While governments are telling their citizens to practice social distancing, stay indoors, and wash their hands frequently — all crucial steps to contain the global COVID-19 pandemic — many vulnerable populations will struggle to comply, especially the tens of thousands of people living in refugee camps across Europe.
Living in close quarters in crowded, often unhygienic conditions, these refugees are far from being able to follow the public health advice being given.
It’s a situation that NGOs and aid workers are extremely concerned about. With the first case of COVID-19 confirmed earlier this month in a refugee camp on Lesbos, the Greek island that houses thousands of refugees arriving in Europe, fears have risen that an outbreak could spread in the camps.
With attention everywhere focused on combating the spread of disease, and the number of volunteers able to help in camps dropping, organizations working with refugees such as Médicins Sans Frontières (MSF / Doctors Without Borders) and UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, warn that refugees are at risk of being forgotten, and action needs to be taken to mitigate a looming humanitarian disaster.
On Tuesday, the European parliament’s committee for civil liberties, justice, and home affairs called for the evacuation of the 42,000 people on Lesbos and the four other Aegean islands that house refugees, the Guardian reported. All the facilities on these islands are reportedly running six times over capacity.
The need to evacuate was described as an “urgent preventative measure… to prevent many deaths,” by the committee in its statement.
The call is supported by many citizens across Europe, many of whom have left candles in their windows to show they are thinking of refugees and to show solidarity.
"I am in self-quarantine and forgoing contact with other people. The refugees on Lesbos do not have this luxury, as they are confined in a too small camp. We must not forget them"#LeaveALightOn#LeaveNoOneBehindhttps://t.co/YJcG31okoX— Rama (@photos_floues) March 20, 2020
Chloe Haralambous is an activist who has spent the past five years working with organizations that rescue and support refugees crossing into Italy and Greece. She's helped to coordinate the action and has also launched a petition calling on leaders to act, which has received over 200,000 signatures already.
You can join the action by signing the #LeaveNoOneBehind petition through our Together At Home campaign against COVID-19 here.
Haralambous told Global Citizen that on the island of Lesbos, in Greece, the situation has already reached a crisis point and the attitude of locals towards refugees is becoming frayed.
“There are now 20,000 refugees who are now in a facility that's built for only 3,000 people," she said.
“Obviously people in the camp can’t practice social distancing,” she added. "They also can’t wash hands for 20 seconds regularly, let alone even keep clean. No one has been properly dry for ages, because they live in tents that have sunk into the margin and there’s one water tap for 1,300 people to use, no one has showered for months.”
Haralambous says a big part of the concern is not just how quickly the disease could spread, but that the local health systems on the islands will not be able to cope.
"The rest of population on Lesbos is elderly and therefore also high risk, but there are only six ventilators. So far they’ve locked down the camps, so people can’t get in or out, and they’ve locked down the rest of the island, because there won't be much they can do if it does spread."
You can join the movement to help protect refugees in Europe by taking action through our Together At Home campaign against COVID-19 coronavirus.
We're calling on the European Commission and EU governments to ensure steps are taken like evacuating refugee camps and providing safe accommodation for migrants; providing access to medical care for the homeless, refugees, and everyone; providing humantarian and financial support for areas most affected, particularly Greece; and more.