How COVID-19 struck Greek reception centres:

It was not the infection rate but the mental health issues that sky-rocketed

Greek officials have been announcing loud and proud that Greece will be dropping quarantine rules[1] for travelers from the EU and five other countries (including the UK) for those who have been vaccinated or tested negative for COVID-19. These measures are needed in order to boost the Greek economy since 20% of the country’s GDP depends on tourism. The much needed care for physical and mental health, as well as the prospects for the future for the many migrants who are stuck in camps on the Greek islands however, remains missing.


With very limited hygiene and space on the Greek islands, basic COVID-19 measures and precautions, such as social distancing and washing one's hands regularly are hard to follow.[2] People often live in very confined spaces, sharing them with several generations.[3] This means the virus is likely to spread quickly amongst numerous people, due to the “mass quarantines” that have been instituted in Greek reception centres. By imposing very restrictive measures, such as police controlling entry and exit of people, as well as the use of drones to patrol movement within the camps, these quarantines are damaging the last bit of human dignity many people in the camps still feel and try to maintain.[4] [5]


This means that rather than it being a matter of physical health, COVID-19 causes a serious issue of mental health in the Greek camps. A lot of people are scared that they will be the next one to be infected with the virus, and especially for the many elderly, pregnant women and people in poor health and with underlying conditions, getting sick possibly means giving up on their dreams and hopes for a new life. With a tremendous lack of doctors and appropriate means and tools, they feel forgotten and left out. On top of that, there are a lot of practical issues to providing the much needed care in Greek reception centres. Language and a lack of information is one of those, making it hard for both people living in the camps and healthcare workers to understand each other. [6]


The current circumstances led to an all-time high in mental health issues amongst people in the Greek camps. In their 2020 report, the International Rescue Committee (IRC) noted a 71% increase in the number of people experiencing psychological problems across camps in Lesbos, Chios and Samos since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in March 2020. The number of people struggling with suicidal thoughts and self-harm increased by 66%. What is striking, is that children are often affected by the mental health effects of the pandemic. By being cut off from school, friends and playing outside, there’s even less prospects for the future than before the pandemic hit.[7] [8] [9]



The role of the EU in the mismanagement of COVID-19 in Greek reception centres is not to be underestimated. Southern European countries, especially Greece and Italy, have repeatedly asked the EU for help and (financial) support to make the best out of an often hopeless situation. Under the ever-failing European migration policies, the Member States on the European borders keep on struggling with non-durable solutions and quick-fixes. Even the new European pact on migration and asylum, launched in september 2020, lacks a decent solidarity mechanism to discharge Greece and Italy from their massive responsibility.[10] The emphasis remains on sovereignty for the Member States to do whatever they can (“national contributions based on voluntary pledges”[11]) and sending back as many people as possible. Mental health issues are simply not discussed, and without European money for mental health support and help, such as psychologists and psychiatrists, NGO’s are bound to fill the void left by governments.[12]


The recent announcement of the EU Home Affairs Commissioner, Ylva Johnson, to provide €250 million in funding for five new “structures” [13] on the Greek islands of Lesbos, Samos, Chios, Kos and Leros, is another example of how European leaders prefer to maintain the status-quo rather than to actively look for durable solutions to improve migrants’ lives, by providing them with the basic human dignity and support for the struggles they’re living with. The pandemic has highlighted the inhumane living conditions and human rights problems in the Greek reception centres, but they have always been there. COVID-19 just happened to be another cherry on top of a very bad cake.


About the author:

Kato Wouters is a political science and European studies graduate. She focuses on social rights, human rights and climate issues looking at them through an EU perspective and the EU enlargement policy.


Footnotes:

[1] Smith, H. (2021). Greece to ditch quarantine for tourists who are vaccinated or test negative. Retrieved on April 22, 2021 from https://www.theguardian.com/world/2021/apr/14/greece-to-ditch-quarantine-for-tourists-who-are-vaccinated-or-test-negative [2] Médecins sans Frontières. (2020). Greek police enforce unwarranted and cruel quarantine of Moria camp on Lesbos. Retrieved on April 22, 2021 from https://www.msf.org/greek-police-enforce-unwarranted-and-cruel-quarantine-moria-camp [3] Rojo, M. (2021). Mental health issues rise among refugees and migrants in Greece. Retrieved on April 22, 2021 from https://www.fairplanet.org/story/mental-health-issues-rise-among-refugees-and-migrants-in-greece/ [4] Médecins sans Frontières. (2020). Greek police enforce unwarranted and cruel quarantine of Moria camp on Lesbos. Retrieved on April 22, 2021 from https://www.msf.org/greek-police-enforce-unwarranted-and-cruel-quarantine-moria-camp [5] Fallon, K. (2020). ‘A mental health emergency': no end to trauma for refugees on Lesbos. Retrieved on April 22, 2021 from https://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2020/dec/22/a-mental-health-emergency-no-end-to-trauma-for-refugees-on-lesbos [6] Rojo, M. (2021). Mental health issues rise among refugees and migrants in Greece. Retrieved on April 22, 2021 from https://www.fairplanet.org/story/mental-health-issues-rise-among-refugees-and-migrants-in-greece/ [7] International Rescue Committee. (2020). Refugees in Greece enduring a mental health crisis, as IRC psychologists witness a 66% increase in self-harm among people in camps. Retrieved on April 22, 2021 from https://www.rescue-uk.org/press-release/irc-report-refugees-greece-enduring-mental-health-crisis-irc-psychologists-witness-66 [8] International Rescue Committee. (2020). Cruelty of containment. Retrieved on April 22, 2021 from https://www.rescue-uk.org/report/cruelty-containment [9] Fallon, K. (2020). ‘A mental health emergency': no end to trauma for refugees on Lesbos. Retrieved on April 22, 2021 from https://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2020/dec/22/a-mental-health-emergency-no-end-to-trauma-for-refugees-on-lesbos [10] Smith, H. (2021). EU's southern states step up calls for 'solidarity' in managing mass migration. Retrieved on April 22, 2021 from https://www.theguardian.com/world/2021/mar/21/eus-southern-states-step-up-calls-for-solidarity-in-managing-mass-migration [11] European Commission. (2020). New Pact on Migration and Asylum. Retrieved on April 22, 2021 from https://ec.europa.eu/info/strategy/priorities-2019-2024/promoting-our-european-way-life/new-pact-migration-and-asylum_en [12] Rojo, M. (2021). Mental health issues rise among refugees and migrants in Greece. Retrieved on April 22, 2021 from https://www.fairplanet.org/story/mental-health-issues-rise-among-refugees-and-migrants-in-greece/ [13] Fallon, K. (2021). EU announces funding for five new refugee camps on Greek islands. Retrieved on April 22, 2021 from https://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2021/mar/29/eu-announces-funding-for-five-new-refugee-camps-on-greek-islands