In Samos, the threat of COVID has revealed an unstable reliance on NGO’s.

Overcrowded and under-supported

On the Aagean island of Samos, the refugee camp built in 2016 to house 640 now has over 8,000 residents. Despite the feeling of standstill for much of the world since March, the circumstances causing the refugee crisis have not halted under the pandemic, meaning there is still a steady influx of new arrivals to the island. The overpopulation flows into the jungle surrounding the official camp, where there is no access to shelter or running water. There are also insufficient food supplies to feed the ever-growing population, with people having to queue for hours for meals, toilets and other essential facilities, crammed together in long lines.

To add to an already critical situation, the threat of a COVID outbreak looms over the camp. With conditions so overcrowded, social distancing measures are simply not possible. If the virus takes hold, the fatality rate will be extremely high. On top of this, the lockdown has resulted in NGOs being forced to scale down their operations on Samos due to staff and volunteers being evacuated back to their home countries. This has left the camp severely under-supported at a time when it is most in need,  highlighting the level of reliance that exists for NGO’s to uphold at least a minimal level of infrastructure for the residents.

"The world is not stopping because of Corona and the awful situation in this camp is not stopping."

– Chloé Mandelbaum, NGO worker in Samos.

Unprepared for the spread of COVID

In April, Human Rights Watch criticised the Greek authorities for their inadequate response to protecting camp residents from the spread of COVID. Greece, like most countries, enforced a strict lockdown from March to prevent the spread of the virus, with measures also put in place in the camps. These measures include limits on leaving the camp, except for buying necessities, suspending schooling and other activities and prohibiting visitors. However, in the face of the vast overcrowding, these restrictions seem futile. Chloe Mandelbaum, an NGO worker on Samos comments “there is no way to avoid the crowd, or to respect social distancing in the camp. And what about washing your hands if you don’t have soap, and there is no water because there is not enough for everyone?”. In many instances, the restrictions have in fact been exacerbating the situation. For example, people are waiting for hours in congested lines to get permission from the police to leave the camp.

In terms of the shielding the vulnerable, there has been no official measures put in place or advice given on how social distancing could work in practice. Many refugees suffer from conditions that place them in the high-risk category, for example, respiratory tract infections caused by the fumes of fires built to keep warm. The general unsanitary conditions within the camps also pose a great risk to the spread of the virus. Ylva Johansson, the European Commissioner for home affairs has stated that the conditions in the Greek camps are ‘unacceptable already’ and Members of the European Parliament have described the situation as a ‘humanitarian crisis’. Under these circumstances, many believe it is only a matter of time before the virus hits, and when it does, experts warn of disaster.

The Aagean island of Samos.

Revealing an unstable reliance on NGOs

On Samos, the pandemic has forced NGOs to reduce their operations and many closures have occurred, leaving residents to effectively fend for themselves.  Only Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF), Med’Equali Team and Movement on the Ground have remained open, operating with reduced staff. Chloe Mandelbaum reports that UNHRC usually runs an information point at the entrance to the camp, staffed by volunteers, to meet new arrivals from the boats. This is a vital service to ensure people are directed appropriately to collection points for tents, sleeping bags and other necessities. Now, refugees arrive on the beaches with no one to meet or help them. This situation is even more concerning for lone children and other vulnerable groups.

The sudden decline in NGO support has exposed the danger of an over-reliance on NGOs to maintain the day-to-day operations of the camp on Samos, and others like it across Europe. With much of the NGO workforce made up of volunteers, and their capacity funded by donations, a situation like COVID brings to the surface just how unstable this set-up is. Even with lockdown restrictions across Europe now easing, the continued fallout of the pandemic will mean the situation in the camps will not be easily or quickly resolved. With millions out of work and many industries now in decline, the world is braced for an economic recession. A recession, the beginnings of which are already being felt, will undoubtedly result in a sharp decline in donations to NGOs, as well as dramatically impact the ability of people to volunteer. The situation highlights more than ever the need for organised government support to the camps, both from the countries who house them and from the EU as a whole. In April, Portugal, Germany, Ireland, Finland, Luxemburg, France and Switzerland agreed to accept 1,600 children from the camps in Greece to be resettled. However, without further European countries stepping to grant asylum to refugees, the situation in camps like Samos will continue to deteriorate.

Abandoned boats and life jackets.

The future for Samos

Despite quarantine measures now being eased in the rest of Greece, the government has announced that the camps will be subjected to a further 2 weeks of quarantine from June 22nd- July 5th. This decision has sparked outrage and criticism from many against the Greek authorities for the treatment of migrants in the camps. Migrants are now facing yet more weeks of lockdown in overcrowded and unsanitary conditions, whilst other parts of the country are preparing to welcome tourists. So far, there have been no recorded deaths in the camps and only a few infections, making the extended quarantine seem even more unjust.

On Samos, one positive that is starting to emerge is the resilience that is being built within the camp to lessen the reliance on NGOs. Chloe Mandelbaum explains that MSF have initiated a system of engaging refugees who have studied medicine to operate as volunteers with the Med’Equali team. Building this type of infrastructure is progress in the right direction, but the real issue of the migrant crisis continues. One hope for the future is that the pandemic has instigated the beginnings of a shift in people’s attitudes towards refugees, with a greater awareness of the inhumanity of forcing people to be confined into overcrowded camps. With the economy slowed, the environment being given a moment of respite and communities volunteering time for one another, perhaps this period of reflection will facilitate a more empathetic approach to our treatment refugees. For them, COVID is just one threat amongst many.

Inside the camp, Samos.