A man wearing a protective suit to protect against coronavirus leaves a migrant facility at Malakasa village, north of Athens, April 5, 2020.
A man wearing a protective suit to protect against coronavirus leaves a migrant facility at Malakasa village, north of Athens, April 5, 2020.

ATHENS - Even though Greece is slowly but steadily lifting strict COVID-19 restrictions across the country, it is keeping more than 120,000 asylum seekers in lockdown, crammed in overcrowded camps to contain the spread the coronavirus. 

The virus has killed 190 people in this relatively infection-free country.

In a terse weekend statement, Greece's Migration and Asylum Ministry said confinement for those in the country’s migrant holding centers would be extended through July 5, the second such extension decreed by authorities since they were first imposed in March.

No explanation for the extension was provided by the ministry in the single-sentence announcement it issued late Saturday.

The announcement’s timing, hours after 2,000 people rallied in Athens streets for World Refugee Day, demanding an end to the confinement of asylum seekers and improvement in migrants’ abysmal living conditions, was controversial.

Migrants living in Greece chant slogans during a rally in Athens, June 20, 2020. Hundreds of protesters marched against the possible discontinuation of a migrants' housing program which will leave thousands without a place to stay.

"While restrictions on freedom of movement to protect public health can be necessary and justified," said Eva Cosse, of the Human Rights Watch in Athens, "they must be based on scientific evidence, neither arbitrary nor discriminatory in their application... respectful of human dignity and subject to review."

"The camp lockdowns do not meet these criteria," Cosse said. "And yet ... these discriminatory lockdowns continue."

A total of 121,000 migrants have been stranded here since a number of Balkan countries sealed their borders in 2015 to stop refugees after more than a million poured in from Turkey, the biggest mass migration since World War II.

While entries have dramatically dropped since then -- none have been recorded since June 8, according to the U.N. refugee agency --  COVID-related containment measures have aggravated already appalling refugee living conditions. As of June 9, a total of 31,203 refugees and migrants were living in five camps on five islands in the Aegean, with a total capacity of 6,095, according to government statistics.

Migrants stand outside container houses in Moria refugee camp on the northeastern Aegean island of Lesbos, Greece, March 16, 2020.

"Even with financial support from the European Commission, Greek authorities have done little to protect camp residents from COVID-19 or mitigate the risk of infection in the facilities," Cosse said.

"They haven't addressed the overcrowding that makes social distancing impossible, the lack of health care, or lack of access to adequate water, sanitation and hygiene products," she said.

Rights groups and the United Nations have expressed concern that the health restrictions were eroding the rights of migrants.

"The Greek government should stop using COVID-19 as an excuse to force people to live in segregated, overcrowded and unsanitary conditions. They should be lifted immediately," Cosse said.

The allegations come amid a startling rise in violent attacks in Moria, the country's most dreaded refugee camp, on the island of Lesbos, where the facility's population of 17,000  -- nearly seven times its capacity of about 2,500 -- live in what aid officials describe as a tense and lawless environment with no security or means of escape.

Since the start of the pandemic, five people have been killed and 15 have been wounded in vicious stabbings in the camp, according to Lesbos media and medical officials.

Government officials were not available for confirmation.

Prior to the pandemic, medical officials say, most violence included beatings and minor stabbing. Since the lockdown, though, many cases have turned into brutal chest stabbings -- attacks that resemble what they call "prison or gang-style violence."

In other shows of rising brutality, one victim was raped with a bottle, and the fingers of a young man were cut off.

Unlike the previous leftist government that greeted migrants with open arms, Greece's new, conservative administration has made no secret of its bid to block migrants.

Migrants from the Moria camp wait to board busses to the port from where they will be transferred to the mainland as a precaution against the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak, on the island of Lesbos, Greece, May 3, 2020.

Earlier this year, and after a sudden surge immigrants, leading government officials sanctioned higher security measures along the country's sea and land borders with Turkey against what they called “an enemy invasion."

In a separate message issued in light of Saturday's World Refugee Day, the country's migration ministry said Greece remained at the center of Europe's lingering refugee crisis, "bearing a disproportionate burden."

"The country is safeguarding the rights of those who are really persecuted and operates as a shield of solidarity in the eastern Mediterranean," it added.

This year, 10,095 migrants and refugees have reached Greece, using rickety, rubber rafts to cross the Aegean Sea, mainly from Turkey.

International aid organizations have criticized Greece for conducting illegal migrant pushbacks -- a practice is has consistently denied, blaming Turkey, instead, for allegedly escorting illegal migrants to Greek waters despite a 2016 deal with Europe to help stem the tide of illegal migration in exchange for billions of dollars in urgent aid."

 

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