

There have not been any changes concerning access to water, hygiene services, and nutritious food. The RIC has not adequate sanitary and hygiene products for ensuring continuous running water; there are no areas for disinfection. Without access to water, showers, and toilets, and insufficient psychological care and medical services, people in Samos are not able to follow the guidelines for protection from the pandemic, putting themselves in a significant risk of getting infected.

During the pandemic and before, mostly every refugees’ rights have been violated. Access to healthcare, nutritious food, dignified conditions, whole family unification is almost inexistent. Likewise, access to education is impossible, as all organizations providing at least some education have had to stop. Also, access to legal advice[1] and to ask for asylum is not an option due to the legal teams have not been able to work during this time, and processes were stopped during most of the COVID-19.

Can we ignore the emergency in Samos camp?

With the first cases within Samos, Greece’s Government must prevent an outbreak and adopt a plan to address the detection and treatment of infected people. The government must be aware that quarantine in a crowded space, with almost six thousand people without an adequate medical response, would be a catastrophe. The reception center must be decongested. Although the Government removed about 1000 people last year and confirmed that they were going to start building a new camp on Samos, measures must be taken immediately.

Addressing the situation and needs of refugees requires the participation of NGOs. Greece’s Government may create civil relationships with organizations and be more receptive to them. The NGOs must be listening to, consulted as one of their primary roles is to be human rights advocates, and defend human rights. During these times, the contribution of NGOs could help in the current state of emergency; through the work of organizations, they can try to make sure that people know the importance of social distance and raise awareness of why it is crucial as well as why washing hands is essential.

In this research article we have used various academic and media resources to understand the situation of refugees in Greece. Several interviews were conducted and recorded to make both a well researched article and video report. You can watch the full story here:  
[1] Access to legal advice before the COVID-19 used to be prohibited from entering the camp, as well as the counsellors were forbidden to attend personal interviews. Ibid. p. 12.
[2] General Secretariat for Information and Communication, Ibid.
[3] Ibid.
[4] RSA, Refugees trapped on Samos: A humanitarian crisis with no end in sight,
[5] Refugee Rights Europe, et al. No end in sight, the mistreatment of asylum seekers in Greece, 2019. p. 14.
[6] General Secretariat for Information and Communication, National Situational Picture Regarding the Islands at Eastern Aegean Sea,
[7] Ibid.
[8] Ministry of Immigration and asylum, Coronavirus protection measures in the Reception and Identification Centres, accommodation structures and the Asylum Service,
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