How Greece handled the pandemic
When the pandemic hit Europe, everybody was anticipating that Greece would be an absolute disaster; the country’s population is one of the oldest in the E.U., its health sector has been ravaged by austerity, and its economy is still nearly 25% smaller than it was before last decade’s financial crisis: in 2019, after three bailouts and drastic cuts to its public healthcare system due to austerity, there were only 560 ICU beds in the entire country of 11 million (that’s less that 6 beds per 100,000 people, with the European average being 11.5).
Yet, Greece has avoided the worst of the global pandemic, with 146 deaths so far. Knowing that the looted by austerity Greek healthcare system would not stand the pressure, the government made use of the lessons sadly learnt by Italy, in a period where the tourist season had not yet fully began, in order to “flatten the curve” as much as possible: schools and universities nationwide were closed on March 10, when there were just 89 confirmed cases in the country; cafes, restaurants and tourist spots followed some days later; on 23rd March, all non-essential movement was banned.
This is indeed a success story; however, it’s not the entire story. The lockdown, that has been succeed since Monday 4th by the gradual “restart of the economy”, has been coupled by constant calls by government officials to “respect the quarantine” and to self-isolate when sick, reiterating a -somehow monotonous- appeal to “individual responsibility”. With a large number of people having already lost their jobs, these calls are economically impossible for the many people who cannot shift their work online, those who have been threatened with dismissal if they report sick or those working in temporary employment. Some categories of employees have been included in temporary support schemes by the government, but with most unemployed or precariously working people excluded, and the tourist season already lost, these measures have been heavily criticized as a drop in the ocean.
Just like everywhere else, the virus and the lockdown are colliding with longstanding structural inequalities; that is especially true when it comes to migrants and refugees.
And what about migrants and refugees?
The breakout of Covid-19 in Greece found the country dealing with another acute crisis at its borders.
Back in 2016, the wearing out of the ostensibly welcoming European spirit to the refugee influx culminated in the infamous EU-Turkey deal. The deal has been heavily criticized for lowering protection standards, circumventing accountability and creating a new humanitarian disaster in the Greek islands. All this was done so that the EU countries would stop receiving refugee flows and get rid of their internal political troubles. It was made possible by making Erdogan a key player in the regulation of flows in the region.
Erdogan’s capacity to weaponise the refugee issue was a product of the EU-Turkey deal; and in late February it came back to bite Europe. On February 28, just two days after the first confirmed case of Covid-19 in Greece, President Erdogan confirmed that Turkey had opened the border for refugees heading to Europe. What has been used in the past years as a leverage by Turkey to demand more political and financial concessions from the EU had now been activated again, ending up with hundreds of people accumulating at the Evros border. Soon, similar pictures were displayed by the boats arriving in the Greek islands.
The Greek government was maybe not wrong to call this move an “asymmetric threat”; but it was wrong to provide a response of “symmetric” use of force and violence. With the EU leadership following its known path of deflecting and outsourcing its responsibilities, Greece was eventually left alone again to do the dirty job. In the Evros region, there were numerous reports for extensive use of chemicals and even reports of shootings from the Greek authorities in order to deter illegal entries. Illegal pushbacks, a practice that has been documented for years by our people working in the area -through the extensive accounts of migrants and refugees who have testified to being detained, beaten, and pushed back across the river to Turkey, by unidentified masked men and in full secrecy, without being granted access to asylum procedures- were now performed out in the open. In an unprecedented move, the Greek government froze the reception of asylum applications for a month, which meant that all newcomers were treated as illegal entries without the right of access to asylum; many of them were tried in penal courts and received sentences of 3 years imprisonment for illegal entry.
In the Eastern Aegean islands, and mostly Lesvos, this has been combined with several locals serving as self-proclaimed militia that obstructed disembarkations of newly arrived boats and committed generalized harassment and physical attacks on refugees, NGO workers and journalists. Far right groups also travelled to Greece from all around Europe hoping to use tensions to pursue their own political agendas.  The situation on the Evros border de-escalated on March 27th, almost two weeks after Turkey had reported its first death from Covid-19; people were used as pawns and were now taken back by bus after evacuating the makeshift camp in Kastanies. It was the end of an acute crisis at the borders. It was also the end of the Greek media referring to migrants and refugees; but this only lasted one week.
From external threat to internal hygienic bomb
Scapegoating processes are essentially based on extreme generalization, and the toxic rhetoric developed around the border crisis made this generalization very easy.
On March 17, a week before the nation-wide lockdown, Greece’s government announced measures to prevent a coronavirus outbreak in Reception and Identification Centers on the islands, the so-called “hotspots”, and the reception centres, the so-called “camps”, in the mainland. The measures essentially put the hotspots and the camps on lockdown. This includes the suspension of all special activities and facilities in the camps. Hotspot and camp residents are prevented through strict controls from venturing outside the facilities, even to get supplies, but also from circulating within them without good reason.
The Ministry ordered the placement of the guidelines of the National Public Health Organization in all accessible languages throughout the camps; these guidelines include mainly thorough personal hygiene, complete isolation when somebody feels mildly ill and use of personal protective means (masks, gloves, etc) for people who take care of them, and, first and foremost, social distancing.
According to the most recent official data, there are currently 38,325 people geographically restrained on the Eastern Aegean islands, with the overall capacity to host them amounting 8,754 places. In places like Moria, which currently “operates” 7 times over its designated capacity, where people live in tents, in the mud, without access to the basics, social distancing, isolation and personal hygiene can only be perceived as a bad joke. Even in Eleonas, a camp near the city center of Athens which is considered “ideal” compared to other camps in the country, accommodation is provided at 4 sq.m. per person, which, as a rule, means Isobox containers of approx. 30 sq.m. for approx. 8 persons.
NGOs and solidarity groups have been asking the government to decongest the islands by transferring people to the mainland and to move people out of overcrowded reception centers to appropriate, small-scale centers; to no avail.
Covid-19 has reached the refugee camps of Greece since the beginning of April, with four different migrant facilities in the country now closed to entry and exit after residents in each tested positive; the camps of Koutsochero in Larisa, the camp of Ritsona, the camp of Malakasa and a hotel in Kranidi — the latter has an especially revealing story to tell, a story of class, gender and race all at once.
Galaxy hotel is located in Porto Heli area, near Kranidi. Along with many other hotels in the region, it used to serve as a tourist resort in an area that generally draws middle to upper class tourists. In 2016, the owner decided not to proceed with the renovations essential for such a kind of resort and, instead, applied for the hotel to be used as an accommodation facility for asylum seekers. The hotel was first run by UNHCR implementing partners and then by IOM, and is currently accommodating 470 asylum seekers, mostly from sub-Saharan countries, of these, 150 have tested positive for Covid-19.
The tracing started when a 6month pregnant resident from Somalia visited the local hospital for other reasons and was tested positive. The main findings of the tracing were: 1. The “patient-zero” is most probably an employee who provides cleaning services; the same woman (also a migrant from Bulgaria) has reportedly been exposed by cleaning villas of US and Dutch citizens in the area. 2. Although the hotel has generally been ghettoized by the neighboring communities, this Covid-19 outbreak has particularly alarmed locals from nearby towns. What was subsequently revealed is that some locals frequently visited the hotel, even during this pandemic, in order to get paid sex services. Coupled with the fact that several young asylum seekers were reportedly used by local farmers to assist with the crops (a frequent example of black market labour practices in the region), this is undoubtedly a striking example of how labor and sexual exploitation threatens the most vulnerable communities during the pandemic. As expected, it has been reported as story of a “hygienic bomb” and a “residence of whores” that threatens the society.
The state response to safeguard the health of asylum seekers
Admittedly, both the Vice Minister of Citizen Protection and the Coordinator on behalf of the Ministry of Health -the two persons handling the daily press briefing for Covid-19 pandemic- rose to the occasion, by keeping a moderate rhetoric and sticking to the epidemiological facts. Going a step further, the Coordinator, Prof. Sotiris Tsiodras, underlined that communities like the Roma, migrants and refugees are vulnerable people that should be supported instead of scapegoated; an, indeed, much needed statement in a period filled with toxic, xenophobic rhetoric.
However, good statements tend to remain dead letters when not combined with systemic, institutional changes, especially when it comes to the protection of health. This, unfortunately, is the case in Greece. Last July, the new government abolished the issuance of Social Security Numbers to asylum seekers, leaving thousands of people out of the healthcare system. Last November, there was a law amendment that introduced a Provisional Social Security Card. But, of course, having a law is one thing and implementing it is another. In January, a Ministerial Decision was issued to regulate the granting of this Provisional Social Security Card, according to which the card would be issued by the Asylum Service.
Almost one year later, the system is still not regulated. Early April, there was a press release of the Ministry of Migration Policy stating that the Provisional Social Security Card will be issued in accordance to the Ministerial Decision, that is to say by the Asylum Service. However, the Asylum Service seems unaware of this development, since it has suspended its operation since 13 March, because of the Covid situation, until at least the 15th of May.
In a nutshell, asylum seekers have been excluded from the public healthcare system for almost a year now. This kind of “institutional invisibility” is not just a problem just for migrants and refugees; first and foremost, it is a problem for public safety and health. Of course, if an asylum seeker gets to the ER, somebody will check on them; the fact remains, however, that amidst the pandemic, asylum seekers remain largely excluded from healthcare services in Greece.
But, do all foreigners in Greece live in camps?
Of course, not. According to the latest official data, there are approx. 540,000 legally residing migrants in Greece. This numbers includes residence permits for studies, work etc; people “like you and me”, suffering the same structural inequalities accentuated by the pandemic. Or, maybe, even more?
Imagine being a legally residing migrant in Greece: all of a sudden you lose your job, like many Greeks, but for you it’s not only your job, it is your legal status that goes with it. Or, maybe you could renew your status, but the immigration services are closed because of Covid-19 and the Ministerial Decision regulating the lockdown stipulates that, in police checks, people would have to show either ID or passport – and you might have none. These cases are not theoretical; these are issues reported to us everyday in our field work. The lines between legality and “illegality” are more blurred than ever; and the labor exploitation that goes with them has skyrocketed during the pandemic.
And, finally, the invisibles: migrants without legal documentation because they do not have access to the asylum system or because their claim was rejected: mostly homeless or in precarious accommodation, prone to abuse and exploitation. These are generally hiding in order to avoid arrest which would mean placement under administrative detention for several months.
Acknowledging the public threat of COVID-19 to persons deprived of their liberty, the Council of Europe’s Committee for the Prevention of Torture has recently made it clear that “as close personal contact encourages dissemination of the virus, coordinated efforts must be made by all competent authorities to resort to alternative detention measures. Such an approach is imperative, especially in cases of overpopulation. In addition, the authorities should […] and, as far as possible, refrain from detaining migrants”.
Several European countries, like Portugal and Ireland, have taken such recommendations seriously and implemented “firewall policies” to protect undocumented migrants for as long as the pandemic lasts. In Greece, the movement is backwards: with a new amendment to the legislation, currently promoted by the government, it is proposed that the detention of third country nationals under return procedures should be the rule and that alternatives to detention will be applied only exceptionally. This amendment not only offends common sense, but is also in clear violation of the relevant European Directive as it introduces a generalized character to the measure of administrative detention, without any individualized assessment.
I have elsewhere suggested that the 2015 “refugee crisis” could be described as “what migration has always been in Greece: a Greek crisis (of management) within another European crisis (of policy and of values)”. The Covid-19 pandemic has come to add one more crisis into the equation.
As with all so-called ‘humanitarian’ crises, the social conditions found across most of the countries of the South are the direct product of how these states are inserted into the hierarchies of the world market, and Greece is a shining example of this rule. Amidst a pandemic that changes everything in the world as we know it, one thing that seems to remain unaltered is the cynicism of the deterrence policy implemented by the EU through Greece: the outsourcing of border management, the intensification of the doctrine of deterrence through deals that bypass institutional procedures and accountability measures and the exchange of Member-States’ legal obligations with voluntary humanitarian gestures.
Eleni Takou is Deputy Director and Head of Advocacy of the Greek NGO HumanRights360
 Reception and Identification Centres (RICs) are Units of the Reception and Identification Service of the Ministry of Migration and Asylum, General Secretariat of Migration Policy, Reception and Asylum. It’s the centres were newly arrived people are transferred for identification, recording and access to asylum process.