human development, social justice and sustainable social systems

Despite COVID-19, Caritas Hellas remains open

Supporting the most vulnerable both virtually and emotionally

The lockdown is obviously making Caritas Hellas’ work to support migrants and refugees trickier, but we do our best to continue providing our psychosocial services online, and in a brighter future, we plan to expand our activities in Chios and Lesbos (e.g. to facilitate access to public healthcare and psychiatric support, and to distribute non-food items). COVID-19 has worsened living conditions for migrants and refugees, which were already dramatic before the heath crisis. Now more than ever, EU states need to show more solidarity to uphold human dignity.

Maria Alverti, Director of Caritas Hellas

Solidarity being tested in Greece

Since 2015, Greece has welcomed many people in need of protection, and currently hosts more than 115,000 migrants and refugees – a lot for a country like Greece. The EU-Turkey deal, which imposes that asylum applicants must stay in the Greek islands during their asylum procedure, coupled with the lack of solidarity from other European countries, and difficulties in creating and managing adequate reception facilities, has ended up in an unsustainable situation.

More than 42,000 migrants have been stuck in overcrowded camps in the Greek islands for months, sometimes even years. 81% of the migrant population in the Greek islands come from Afghanistan, Syria, Somalia or Palestine, and many are in need of protection. In Moria camp on Lesbos island, there are seven times more people than the official capacity of the camp. Vulnerable people, who have already gone through a lot during their migratory journey, need to share one shower with 500 people and one toilet with 160 people, and queue for hours in order to get food. Many, including unaccompanied children, sleep rough under olive groves and need to fence for themselves.

At the end of February, the Turkish decision to open borders towards Greece has compounded an already explosive situation. Frustrated of being left alone by the Greek government and EU countries, the Islanders’ animosity towards migrants has grown, fueling increased tension and violence. In parallel, stricter asylum measures taken by the Greek government since the beginning of 2020 have heightened the sense of hopelessness and injustice among migrants. Long asylum procedures, lack of access to information and legal support, unsuitable reception conditions and difficulty to find accommodation once a protection status is recognised make migrants’ every-day life an uphill battle.

Under pressure: COVID-19 threats

Since the first COVID-19 cases emerged, the Greek government enforced strict lockdown measures in the whole country. Like the virus, the lockdown affects everyone and its socio-economic impacts will be deeply felt for a while across the board. Disadvantaged and vulnerable people are nevertheless struck the hardest, like for instance homeless people who have nowhere to ‘stay home’ and risk being fined for not respecting the lockdown.

Migrants and refugees are particularly at risk. It doesn’t take long to imagine the humanitarian nightmare that would occur if the virus was to spread within overcrowded refugee camps! While lockdown measures were taken in the whole country, COVID-19 cases that were identified within two refugee camps on the mainland led to stricter quarantine measures for 14 days, during which no one could leave or enter the accommodation site. In Lesbos, some COVID-19 cases were detected among the local population, but not yet in the refugee camps, and strict lockdown measures were similarly taken, even if social distancing is hard to respect when people were already crammed in containers in terrible living conditions. But several organisations feel that this is not enough, and that people need to be evacuated off the Greek islands – to the mainland and to other European countries. Indeed, how can migrants respect basic hygienic measures (e.g. washing hands regularly) and social distancing in an overcrowded camp like Moria, where in some parts of the camp only one water tap without soap is available for every 1,300 people and where they have to stand in packed queues for hours to get food?

Lockdown measures in the islands (monitored by the police) restrict movement within the camps and only one person per household is allowed to leave the camp between 7am and 7pm to go to the grocery store, for instance. Most NGO presence and all collective activities have been suspended in the camps. Outside of the camps, several health or infirmary ‘stations’ have been installed to provide medical support should COVID-19 cases be detected. In addition, all asylum services and administrative procedures have been suspended until 15 May. This will further delay the waiting time to get a response to an asylum application and will increase the caseload which was already gigantic. The endless limbo situation sadly continues for thousands of people waiting to know their fate. On a more positive note, COVID-19 prompted authorities to postpone, until end of May, a controversial decision that would compel recognised refugees to leave the housing facilities 30 days following the notification of the decision recognising their international protection status. A mission almost impossible given the shortage of accommodation and discrimination against migrants!

To different degrees, we are all socially and mentally impacted by lockdown measures. But imagine the sense of abandonment that already highly isolated and vulnerable migrants must feel, when the scarce external support and activities (e.g. language classes, recreational activities for children) that were available suddenly stop. In this challenging environment, Caritas Hellas does not shut down, even when working from home.

Caritas Hellas remains open

To the best extent possible, Caritas Hellas’ psychosocial services have switched to virtual mode, such as, for instance, two social centers in Athens (e.g. job counselling, legal counselling, Greek and English classes for adults, etc.). A virtual helpdesk and a tele-interpretation service were also put in place. The urban shelter programme in Athens and Thessaloniki continues to receive new vulnerable asylum seekers from the islands into apartments; and CRS, Caritas Hellas and Caritas Athens, in cooperation with UNHCR, try to beef up the accommodation capacity (+150 places, in addition to the already 2,500 places available). In Lesbos, psychosocial support continues remotely for asylum seekers and refugees residing in Kara Tepe camp.

In addition, psychological support is provided via skype in Greek, English, Arabic, Farsi and French to the population of the North Aegean – including migrants – who have been psychologically affected by COVID-19. In Chios, Caritas Hellas continues its social support and legal counselling in five languages through email and WhatsApp. Practical online tools include, for instance, a small guide on legal issues related to COVID-19 (also in five languages). Caritas Hellas and its partners continue to accompany and provide interpreters to migrants who urgently need to go to the hospital, by using adequate health protection for the staff. Educational activities for adults and children are still being carried out in Greek and English through online tools.

In addition to practical work on the ground, Caritas Hellas has also joined Caritas Europa’s advocacy efforts to call for the relocation of at least 1,600 unaccompanied children from the Greek islands to EU countries. Despite the extra practical challenges COVID-19 created, a glimmer of hope can be seen: 12 children already arrived in Luxembourg on 15 April, with the support of Caritas Luxembourg, and 58 children were relocated to Germany on 18 April. Eight more EU countries, plus Switzerland, have committed to welcome children as well, so let us hope that these first relocations are only the beginning of more European solidarity!