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At Greek refugee camp, there are few defenses against COVID-19 threat

Human rights activists and medical nonprofits are calling on the Greek government to evacuate overcrowded refugee camps on islands in the Aegean Sea, where an outbreak of COVID-19 would likely cause humanitarian catastrophe. Concerns are especially grave regarding Moria camp on the island of Lesbos. Special correspondent Malcolm Brabant reports.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Human rights activists and medical nonprofits are calling on the Greek government to evacuate overcrowded refugee camps on islands in the Aegean Sea to prevent COVID-19 from causing a humanitarian disaster.

    They're particularly concerned about Moria camp on the island of Lesbos, which special correspondent Malcolm Brabant has visited many times over the past five years.

    And he is in touch with people there — Malcolm.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    Judy, tonight, I'm reporting from home again. I'm in the English countryside. I have got space to breathe and I want for nothing.

    But 2,000 miles away, in one of the toughest locations in Europe, living conditions in this age of the coronavirus couldn't be worse.

    They have fled wars, persecution or economic hardship. But, in Moria, they are stranded, with no place to run and no place to hide from COVID-19.

  • Raid Alabd:

    Nobody care about us, nobody. Nobody care about us. We are waiting how to die. Sorry to tell you about, but this is the truth.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    Raid Alabd is the unofficial leader of the Arabic-speaking refugees in Moria.

    It was originally intended as a transit camp for 3,000 people, when the refugee crisis began in 2015. But the influx has never stopped, and the population, in tents and hovels, sprawling beyond the reservoir is about 20,000.

    The whole of Greece is on lockdown. And the authorities are making sure the people of Moria stay within what critics label an open prison.

    Raid lives outside the official camp. There is no running water for essential self-protection, as he told me via WhatsApp.

  • Raid Alabd:

    I should walk from this area around 500 meters to go to the bath and bring empty bottles, fill it with water, and bring it again from there to here. Stopping in the line may be one hour.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    In February, we went inside Moria, where Afghans eke out a living making flatbread, and met 13-year-old Mahtab Moradi. He was scared about violence in the camp.

  • Mahtab Moradi:

    We need peace.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    Now she told me, via WhatsApp, a different type of tension is rising.

  • Mahtab Moradi:

    The people are scared, because, when the coronavirus come here, nobody can save their life.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    Lesbos has just registered its first virus-related death, an elderly Greek woman who was apparently infected by her daughter, a health worker.

    As a result, two medical centers have been closed. So far, COVID-19 has not reached Moria, but volunteer doctors their fear it's just a matter of time.

  • Jamilah Sherally:

    God forbid that we actually have an outbreak in the camp, because that will be a real disaster. That would be a humanitarian crisis on another level. We are really, I think, sitting on a time bomb.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    Dr. Jamilah Sherally works inside Moria with the Boat Refugee Foundation, a Dutch nonprofit.

  • Jamilah Sherally:

    On the ground, we're doing all we can. But I am convinced that this is — despite our best efforts, I think this is a war that we are going to lose if COVID-19 actually breaks out in Moria.

  • Bill Frelick:

    If you were trying to create a human petri dish for virus and bacteria, Moria would be a good choice.

    I'm here at this camp.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    Bill Frelick of Human Rights Watch was in Lesbos earlier this month, monitoring conditions aboard a Greek navy ship where several hundred people from Moria were placed before being transported to a camp on the mainland.

    Frelick has a proposition for the Greek authorities.

  • Bill Frelick:

    The main thing really is to decongest the camp. And one suggestion that I would have is, you have a tourist industry in Greece that is suffering because you have empty hotels throughout the country. As an emergency measure, put some of these people in to those places.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    Today in Lesbos, municipal workers have been disinfecting streets, as trepidation grows amongst the 86,000 Greeks on the island.

    Local councillor Despina Gabriel doesn't believe the hotels should open.

  • Despina Gabriel:

    We have actually closed our hotels. We are not allowing anybody in the island or off the island.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    We met Despina Gabriel in February, when she and others barricaded access roads to the site of a new refugee camp to stop building work. She believes the government's current lockdown is protecting all 100,000 on the island, Greeks and refugees alike.

  • Despina Gabriel:

    As far as Moria, as long as they stay in their campsite, they are OK. They are not having any interaction on the street. They are not having interaction with us. We are not having interaction with them.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    But Dr. Jamilah Sherally made this appeal to the European Union:

  • Jamilah Sherally:

    I think the only possible way in which an outbreak wouldn't lead to a humanitarian disaster is if we get an evacuation of the people from Moria and a relocation of the refugees in other E.U. states.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    But most of Europe is locked down. And it has ignored the plight of Lesbos for years.

    So, Moria's residents have to hope that the fortitude that enabled them to escape conflict and other troubles will continue throughout the coronavirus crisis.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Malcolm Brabant.

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