This is an early extract from Dignity in Movement: Limits, Bodies and Rights, edited by Jasmin Lilian Diab (E-International Relations, in preparation 2021).
The picturesque and weathered island of Lesbos (also known as Lesbos) is located in the far east of the Aegean Sea and is the third largest of all Greek islands. 11 million olive trees, 86,000 Greeks and over 14,700 asylum seekers live on Lesbos today (Aegean Boat Report Data Studio 2020b; El-Rashidi 2019). Due to its proximity to Turkey, the island has a long history of transferring ownership – first the Anatolians, then the Byzantines, the Genoese, the Ottomans and finally the Greeks. An often overlooked fact is that much of today’s local population is themselves descended from refugees whose grandparents and great-grandparents were driven from Turkey after World War I.
Since 2014, more than 1.2 million migrants who fled war, violence and persecution have risked their lives en route to Europe via the northeastern Mediterranean, most of whom end up in Lesbos first (UNHCR 2020). They cross the deep and narrow strait on flimsy rubber dinghies – sometimes patchwork of duct tape that covers knife holes from previous crossings – typically carrying their lives on their backs, their children and babies, and a heavy hearted belief in stark contrast to theirs serene expectations.
Although the canal is narrow, its waves are unforgiving. Over 1,674 people have drowned in the Eastern Mediterranean Sea (IOM 2020) in the past decade, many of whom succumbed to the wrath of the sea when the humanitarian crisis began over five years ago. In recent years the tide has turned for the worse as those in power have become as merciless as the sea. Since the signing of the agreement between the European Union (EU) and Turkey, hundreds of lives have been senselessly lost and hundreds more have gone missing due to the constant reinforcement of draconian, anti-immigrant immigration policies. Civil society organizations, including Mare Liberum, have been documenting and campaigning against the politicization of human life regardless of the political climate, but as the situation worsens, we need more help. We are dismayed that 2020 was particularly worrying – if not for the reasons one might assume – and we call for the international community to take a stronger stand against the disclosed human rights violations at the EU border.
Mare Liberum is a non-profit human rights organization that monitors the Aegean Sea by boat along the EU-Turkey border. As a strong supporter of our goals, Sea-Watch e.V. donated our current ship at the beginning of 2018 and have been traveling along the coast of Lesbos since then. We primarily serve as an independent observer and deterrent in the event of human rights violations by state authorities. Mare Liberum conducts research to document the current situation on the European border and to draw public attention to this forgotten place of tragedy.
Greece acts as a migration buffer zone for the rest of the continent and has been largely abandoned by the EU. While locals, especially fishermen, have been saviors and protectors of weary travelers in the past, some locals have become very intolerant of the situation in recent years. Given the economic impact of declining tourism, high unemployment rates and the rise in poor elderly people, some are more susceptible to receiving hate speech and false claims made by right-wing leaders such as Development Minister Adonis Georgiadis and Prime Minister Kyriakos. Mitsotakis who make statements like “Afghans are not refugees” and “93 percent are illegal immigrants” are widespread. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the overwhelming majority of sea arrivals in Greece in 2019 – over 90 percent – came from conflict areas (Keep Talking Greece, 2019), and the UNHCR representative in Greece, Philippe Leclerc, had to urge politicians to refrain from such speeches as it predicted that they would incite hatred against refugees and volunteers (Leclerc 2019). Since the beginning of 2020, these feelings of fear and intolerance began to manifest themselves in outright acts of violence.
In January 2020 we saw thousands of anti-migrant islanders streamed into the streets of downtown Mytilene in protest and demanded: “We want our island back”. In February, local vigilante groups began attacking the cars and homes of hiking helpers and volunteers. At the beginning of March, the donation-based refugee school One Happy Family burned down (Ng 2020). Far right groups appeared on beaches along the east coast to threaten and insult migrants when they arrived on the coast of Lesbos. The locals began handing out flyers to refugees that said, “Don’t come to our country, there is no money, we don’t want you”. The Pikpa camp, which houses the most vulnerable groups including families, victims of torture and lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans and intersex (LGBTI) people, received threats. Two German photojournalists were beaten for documenting violence between locals and refugee rights activists. Cameras and phones belonging to non-governmental organizations (NGOs) were taken and thrown into the sea. The ship Mare Liberum was doused with kerosene and almost set on fire with the crew on board. The match was struck, but the crew was able to set sail and leave port just in time.
The effects of the pandemic hit the island towards the end of March 2020, but a plague of anti-migrant sentiments had been smoldering for years. Even before the outbreak of the virus, the Greek government had “lost sight of” tactics to remove refugees from their field of vision – setting up remote, closed detention centers, staging secret pushbacks at sea and carrying out mass deportations. COVID-19 has closed borders around the world, fueled nationalist agendas, and advanced their respective “national security” projects under the guise of responding to a public health emergency. However, Lesbos reached its tipping point before detention measures were issued. As a result, COVID-19 measures are being used as a streamlining for pre-existing plans. When the world’s attention was diverted elsewhere, the far-right Greek government became less afraid to take bolder action.
As migratory flows have slowed, authorities are now restricting civil society’s ability to monitor human rights abuses, advocate for equality and justice, and even save lives when Coast Guard ships act negligently. The situation has been dire for years, but the pandemic has been used as a flimsy justification for limiting civil society organization (CSO) oversight, segregating communities, and more openly violating international law.
What happens at sea?
At least 8,697 asylum seekers arrived on the Greek coast on August 16, 2020, a decrease of 66 percent compared to 2019. This decline is largely due to migrants being stuck at border closures while traveling; and fear of contagion with COVID-19 can serve as a means of self-hindrance to continue the migration routes. As eyewitnesses on site, we have no doubt that this is also a consequence of the increasingly aggressive pushbacks by the Greek authorities (Amnesty International 2020).
In February 2020, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan declared that he had opened his country’s borders to all migrants to Europe. Erdoğan announced that Turkey could no longer support the estimated four million migrants currently within its borders (Stevis-Gridneff and Kingsley 2020). In response, Greece suspended all asylum procedures for newcomers from Turkey on March 1, 2020 (HRW 2020a) and started further militarization of the Aegean Sea. According to local media reports, “more than 50 Greek Coast Guard ships” have been stationed “in the Eastern Aegean”, along with 10 naval vessels and 24 land, air and sea vehicles provided by the European Union’s border surveillance agency Frontex “( Souliotis and Georgiopoulou 2020). Our crew has noticed an increase in the presence of drones and helicopters. Many human rights organizations report an increase in violent pushbacks by migrants arriving in Greece both by land and by sea (Bathke 2020; Cullum 2020; Deeb 2020; HRW 2020b). While there has been much evidence of clandestine pushbacks in the past – even in 2013, before the media-celebrated “refugee crisis” (Pro Asyl 2013) – these illegal operations have now become more openly the standard procedure, regardless of their illegality in the Eyes of customary international law.
As one of the human rights activists currently aboard the Mare Liberum said,
The fear of dying at sea and the fear of being injured at sea increased tenfold in 2020. Migrants used to be afraid of the sea itself, but now they are afraid of the violent behavior of people at sea.
Coast Guard practices of cruelty, violence and humiliation
The purpose of any peacetime coast guard is to enforce the law of the sea and to protect life and property at sea. According to maritime law, it is the responsibility of the closest ship “to provide assistance and rescue in distress regardless of their nationality, their status or the circumstances in which they are found” (IMO, ICS and UNHCR 2020). ), which also applies to Coast Guard ships. To this day, however, migrants have repeatedly testified to the violence they suffer from the authorities charged with rescuing them. There is a high risk that their personal belongings will be thrown into the water by the Coast Guard, physically injured by blows and willfully humiliated. The Coast Guard has become even more virulent since live videos were posted on social networks showing this aggression. Testimonials from newcomers have told our crew how migrants were stripped naked for body searches and sent back to sea in underwear with no means of communication to call for help.
New pushback methods and public acceptance of refoulement
Fear that migrants will bring COVID-19 to the island has greatly facilitated the adoption of strategies for immediate displacement. The Greek government has touted an approach of “aggressive surveillance and deterrence” of migration without specifying exactly what these methods will entail (The National Herald 2020). According to several reports from asylum seekers over the past few years, the Coast Guard has used unsafe pushback techniques, such as creating waves to further harass a migrant ship, destroying or removing the dinghy motor to make it drift at sea, and firing bullets, emptying the dinghy itself and even dragging boats over the unmarked “border line” to be picked up by the Turkish coast guard and brought back to Turkey.
However, these operations were always carried out in secret. Coast Guard agents attempted to destroy evidence by throwing migrant cell phones into the sea, and they wore black ski masks and orchestrated pushbacks at night. In some cases, it has been reported that authorities have confiscated all of the migrants’ phones. But now the virus seems to be enough as an excuse to openly engage in pushbacks with the boldest of colors. There have been numerous incidents where the Greek coast guard has forced refugees to board unsafe orange tent-like life rafts at sea or even after migrants have already arrived in the Greek islands to be released and drifted at sea.
One of the best-documented life raft pushbacks occurred on April 28, 2020. On that day, people (including three children, four women and 15 men) arrived on the Greek island of Samos, which is about 130 kilometers south of Lesbos. Instead of being taken to one of the refugee camps on the island, they were forced to board the Hellenic Coast Guard ship, only to be taken back out to sea and stranded in the waves. A Turkish coast guard ship was also present, but did not save the people in the life raft until the next morning (Aegean Boat Report 2020b). Since March 2020, at least 1,336 people have been forced into life rafts by the Greek coast guard and left helpless at sea (ABR 2020d; Kingsley and Shoumali 2020). These are not isolated cases. The Greek government denies doing anything illegal (Ministry of Migration and Asylum of the Hellenic Republic 2020). Indeed, the Greek Minister for Migration and Asylum, Notis Mitarachi, has boasted that few arrivals have recently arrived on Lesbos without mentioning their tactics of leaving men, women and children at sea (ABR 2020d).
Once migrants are returned to Turkey or float in Turkey, they are likely to be sent to unsanitary, overcrowded Turkish prisons that are inadequately equipped to tackle the COVID-19 outbreak. Crossing the sea has never been so risky.
Frontex and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) are present and are watching these pushbacks. They neither rescue people from these floating tents nor actively push them back, but stand still and watch quietly. If asylum seekers are rejected directly, they cannot exercise their right to apply for asylum. Greece not only violates the European Convention on Human Rights and the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union, but also the international agreement on Non-refoulement and the ban on collective deportations. Greece is actively placing refugees in dangerous and inhuman situations, and the EU, as well as the United States, the United Kingdom and other NATO member countries, are acting as bystanders or even accomplices because they are actively not participating in the human rights investigations. Who will lead the investigation on behalf of the migrants while governments work to further prevent human rights surveillance and human rights surveillance NGOs?
Inhibition and suspension of NGO operations
NGOs are increasingly unable to intervene and prevent these human rights violations as their physical access to the rooms where the incidents occur has been restricted. There are a select number of organizations including Mare Liberum, Refugee Rescue and Lighthouse Relief that are vigilant and ready to respond to the sighting of an arriving migrant boat to keep everyone safe. All organizations are required to report initial sightings to the Hellenic Coast Guard, which is responsible for overseeing the Greek Sea. In the past, the Greek coast guard was more likely to bring migrants safely ashore, especially under the watchful eye of civil society. However, they are now more likely to push back no matter who is watching. The Greek Coast Guard continues to violate human rights with unbridled confidence and with impunity; they were not given any incentives to obey the law.
Meanwhile, human rights NGOs are being heavily armed to stop or even suspend their operations. On August 19, 2020, Mare Liberum (2020) received another arrest warrant to prevent the crew from fulfilling their human rights mandate, this is the third legal battle against us – even after we won the last two in court. “We are angry and will not accept the blockade of our commitment to solidarity and human rights,” says Hanno Bruchmann, board member of Mare Liberum. These lawsuits are designed to deprive small, donation-based nonprofits like Mare Liberum of their financial standing to carry out their missions, as well as further criminalize those aiming to protect solidarity and human dignity.
On August 29, 2020, Refugee Rescue (2020) announced that after five years of life-saving search and rescue operations for people crossing the Aegean Sea to the north coast of Lesbos, it was also forced to cease operations. The NGO’s press release cites criminalization as the main trigger for the need to stop its aid work: “The increasing criminalization of humanitarian organizations in Lesbos and increasing hostilities now pose an unavoidable threat to our personnel, our assets and our work – and we cannot Keep working with a clear conscience if we cannot guarantee the safety of our team. In addition, the unbridled impunity with which the authorities are now operating has resulted in our no longer trusting that they will allow us to launch our independent lifeboat Mo Chara. Make no mistake: our decision to cease operations for the foreseeable future does not in any way mean that search and rescue operations off the north coast of Lesbos are not urgently required. In fact, human rights abuses in the Aegean Sea have only intensified in recent months – from authorities stranding people for hours at sea to illegal pushbacks in Greek waters – all of which have made the journey from Turkey to Greece more dangerous than ever seeking refuge ”(Refugee Rescue 2020).
If the Greek coast guard is actively endangering lives, if NATO and Frontex remain silent and human rights NGOs cannot operate, what is preventing the Aegean from becoming a more populous cemetery? And even more urgent is the question of how inadequate is European domestic and foreign policy, that humanitarian and human rights organizations are so urgently needed in the Aegean? Why are nonprofits with scarce resources filling in the footsteps of governments in protecting the most vulnerable to enable a more prosperous society for all? We all need to ask more of our leaders. In a democracy, we have the power to put an end to state-funded xenophobia.
What happens on land?
Inhuman activities are reported at sea, and unfortunately the same applies to the management of asylum seekers on land. When asylum seekers reach the coasts of Lesbos, processing practices have changed dramatically due to the pandemic. While the low number of COVID-19 cases on the island to date has been traced back to Greece’s attempts at containment, it is important to note that not all lives are equal in the implementation of quarantine measures. A spokesman for the European Commission stated: “Quarantine and isolation measures must be applied in an appropriate, proportionate and non-discriminatory manner. We have provided significant financial and operational assistance to Member States, including Greece, in fighting the coronavirus and stand ready to provide further assistance if necessary, “but it is ultimately at the discretion of the Greek government to pursue the human rights contingency plan (Macej Kaczyński 2020 ). Rather than protecting the health of all, the Greek government is acting wisely on how the lives of migrants and Greek life are prioritized through their COVID-19 containment measures.
Discriminatory and unsafe quarantine practices
From the end of March 2020, the UNHCR and the Greek police began setting up informal “wild” beach camps at the landing sites where migrants would touch the coast. These camps have no infrastructure, no access to running water, no toilets and no showers. Since May 2020, people who have arrived in the north of Lesbos have been taken to the “Megala Therma”, a temporary quarantine camp in the north, and those who arrive in the east and south-east are taken to the quarantine area of Kara Tepe. Both “formal” quarantine stations lack running water, sanitation, medicine and electricity. The loose policy calls for newcomers to be quarantined for two weeks before moving to Moria. However, some people, particularly from Megala Therma, have claimed that they have been incarcerated in these conditions for over a month.
While the UNHCR and the Greek government may argue that they are working with limited resources to tackle an incredibly deadly situation, there is no justification for the ruthless, indiscriminate mixing of potentially COVID-19 positive and potentially COVID-19 positive asylum seekers. There is little or no separation between those who tested negative but remain in quarantine and the newcomers who may be carrying the virus, unnecessarily putting extra lives at risk given the poor conditions of the quarantine camp. The UNHCR Protection Unit added a line to the New Arrivals Referral Form to self-report any conditions coincident with the COVID vulnerability, but there is no evidence that this data collection is being used to provide preventive health protection for newcomers in improve training. According to a contact from Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), the hospitals on Lesvos are equipped with a total of 11 ventilators, none of which is intended for the camps. Would hospitals be ready to handle 60-100 cases of quarantined newcomers at any time?
The double standard in implementing an effective quarantine response is duly noted through the treatment of those arriving by rubber dinghy versus those arriving by plane. During the strictest phase of the COVID-19 lockdown, all those entering Greece via the airport were tested immediately and received free room and board until the test results were received (Greek City Times 2020).
Restricting the Migration of Migrants: Cordon off Moria
Given that the island’s largest refugee camp, Moria, was built for 3,000 people, over 13,000 migrants had to pitch their tents in the peripheral zone (called the olive grove) to gain access to the few goods and services shortlisted drawn and officially recognized NGOs. Certain travel and movement restrictions were introduced exclusively for migrants, so those living in or around the camps were rounded up and crammed into an enclosed moria. A team of volunteer lawyers from the organization Legal Center Lesbos (2020a) found that migrants have had to obtain written permission from the police or a security authority to leave the Moria or Kara Tepe refugee camps since March 19, 2020. On March 30, 2020, they posted the following on social media:
Across Greece, those leaving their place of residence are required to carry a piece of paper or send a text message indicating why they are out of the house for a number of reasons, including physical activity, going to a bank or going to the supermarket. But nationally valid reasons are, unsurprisingly, given up in favor of much stricter rules for migrants … Only one member of each family is allowed to leave the camps per week, a measure that is strictly enforced – although there is no such restriction for people living in cities in live all over Greece. People without written permission will be prevented from leaving the camp by the police – either at the exits of the camps or at checkpoints on the roads leading into the city of Mytiline – and will not be able to board public buses. Police units were increasingly deployed around the camps to enforce these restrictions.
The lockdown of the camp was seen as a necessary means of curbing virus transmission rates for fear that newcomers would bring COVID-19 with them but in complete disregard of the camp’s residents’ needs for social distancing. Unfortunately, not much has changed in everyday health and safety standards within the camp. Depending on where they live in Moria, refugees have to share a toilet with 50–500 people. Social distancing is impossible when living in a tent with up to 12 other people and when it is mandatory to go outside and wait in long lines to shower or get the daily meals. To fill the void of a properly implemented response, a group of refugees organized themselves to form the Corona Awareness Team to spread information about the virus and hand out masks.
Since the beginning of the pandemic, the World Health Organization and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (2020) have made it clear that a high concentration of people in cramped living spaces increases the likelihood of the virus spreading. According to an analysis by the International Rescue Committee (2020), living conditions in camps like Moria will prove to be more disastrous than the infamous Diamond Princess cruise ship case, which had the virus transmission rate four times faster than in Wuhan at the height of the outbreak. The Moria camp is not only eight times more densely populated than the Diamond Princess, but there is also hardly any access to clean water, showers, toilets and, overall, poor hygiene conditions and access to high-quality health care in the refugee camps.
As many have feared, the first COVID-19 case from Moria camp was just discovered on September 2, 2020, and the entire camp will be completely closed for the next 14 days, which means entry and exit will be banned is (Panoutsopoulou 2020). This news comes about a month after MSF (2020) was forced to close their COVID-19 containment center in Moria. Local authorities imposed fines on possible criminal charges and cited urban planning regulations in an overpopulated, Greece-run refugee camp whose development and maintenance were poorly planned. On September 3, 2020, the Greek Ministry of Immigration and Asylum announced that it would build a fence around Moria, costing 854,000 euros, which will be put into operation immediately and completed within two months (ABR 2020c). COVID-19 has finally delivered Greece’s far-right government the excuse it needs to build the closed, heavily-monitored detention facility it has been pushing for since the elections.
Scare tactics against the migrant population
The Greek government has cited COVID-19 as a reason for further investment in closed detention centers instead of migrant camps on the islands of Lesbos and Chios, fueling the vilified narrative that asylum seekers are transmitting the virus to local communities despite these claims being lack of evidence (Trilling 2020) . Certain nationalist politicians have never shied away from demonizing asylum seekers, calling them “cockroaches,” for example, and now their stigma is linked to the spread of the virus (Sunderland and Williamson 2013). The public fear of contagion brings out the racist undertone in local communities that may have always been wary of Lesvos becoming a temporary hotspot. Residents of Moria have told us that they are more likely to experience microaggression and racism. For example, a shopkeeper prevents them from entering the store even after receiving permission to go to the supermarket.
“They are seen and treated as pariahs who can bring the virus to the island,” reports an activist from Mare Liberum. Die Internationale Organisation für Migration hat davor gewarnt, dass die zunehmende Diskriminierung von Migranten die Bemühungen zur Bekämpfung der Pandemie nur behindert, da der Ausschluss jeder Gruppe vom Erhalt der notwendigen Waren und Dienstleistungen die Lebensdauer des Virus nur verlängert (UN Department of Global Communications 2020). Tatsächlich wurden viele der auf Lesbos angekommenen Fälle von Europäern vom griechischen Festland gebracht (Macej Kaczyński 2020). Erst Mitte August 2020 traf das erste Migrantenboot mit Passagieren mit positiven Fällen auf Lesbos ein.
Kurz- und langfristige Auswirkungen
Die zu Lande und zu Wasser durchgesetzten Maßnahmen sollen nicht die am stärksten gefährdeten Gruppen schützen und das Leben von Migranten retten. Griechenland konzentriert sich vielmehr darauf, sich den Europäern zu öffnen und die Wirtschaft so schnell wie möglich wieder anzukurbeln. Einschränkungen der Bewegungsfreiheit von Migranten, die Unterdrückung solidarischer NGOs und die Unterdrückung sozialer Bewegungen werden schwer rückgängig zu machen sein. Migranten werden weiterhin innerhalb des Lagers eingeengt und eingesperrt, wobei täglich nur 70 Genehmigungen zum Verlassen des Gebiets für eine Migrantenbevölkerung von über 13.000 erteilt werden (Rechtszentrum Lesbos 2020b). Unterdessen begannen die touristischen Reisen auf die Insel am 1. Juli 2020 wieder, und ohne einen Impfstoff bleibt das Risiko, dass sich jemand aus Moria mit dem Virus infiziert, hoch (GTP 2020). NGOs, insbesondere diejenigen, die Menschenrechtsüberwachung und Rettungsaktionen für Migranten durchführen, wurden unter Druck gesetzt, ihre Operationen vollständig einzustellen und alle neuen Freiwilligen daran zu hindern, auf der Insel anzukommen. Solidaritätsorganisationen schrumpfen in Größe und Kapazitäten, wodurch Asylsuchende noch stärker exponiert werden, während Hilfseinrichtungen aufgrund der Pandemie nicht voll ausgelastet sind.
Die kurzfristigen Auswirkungen haben sich als schnell und hart erwiesen, was durch die gewaltsamen Pushbacks auf See belegt wird. Wir sehen bereits einen sich verhärtenden öffentlichen Diskurs gegen Migranten, der sich spürbar auf die Bearbeitung von Ausweispapieren und Visa auswirkt. Arbeitsvisa für Migranten sind praktisch zum Erliegen gekommen, die Neuansiedlung von Flüchtlingen und Asylsuchenden in Drittstaaten wird schwieriger (SchengenVisaInfo 2020). Mehr als 40.700 Menschen beantragen auf den Inseln der Ägäis den Flüchtlingsstatus, und bisher hat die Europäische Kommission bekannt gegeben, dass 10 Mitgliedstaaten der Umsiedlung von 1.600 Kindern und Jugendlichen aus Griechenland zugestimmt haben (Dienst des Sprechers der EU-Kommission 2020). Griechenland hat etwa 13.657 Menschen in Lager auf dem griechischen Festland umgesiedelt (Aegean Boat Report Data Studio 2020a), was wenig Trost bietet, wenn es mit der Ankündigung verbunden ist, 11.000 Flüchtlinge aus staatlichen Unterkünften auszuweisen (Cossé 2020).
Eine unmittelbare Sorge der griechischen Reaktion auf COVID-19, die vielleicht am meisten übersehen wird, sind die immensen psychischen und physischen Auswirkungen, die diese extremen Bedingungen der Verwundbarkeit und Unsicherheit auf Asylsuchende hatten. Mare Liberum hat sowohl mit langjährigen Einwohnern von Moria als auch mit Neuankömmlingen auf Lesbos zahlreiche Interviews geführt und alle erlebten erhöhten Stress, Angst und Niedergeschlagenheit. Soziale Räume, in denen Migranten sich treffen, Kontakte knüpfen und sich von den Schrecken des Lagers trennen können, sind jetzt unzugänglich. Jeder Hauch von Normalität inmitten des außergewöhnlichen Lebens eines Asylbewerbers ist inzwischen verflogen. Die Straßentaverne direkt vor dem Lagertor, wo sie eine Tasse Tee kaufen konnten, ist jetzt geschlossen. Der Barbershop im NGO-geführten Freizeitzentrum ist geschlossen. Es ist schwieriger zu entkommen, in die Natur einzutauchen und die frische Luft zu atmen. Children who were able to secure a coveted seat in a classroom will now go another year without education, seeing as most teachers were ex-patriate volunteers. The despair of further prolonged asylum proceedings to determine one’s legal status can prove dismal. They are stuck inside the camp, and inside their own minds, without proper mental health care.
It is also critical to remember the under-reported, gendered impacts of confinement in a refugee camp. When tensions are high, women may find themselves at greater risk of emotional, physical, and sexual abuse; and as reported by UN Women, domestic violence helplines and shelters across the world are reporting rising calls for help during the pandemic (Mlambo-Ngcuka 2020). The current confinement measures are further isolating migrant women from the people and resources that can best help them, further enclosing them in close quarters with their assailants.
One of the long-term impacts may be that more people will be forced to take dangerous routes, such as attempting longer or more treacherous passages across the Aegean Sea. Perhaps COVID-19 will further restrict the formal means by which refugees can seek protection and prosperity, and more people will be driven to impetuosity. As Erol Yayboke, deputy director at the Center for Strategic and International Studies wrote at the start of the pandemic, ‘When combined, the economic, inequality, political, and displacement-related implications [of COVID-19] will only increase desperation at a time when fewer migration pathways exist. In such a scenario, those feeling compelled to move will do so increasingly using smugglers, traffickers, and other illicit groups. Migration will be increasing in and among developing countries with weaker health systems and rule of law’.
In the aftermath of crises, governments can garner more political will to exercise greater control for the purpose of protecting national security, or in this case, public health. Lesvos uniquely sits at the crossroads of a public health crisis, a humanitarian crisis, and a highly militarized border zone. Depending on how the EU and the rest of the world reacts to Greece’s choices on its emergency relief response, we fear the normalization of taxpayer spending on a permanently hyper-militarized border patrol, the construction of dehumanizing and degrading closed detention facilities, as well as prolonged restrictions on access to sites for watchdog organizations.
If the Greek islands are closing down legitimate operations for both humanitarian assistance and human rights monitoring efforts, a sharp decline in transparency and all of its compounding effects will likely take a large toll on migrants and EU citizens alike. Rule of law is already gravely suffering, which is heart-wrenching to see knowing that Europe has the most advanced mechanisms and institutions for human rights anywhere in the world to date. What does this mean for accountability both in Europe and around the world? To quote Albert Einstein, ‘The world is a dangerous place, not because of those who do evil, but because of those who look on and do nothing’.
How Greece handles the first Moria COVID-19 case today and the ongoing pandemic will determine the spirit and soul of the island for years to come. The government must act now, pooling resources, knowledge, and assistance from the local, national, regional, and international community to protect the population of Lesvos no matter what their skin color, background, or citizenship status. If we have learned anything from this pandemic, it is that the virus does not discriminate. People do. Politics does. And because of that, many more innocent lives are needlessly lost.
We are calling on the community of Lesvos, the nation of Greece, the European Union, the United Nations, and the larger international community, to step-up and embody the values that we have established in our founding documents, treaties, and charters. As Germany holds the Presidency of the Council of the European Union for 2020, and touts the motto, ‘Together for Europe’s recovery’, we are calling on the institution to take their role seriously and rectify the systemic issues that are preventing the EU from coming out of this pandemic as a more prosperous and equitable union. As Angela Merkel (2020) states, ‘This motto is directed at us all… For Europe can only be strong if people have good prospects for the future, if they can see how important Europe is for them personally, and if they are committed to the European idea’. Now more than ever, we need to actively work towards re-building a society in which inclusion, tolerance, justice, solidarity, and non-discrimination prevail. We have a shared responsibility for how these human lives are being treated. Let the EU know that we, as a global community, will not stand for the degradation of human dignity taking place along its borders.
Figure 1: The scene after a boat of asylum seekers arrives on Lesvos during the COVID-19 pandemic. Non-governmental organizations are no longer able to participate in the assurance of a safe landing or clean-up efforts once the asylum seekers are transported away from the shoreline. Source: Mare Liberum (2020).
Figure 2: Lesvos is an island located in the Aegean Sea between Greece and Turkey. There are only about 10 kilometers between them at its closest point. Source: Mare Liberum (2020).
Figure 3: A volunteer and activist from Mare Liberum watches the shoreline for asylum-seekers travelling to Lesvos in inflatable rafts (dinghies). Source: Mare Liberum (2020).
Figure 4: The number of asylum seeker arrivals from 1 January 2020 to 16 August 2020. Source: UNHCR Statistics Portal (2020).
Figure 5: The number of asylum seeker arrivals from 1 July 2019 to 16 August 2020. Source: UNHCR Statistics Portal (2020).
Figure 6: Flyers on the importance of hygiene in combating COVID-19 at Moria camp. Source: Mare Liberum (2020).
Figure 7: One of the ‘wild’ beach camps set-up to quarantine new arrivals on Lesvos. Source: Mare Liberum (2020).
 It is important to note that some locals also report being reported by the police for trying to help or rescue asylum seekers, with threats of smuggling charges. There seems to be growing polarisation on the island.
 According to the European Convention of Human Rights: ‘Push-backs are a set of state measures by which refugees and migrants are forced back over a border – generally immediately after they crossed it – without consideration of their individual circumstances and without any possibility to apply for asylum or to put forward arguments against the measures taken. Push-backs violate – among other laws – the prohibition of collective expulsions stipulated in the European Convention on Human Rights.’ (ECCHR 2020).
 This number is in consideration of the New York Times’ report from 14 August, as well as the reports from Aegean Boat Report from mid-August to September. What year?
 Based on European Union guidelines, Greece was allowed to open its borders again for all types of air travel coming from EU states (GTP 2020).
Aegean Boat Report Data Studio. (no date). ‘Aegean Boat Report: Page 1: Total Numbers’, Aegean Boat Report. https://datastudio.google.com/reporting/1CiKR1_R7-1UbMHKhzZe_Ji_cvqF7xlfH/page/A5Q0
Aegean Boat Report Data Studio. (no date).‘Aegean Boat Report: Page 3: Numbers by island’.Aegean Boat Report. https://datastudio.google.com/u/0/reporting/1CiKR1_R7-1UbMHKhzZe_Ji_cvqF7xlfH/page/SfM0
Aegean Boat Report. 2020. ‘Illegal deportations and pushbacks to Turkey, ordered by Greek government, executed by the Greek coast guard’. Facebook. April 6. https://www.facebook.com/AegeanBoatReport/posts/805700453286394
Aegean Boat Report. 2020. ‘Pushback South east of Samos by HCG’. Facebook. May 11. https://www.facebook.com/AegeanBoatReport/posts/830301117492994?comment_id=840146463175126
Aegean Boat Report. 2020. ‘The Greek government is taking the “pandemic excuse” even one step further’. Facebook, September 4. https://www.facebook.com/AegeanBoatReport/photos/a.285312485325196/913366615853110/
Aegean Boat Report. 2020. ‘The Greek minister of Migration and Asylum, Notis Mitarachi, is “celebrating” that there has been no arrivals on a Lesvos the last three weeks’. Facebook, September 1. https://www.facebook.com/AegeanBoatReport/posts/910802526109519
Amnesty International. 2020. ‘Greece/Turkey: Asylum-seekers and migrants killed and abused at borders’. April 3, https://www.amnesty.org/en/latest/news/2020/04/greece-turkey-asylum-seekers-and-migrants-killed-and-abused-at-borders/
Bathke, Benjamin. 2020. ‘Greece: Rights watchdogs report spike in violent push-backs on border with Turkey’. Info Migrants. May 11. https://www.infomigrants.net/en/post/24620/greece-rights-watchdogs-report-spike-in-violent-push-backs-on-border-with-turkey
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 2020. ‘Social Distancing: Keep a Safe Distance to Slow the Spread’. https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/prevent-getting-sick/social-distancing.htm
Cossé, Eva. 2020. ‘From Chaos in Moria to Despair in Athens, Greece: Refugees Live Rough on the Streets of Central Athens’. Human Rights Watch. August 20. https://www.hrw.org/news/2020/08/20/chaos-moria-despair-athens-greece
Cullum, Barney. 2020. ‘Boat Migration Push-back will never be the Asylum Solution’. New Internationalist. August 22. https://newint.org/features/2020/08/22/boat-migration-push-back-will-never-be-asylum-solution
Deeb, Bashar. 2020. ‘Samos And The Anatomy Of A Maritime Push-Back’. Bellingcat. May 20. https://www.bellingcat.com/news/uk-and-europe/2020/05/20/samos-and-the-anatomy-of-a-maritime-push-back/
El-Rashidi, Sarah. 2019. Stranded on the island of Lesbos, refugees remain in limbo’. Atlantic Council. November 25. https://www.atlanticcouncil.org/blogs/menasource/stranded-on-the-island-of-lesbos-refugees-remain-in-limbo/
European Convention of Human Rights. (no date). ‘Term: Push-back’. Glossary. https://www.ecchr.eu/en/glossary/push-back/
EU Commission Spokesperson’s Service. 2020. ‘Migration: First unaccompanied children relocated from Greece to Luxembourg’. European Commission. April 15. https://ec.europa.eu/commission/presscorner/detail/en/ip_20_668
Greek City Times. 2020. ‘Greece vows to cover accommodation costs for tourists infected with coronavirus’. June 2, https://greekcitytimes.com/2020/06/02/greece-vows-to-cover-accommodation-costs-for-tourists-infected-with-coronavirus/
Greek Travel Pages. 2020. ‘Greece Opens to Tourism: Who Can Come – Safety Rules’. 1 July. https://news.gtp.gr/2020/07/01/greece-opens-to-tourism-who-can-come-safety-rules/
Hellenic Republic Ministry of Migration and Asylum. 2020. ‘Δελτίο Τύπου – Απάντηση σε δημοσιεύματα ξένου τύπου’. August 15. https://migration.gov.gr/deltio-typoy-apantisi-se-dimosieymata-xenoy-typoy/?fbclid=IwAR1enhTEieXHFZ0kPiveSQezrNlQgJajzttJUQSzm-YycmdJLSk84WSsAGE
Human Rights Watch. 2020. ‘Greece: Grant Asylum Access to New Arrivals: Authorities Prevent Access to Services, Plan Transfers to Mainland Detention’. March 20. https://www.hrw.org/news/2020/03/20/greece-grant-asylum-access-new-arrivals
Human Rights Watch. 2020. ‘Greece: Investigate Pushbacks, Collective Expulsions: EU Should Press Athens to Halt Abuses’. July 16. https://www.hrw.org/news/2020/07/16/greece-investigate-pushbacks-collective-expulsions
International Maritime Organization, International Chamber of Shipping, and United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. 2015. At Sea: A Guide to Principles and Practice as Applied to Refugees and Migrants. https://www.unhcr.org/450037d34.pdf
International Organization for Migration. 2020. ‘Total of Deaths Recorded in Mediterranean from 01 January to 31 August’. Missing Migrants. https://missingmigrants.iom.int/region/mediterranean?migrant_route%5B%5D=1377
International Rescue Committee. 2020. ‘New IRC analysis reveals risk that coronavirus transmission rates in Moria, Al Hol and Cox’s Bazar refugee camps could outpace those seen on the Diamond Princess cruise ship’. April 1. https://www.rescue.org/press-release/new-irc-analysis-reveals-risk-coronavirus-transmission-rates-moria-al-hol-and-coxs
Keep Talking Greece. 2019. ‘Head of UNHCR-Greece appeal: Refrain from statements that would trigger hate against refugees’. October 4. https://www.keeptalkinggreece.com/2019/10/04/unhcr-greece-leclerc-government-refugees/
Kingsley, Patrick and Karam Shoumali. 2020. ‘Taking Hard Line, Greece Turns Back Migrants by Abandoning Them at Sea’. New York Times. August 14. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/08/14/world/europe/greece-migrants-abandoning-sea.html?action=click&module=Top%20Stories&pgtype=HomepageHomepage.
Leclerc, Philippe. 2019. ‘Responsibility and solidarity: Οp-ed by Philippe Leclerc, UNHCR Representative in Greece’. United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees Greece. October 4. https://www.unhcr.org/gr/en/13090-responsibility-and-solidarity.html
Legal Centre Lesvos. 2020. ‘Discriminatory Restrictions on Movement Further Contain Migrants in Unsanitary Conditions – and at Risk of COVID-19 Outbreak’. Facebook, March 30. https://www.facebook.com/LesvosLegal/posts/discriminatory-restrictions-on-movement-further-contain-migrants-in-unsanitary-c/3061323053906387/
Legal Centre Lesvos. 2020. ‘Hostility towards migrants and those working to support them continues as state policy in Lesvos’. May 27. https://legalcentrelesvos.org/2020/05/27/hostility-towards-migrants-and-those-working-to-support-them-continues-as-state-policy-in-lesvos/
Macej Kaczyński, Piotr. 2020. ‘17 newly arrived migrants in Lesbos test Covid-19 positive’. Euractiv. August 14. https://www.euractiv.com/section/coronavirus/news/17-newly-arrived-migrants-in-lesbos-test-covid-19-positive/
Mare Liberum. 2020. ‘Germany detains ships of human rights organization Mare Liberum’. August 19. https://mare-liberum.org/en/news/germany-detains-ships-of-human-rights-organization-mare-liberum/
Medicins Sans Frontiers. 2020. ‘MSF forced to close COVID-19 centre on Lesbos’. July 30. https://www.msf.org/msf-forced-close-covid-19-centre-lesbos-greece
Merkel, Angela. 2020. ‘Programme’. Germany’s Presidency of the Council of the European Union. https://www.eu2020.de/eu2020-en/programm
Mlambo-Ngcuka, Phumzile. 2020. ‘Violence against women and girls: the shadow pandemic’. UN Women. April 6. https://www.unwomen.org/en/news/stories/2020/4/statement-ed-phumzile-violence-against-women-during-pandemic
Ng, Kate. 2020. ‘Greek refugee shelter in Lesbos engulfed in flames amid migrant crisis’. Independent. March 8.
Panoutsopoulou, Magda. 2020. ‘Greece reports 1st COVID-19 case in Moria refugee camp: 40-year-old Somali national tests positive for coronavirus virus in overcrowded camp’. Anadolu Agency. September 2. https://www.aa.com.tr/en/europe/greece-reports-1st-covid-19-case-in-moria-refugee-camp/1960839
Pro Asyl, 2013. ‘Pushed back – Systematic human rights violations against refugees in the aegean sea and the greek-turkish land border’. Frankfurt/Main: Pro Asyl, 2013. https://www.proasyl.de/en/material/pushed-back-systematic-human-rights-violations-against-refugees-in-the-aegean-sea-and-the-greek-turkish-land-border/.
Refugee Rescue. 2020. ‘Statement: Suspension Of Operations’. August 29. https://www.refugeerescue.org/latest-news/statement-suspension-of-operations?fbclid=IwAR1dRxyCDOr2K-2pNcwbSQUiTcWjyN15r3tyFukZj1koFRSDcmiE0xm31FI
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Stevis-Gridneff, Matina and Patrick Kingsley. 2020. ‘Turkey, Pressing E.U. for Help in Syria, Threatens to Open Borders to Refugees’. New York Times. February 28. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/02/28/world/europe/turkey-refugees-Geece-erdogan.html
Sunderland, Judith and Hugh Williamson. 2013. ‘Xenophobia in Greece’. Human Rights Watch. May 13. https://www.hrw.org/news/2013/05/13/xenophobia-greece
The National Herald. 2020. ‘Migrants Landing on Lesbos Put in Quick Quarantine’. The National Herald beta. May 6. https://www.thenationalherald.com/archive_general_news_greece/arthro/migrants_landing_on_lesbos_put_in_quick_quarantine-284385/
Trilling, Daniel. 2020. ‘Migrants aren’t spreading coronavirus – but nationalists are blaming them anyway’. The Guardian, February 28. https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2020/feb/28/coronavirus-outbreak-migrants-blamed-italy-matteo-salvini-marine-le-pen
Turkish Coast Guard Command. 2020. ‘25 Irregular Migrants Were Rescued Off the Coast of İzmir’. Republic of Turkey Ministry of Interior. May 15. https://en.sg.gov.tr/25-irregular-migrants-were-rescued-off-the-coast-of-izmir
United Nations Department of Global Communications. 2020. ‘COVID-19: UN counters pandemic-related hate and xenophobia’. United Nations COVID-19 Response. May 11. https://www.un.org/en/coronavirus/covid-19-un-counters-pandemic-related-hate-and-xenophobia
United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (no date). ‘Mediterranean Situation: Greece’ Operational Portal: Refugee Situations. https://data2.unhcr.org/en/situations/mediterranean/location/5179
Further reading on e-international relations