The devastating impact of COVID-19 on refugees

March 25, 2021

By Kirsten Mosey

Published in The Ploughshares Monitor Volume 42 Issue 1 Spring 2021

In 2016, Kirsten Mosey volunteered at Camp Moria on the island of Lesvos, Greece—once Europe’s largest refugee camp. Designed to house between 2,000 and 3,000 people, the former military/detention centre held approximately 20,000 refugees at its peak.

Recently, Kirsten met virtually with Amy Randell, who first went to Lesvos in September 2019 as a volunteer with the German and Greek agency All4Aid.

Kirsten Mosey: What was Camp Moria like in March 2020 when COVID-19 began to spread globally? How was your work affected?

Amy Randell: The COVID-19 outbreak followed a lot of violence. January and February were business as usual, and then things started to get really tense. We received a lot of backlash from the local community. It got to the point that our organization (All4Aid) evacuated our team off the island at the beginning of March.

At that time, COVID-19 cases were rising in Asia, but hadn’t really reached Europe. After evacuating, I left the island for what was supposed to be a brief trip to Germany to visit family and ended up getting stuck there for a few months due to border closures. Some friends were still here, and colleagues were able to return sooner than I was, but the island was completely shut down, and NGOs [nongovernmental organizations] couldn’t do very much.

The initial lockdown on the island lasted about two weeks, and then our team was able to resume work at our centre, which was right across from Camp Moria. We had to stop our educational programs—we couldn’t have big groups—but we could still have people do laundry and shower because we were within the police perimeter.

Once Greece opened back up in the spring, locals and people outside the camp were able to move freely and I was able to get back to the island. But the camp remained on a strict lockdown for many, many months and that became a big issue with camp residents.

KM: What did your programs look like then?

AR: We slowly restarted some of our programs in the centre. Then in the spring and summer we were able to have more people come in to do laundry and shower. Pre-COVID, we had camp residents work with us as seamstresses, and in the spring they started making masks and medical gowns. We worked with Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) and other NGOs to focus more on COVID-19. In August, we began making plans to reopen our school and educational centre. But the camp burned down a few weeks later.

KM: Tell me about the fires in September.

AR: Camp Moria was still, as far as I remember, in a strict lockdown.

KM: Meaning camp residents weren’t able to go into the town at all?

AR: Yes. Residents were only allowed to leave if they had a doctor’s appointment or for a specific reason. There are many great, supportive people on Lesvos, but a portion of the population, perhaps understandably, felt that the camp would become a hotbed for COVID-19. The residents lived in such tight quarters; they didn’t have access to proper hygiene; there was no proper sanitation.

Camp residents were already so frustrated with their situation after being on lockdown for months. And then a few cases of COVID-19 showed up in the camp. A relatively healthy young man died and people became very afraid. There were rumours that isolation would be enforced throughout the camp. People were at a breaking point. The actual fires and what happened are still disputed.

KM: What was left of Camp Moria after the fires?

AR: It was a while before we could go back. All the camp residents were sleeping on the streets for a week or two and the roads were completely blocked. The island was placed back on lockdown, so we couldn’t leave our houses.

When we got back to the centre, we discovered that the camp was absolutely devastated. The only things left standing were the metal Isoboxes. All the trees had burned down. It was so shocking that I feel like I’ll remember it forever.

First, we worried for our friends and the people we knew. But after that, it really hit us that this was a huge deal with long-lasting impacts. Moria was always supposed to be a short-term transition centre, but this sudden event was a big moment of change.

KM: After the fires, there was media attention and calls for “No More Morias!” Then many people moved into the new camp (Mavrovouni), which is now nicknamed Moria 2.0. What is the new camp like?

AR: It’s a more traditional refugee camp with UN tents, unlike Moria before the fires. The new camp is much more blocked off. Two main gates are the only way in and out. The whole camp is patrolled by police; anyone who wants in must be granted specific access.

In the old camp, there were limits on who was allowed within the actual walls, but many people lived outside the camp in the jungle and we were able to provide services to them. In the new camp, vital services—housing, first response, food delivery—had clearance early on, but it was difficult for All4Aid to get access and we didn’t get in until November.

KM: Are the police willing to work with you?

AR: Once our organization got the camp director onboard, we had to convince the police that our services—providing space for showers and laundry—are essential. Our leaders worked for weeks to get access.

KM: You mentioned that distributing basic necessities like food is allowed in the camp. Is there any schooling or recreation for kids?

AR: We used to hand out tickets in Moria so that people could do laundry and shower. With COVID-19, we and a lot of other NGOs lost that access. Only about five or six NGOs have regular access inside Moria 2.0 to distribute things like heaters and sleeping bags. EuroRelief has started doing educational programs. But there are no laundry or shower facilities—only cold shower buckets. And no bathrooms, only outhouses.

KM: Can residents access clean water for handwashing?

AR: People get water from an area where there are pipes. I know of an NGO that does some water work inside the camp—or did until recently. But water is very limited.

KM: Are there any COVID-19 testing services, a COVID-19 clinic, or basic healthcare providers in the camp?

AR: MSF has a clinic outside the camp where residents can go and some medical teams are allowed in the camp. There is a COVID-19 testing centre and isolation area just past the entrance. People with symptoms can get tested and are kept in a more isolated area. That’s also where new arrivals tend to stay.

KM: Are there many new arrivals? Transfers off the island?

AR: More people typically come via boat in nicer weather. COVID-19 has certainly slowed traffic. For a short time after Moria burned down, a lot of people came to the island because it seemed like a good opportunity to get to the mainland faster, with quite a few transfers to mainland Greece, Germany, and the rest of Europe. In particular, people who had received a decision on their asylum claims were able to be transferred out.

In recent months, I’ve only heard of the arrival of a handful of boats. Winter on the island is very windy and the water can be very rough. And then there’s COVID-19. But it can be hard to know what’s really happening.

KM: As a Canadian, what do you feel about Canada’s role in helping refugees?

AR: I’ve become more interested in finding out what’s happening in Canada in terms of resettlement.
People still get excited when I say that I’m Canadian; our reputation is definitely still positive. But the fires really frustrated me. People in Moria were sleeping on the streets. And I kept wondering where the rest of humanity was. Not just Canada, but the world.

We have so much space in Canada, and these people need homes and can contribute to society, and I know we could do more. I know it’s a lot more complicated than that, but sometimes it feels black-and-white to me.

I’m proud of many features of the Canadian resettlement program, but I feel that there’s more to do. People have a lot of fears about refugees, but I’ve never seen a group of people more able to make things happen, all by themselves. How is that not valuable for us in Canada? These people aren’t just numbers, they’re my friends. We should all have that perspective: refugees are people.

KM: What do you want the international community to know about Lesvos and the situation there?

AR: I just want people to know about it. I want people to know and care.

When the fires happened, people were talking about it. So many people I hadn’t spoken to in years reached out to me, and I used that opportunity to tell them about the situation. I definitely get very passionate about it, as one should, I think.

Photo: Amy Randell visits Moria refugee camp in Lesvos, Greece, after a fire devastated it in September of last year.

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