Overcrowding in camps and poor hygiene means refugees face a heightened threat from the coronavirus.

Crowded tents, makeshift shacks, cramped containers, unsanitary bathroom facilities and a lack of hot water for cleaning and laundry. 

In Greece’s camps, refugees and migrants are surviving conditions like these at a time when the novel coronavirus COVID-19 spreads throughout the country and the world. 

Starting in late 2016, Arash Hampay, who now works as part of a humanitarian collective in Athens, spent eight months in the notorious Moria refugee camp before he eventually received asylum in Greece.

Although a few thousand refugees and migrants lived in the camp at the time, today it is home to more than 20,000 people, although the facility was designed to accommodate less than 3,000.

Hampay fears that an outbreak of COVID-19 in Moria—or in any of the overcrowded refugee camps in Greece—would spread like a wildfire.

“It would be like a bomb in Moria because the health system is completely messed up there,” Hampay told TRT World. “It would take just one or two people get the virus [at first], because 20,000 people live there without a decent health system.”

In order to minimise the risk of spreading the coronavirus, medical experts urge people to wash their hands regularly, keep their homes clean, avoid large crowds and stay inside.

For refugees and migrants in the camps, however, those guidelines are privileges they do not have.

More than 60,000 refugees and migrants reached Greece last year, the largest number since the March 2016 European Union migration accord with Turkey.

The United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR) estimates that more than 112,000 asylum seekers currently live in the country.

Of that total, upwards of 35,000 live in five Aegean island camps designed to accommodate a combined capacity of 5,400 residents.

Growing number of cases

Although there are no reported cases of the Coronavirus among refugees and migrants yet, the number of confirmed cases has continued to grow in recent weeks.

As of Monday night, the Greek government had the total tally of confirmed cases at 695, while at least 18 had died by Tuesday morning.

The government said 114 were in the hospital receiving treatment for the virus, 35 of whom were in intensive care.

On Monday, the Greek government enacted a full lockdown to prevent the spread of the virus, including measures that restrict movement in cities, towns and villages around the country.

That measure followed previous orders that closed down non-essential shops, restaurants, cafes and educational facilities.

In response to the mounting pandemic, the Greek government introduced a measure restricting the movement of refugees and migrants on Greek islands last week.

The measures only allow camp residents to leave the premises between 7am and 7pm to retrieve food or necessary supplies for nearby towns, according the Greek migration ministry. Only one individual from each family is permitted to leave the camp at a time.

“Protecting public health at any cost, for the benefit of residents on the islands and in camps, is our priority,” Migration Minister Notis Mitarachi said.

Boris Cheshirkov, an Athens-based spokesperson for the UNHCR, explained that overcrowding has been a longstanding problem in the camps, although the pandemic highlights the urgent need to solve it. 

"So far there have been no cases of the novel coronavirus among refugees and asylum seekers in Greece. But thousands of refugees and asylum seekers in Greece -- including many who are older and vulnerable -- are in locations where health services are overstretched," he told TRT World.  

"UNHCR has repeatedly alerted about the need to urgently improve living conditions there. Hygiene and sanitation, and access to health services are priority areas, but the overcrowding has been a serious concern for months."


Hampay says that refugees and migrants—especially those in the camps—are already bearing the brunt of the restrictions introduced to clamp down on the spread of the virus.

In the weeks leading up to the world shifting its focus on the COVID-19 pandemic, Greece came under widespread criticism for its management of the resurgent refugee crisis.

For weeks on the country’s land border with Turkey, Greek forces fired tear gas, flash bangs and live ammunition as tens of thousands of refugees and migrants amassed there, according to Turkish authorities.

On Greek islands, far-right attackers assaulted refugees, humanitarian workers and journalists on several occasions.

As tensions over the new wave of refugee arrivals crested, however, the Coronavirus pandemic erupted and captured the attention of the world.

But since the Coronavirus pandemic moved to the forefront of the public discussion, the Greek government – headed by the right-wing New Democracy party, which came to power last July on promises of cracking down on migration – has also seized the opportunity to further restrict refugees’ rights.

Last week, with the streets of the capital largely empty, Greek police raided and evicted a squat in central Athens where dozens of refugees and migrants lived.

“It is dangerous,” Hampay said. 

“Now with the Coronavirus news, no one sees the refugees now; no one sees what is happening with the refugees in Greece.”