Greece: Move Asylum Seekers, Migrants to Safety Immediate Hotspot Decongestion Needed to Address COVID-19

Refugees and migrants move away from the camp of Moria in the island of Lesbos after a fire broke out, on March 16, 2020. (Photo by Manolis Lagoutaris / AFP) (Photo by MANOLIS LAGOUTARIS/AFP via Getty Images)

(Athens, March 24, 2020) – Greece’s government should immediately reduce congestion in the islands’ Reception and Identification Centers (RICs) for asylum seekers and migrants to avert a public health crisis amid the coronavirus pandemic, 21 human rights and humanitarian organizations said today.

Thousands of people, including older people, those with chronic diseases, children – including very young and unaccompanied children –, pregnant women, new mothers, and people with disabilities, are trapped in dangerously overcrowded, deplorable conditions on the islands amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Forcing asylum seekers to remain in conditions that violate their rights and are harmful to their well-being, health, and dignity cannot be justified on grounds of public health, the organizations said.

International human rights law requires that the health needs of asylum seekers and migrants be addressed and, in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, any restrictions on rights for reasons of public health or national emergency be lawful, necessary, and proportionate as well as nondiscriminatory.

On March 17, 2020, Greece’s government announced measures to prevent a coronavirus outbreak in RICs on the islands, the so-called “hotspots,” that essentially put the camps on lockdown, trapping thousands of asylum seekers and migrants. The measures include suspending all special activities and facilities in the camps, including non-formal schools, while no visitors, including members of aid organizations and agencies providing essential services, will be allowed into the RICs for at least two weeks, the Migration and Asylum Ministry said. Camp residents will be prevented through strict controls from venturing outside the facilities, even to get supplies, but also from circulating within them without good reason.

On March 22, Greece’s prime minister announced a nationwide lockdown banning “all unnecessary movement by citizens.”

As of March 22, the population of the hotspots on Lesbos, Chios, Samos, Kos, and Leros was almost 31,400 over capacity, with 37,427 people in facilities with a total capacity of just 6,095. Conditions in the centers cannot be characterized as suitable for dignified, humane living, the groups said. Extremely limited access to running water, toilets, and showers, as well as hours-long lines for food distribution and insufficient medical and nursing personnel, make it impossible to abide by the guidelines for protection from the coronavirus, putting people at significantly heightened risk in the face of the growing threat of widespread COVID-19 transmission.

Greece’s government should adopt measures to prevent an outbreak and prepare a response plan to be enacted immediately once the first case of COVID-19 in a reception center is detected. In the event of an outbreak, a quarantine that would trap tens of thousands of healthy people together with people infected by COVID-19 in the overcrowded camps, accompanied by a lack of adequate and appropriate medical preparedness and response, would almost certainly lead to preventable deaths of numerous people, the organizations said.

Greece’s government should take the measures outlined below, which will reduce the risk of COVID-19 infections among the population living in these centers and generally help protect public health:

  • Move people out of the reception centers to appropriate, small-scale centers on the mainland, such as hotels and apartments, taking necessary precautions for safe transport. This will enable the government to carry out the guidelines against the spread of the coronavirus. Priority should be given to older people, people with chronic diseases and serious underlying medical conditions, people with disabilities, pregnant women, new mothers and their children, and children, including those who are unaccompanied. Accommodation for people with disabilities should be reasonably adapted as needed, taking individual needs into account. Suitable shelters for unaccompanied children should be established immediately.
  • Adopt special measures to guarantee universal and unhampered free access to healthcare in the public system for asylum seekers, refugees, and migrants alike without discrimination, including testing and treatment for COVID-19. These groups should also have access to any preventive measures put in place in Greece in response to COVID-19, as do people in the rest of Greece. Asylum seekers should receive without delay their Provisional Insurance and Health Care Number (PAAYPA), as mandated by Common Ministerial Decision 717.2020.
  • Supply the reception centers with adequate sanitary and hygiene products and ensure continuous running water so that residents can follow the guidelines of the National Public Health Organization and the World Health Organization (WHO) regarding protection from COVID-19. Ensure frequent disinfection of common areas, bathrooms, and toilets, as well as timely collection and removal of waste.
  • Provide information to all residents of the reception centers about (a) how to prevent COVID-19 and (b) what to do and how to get help if they experience symptoms of COVID-19 in a wide range of languages, including ones that are less frequently used. People with disabilities should be provided with information in accessible formats, such as sign language, captioning, text, and easy-to-read messages. Ensure necessary responsive measures are available such as self-isolation and quarantine areas, and medical personnel with adequate training and protective gear.
  • Urgently address the situation and special needs of people living in the informal settlements adjacent to the camps, as these groups may face additional challenges due to inadequate access to water and sanitation, hygiene products, and garbage collection.
  • Ensure, until the reception centers are decongested, that they have adequate numbers of medical and nursing personnel, as well as mental health support services. Where possible, these services could be provided remotely.

The following quotes may be attributed to members of the groups involved:

“Restricting thousands of women, men, and children in severely overcrowded camps, where living conditions are unacceptable, makes it impossible to isolate people exposed to COVID-19 or to comply with minimum preventive and protective measures, even hand washing and social-distancing,” said Eva Cossé, Greece researcher at Human Rights Watch. “The Greek government urgently needs to move people to mainland Greece.”

“The government must take the necessary steps in order to ensure that the thousands of asylum seekers and migrants living in claustrophobically congested RICs are protected,” said Vassilis Kerasiotis, HIAS Greece country director. “They should be relocated to otherwise empty hotels and apartments where they can practice social distancing. In these hard times, no one should be left behind. It is not only a moral but also a prudent thing to do, since the fates of asylum seekers as well as those of the locals are inevitably bound together in the face of the pandemic.”

“Asylum seekers and migrants residing in RICs should have equal access to protection and medical assistance as the rest of the Greek population, ” said Dimitra Kalogeropoulou, head of IRC Greece. “The most effective way to curb the spread of COVID-19 is by ensuring that everyone can take meaningful measures to protect themselves, including adequate access to sanitation, space, and healthcare. ”

“Given current conditions in the hotspots, containing any outbreak would be impossible and could potentially put thousands of lives in danger,” said Antigone Lyberaki, general manager at SolidarityNow. “There is a window of opportunity to address this issue while the situation is still manageable, but we fear this window may be closing fast.”“When the virus hits overcrowded camps in Greece, the consequences will be devastating,” said Fotini Kokkinaki with HumanRights360. “That will be a nightmare within an existing nightmare since the public health system has collapsed during the previous years of economic depression. We must act now before it is too late.”

For more information, please contact:
In Athens, for Human Rights Watch, Eva Cossé (Greek, French, English): +30-693-47-90-865; +1-718-406-3160 (mobile); or Twitter: @Eva_Cosse
In Athens, for HIAS Greece, Levani Talakhadze (Greek, English): +30 699-43-20-730; or
In Athens, for Action Aid Hellas, Sissy Gkournelou (Greek, English, Spanish): +30 -693-71-61-028; or 
In Athens, for Amnesty International – Greek section, Eirini Gaitanou (Greek, English): +30-697-23-91-300; or
In Athens, for Defence for Children International Greece, Nantina Tsekeri (Greek, English): +30 211-4136664; +30-690 470 8385 (mobile); or
In Athens, for the Greek Forum of Refugees, George Stefanopoulos (Greek, English, Spanish): +30-693-43-00-253; or
In Athens, for Help Refugees / Choose Love, Nick van der Steenhoven (English, Dutch): +30-694-42-77-748; or Twitter/Instagram: @chooselove
In Athens, for HumanRights360, Fotini Kokkinaki (Greek, English, Spanish): +30 6970280150; or Twitter: f_kokkinaki
In Athens, for the International Rescue Committee, Dimitra Kalogeropoulou (Greek, English) through Nancy Dent (English): +44 7946139182; or
In Athens, for JRS Greece, Anastasia Michalatou (Greek, English): +30 2108237835(office landline); +30 6979427550 (mobile); or
In Athens, for Legal Centre Lesvos, Natasha Dailiani (Greek, English, German): +30-694-42-51-704; or
In Athens, for MdM-Greece, Elli Xenou (Greek, English): +30-6946-142103 (mobile); or 
In Athens, for Network for Children’s Rights, Nikolopoulos Pelopidas (Greek, English): +30-2108846590; or
In Athens, for Praksis, Chrysoula Patsou (Greek, English): +30-694-771-9678; or
In Athens, for Refugee Legal Support, Lucy Alper (English): +30-694-066-2583; or Twitter: @RLSAthens
In London, for Refugee Rights Europe, Marta Welander (English, French): +447880230979; or Twitter: @Refugee_RE
In Chios, for Refugee Support Aegean, Natassa Strachini,(Greek, English): +30-693-67-68-175 (mobile); or
In Athens, for Solidarity Now, Valia Savvidou (Greek and English): +30 6970 417260 (mobile); or
In Athens, for Terre des hommes Hellas, Melina Spathari (Greek, English, Spanish, French): +30 6972070223 (mobile); or Twitter: @tdh_greece

Organizations signing the news release:
Action Aid Hellas
Amnesty International
ARSIS – Association for the Social Support of Youth
Defence for Children International Greece

Greek Forum of Refugees
Help Refugees / Choose Love
HIAS Greece
Human Rights Watch
International Rescue Committee
Jesuit Refugee Service Greece (JRS Greece)
Legal Centre Lesvos
Médecins du Monde – Greece (MdM-Greece)
Network for Children’s Rights
Refugee Legal Support
Refugee Rights Europe
Refugee Support Aegean
Solidarity Now
Terre des hommes Hellas

Download the announcement from here.

Urgent appeal for the evacuation of the Greek refugee camps

President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen 
President of the European Parliament, David Sassoli 
President of the European Council, Charles Michel 
Prime Minister of the Hellenic Republic, Kyriakos Mitsotakis 

We urge the immediate evacuation of the refugee camps and hotspots on the Greek islands to avert a catastrophe amidst the coronavirus pandemic.

More than 42,000 people are trapped on the islands in hopelessly overcrowded camps and in horrific conditions. Recommended measures like social distancing or frequent hand washing are simply impossible. There is no hope of containing any outbreak within the camps. It would endanger the elderly and those with underlying health conditions, both refugees and the local population.

Time is of the essence. We urge emergency action to guarantee the health and safety of the asylum seekers, the local population and the humanitarian aid workers on the islands. The European Commission, the European Council and the European Parliament  must make every effort to urge member states to fulfil their responsibilities and accept asylum seekers from Greece.

“Children remain invisible” Joint open letter



Athens, 16 March 2020

The humanitarian, child protection and human rights organizations co-signing this letter have been actively involved in the refugee field for many years. In view of recent developments at the country’s borders, in particular those concerning people who have been in Greece since March 1st, first residing in a military naval ship at the port of Mytilene and then being transferred to the mainland, we would like to express our deep concern regarding the fact that among the newcomers, there are families with children, and (according to all indications) unaccompanied minors for whom we have no information. In addition, we express concern for those children living alone, without any protection, and in conditions of unacceptable negligence in Skala Sikamias (Lesbos), whose fate is also neglected. Therefore:

“Protect our laws and humanity!” Open Letter by 85 Organizations


Prime Minister of the Hellenic Republic, Kyriakos Mitsotakis
President of the European Parliament, David Sassoli
President of the European Council, Charles Michel
President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen

Athens, 6 March 2020 – The undersigned organisations are deeply concerned about recent developments at the Evros border and the Aegean islands where people are stranded at the borders of Europe, instrumentalized for political purposes, and subject to violations of their rights. We are also deeply concerned about the way the authorities of Greece and the European Union are handling new arrivals. Equally alarming are the extreme actions by security forces against refugees and by civilians against staff of human rights and humanitarian organizations. We would also like to point out that the climate of panic and rhetoric of ‘asymmetric threat’ –also promoted by the authorities– does not reflect reality and seriously affects not only vulnerable refugees- but also our society and the rule of law as a whole.


We firmly express our opposition to the recent decisions of the Greek Governmental Council on Foreign Affairs and Defense (KYSEA), and in particular the adoption of the Emergency Legislative Decree, which stipulates the suspension of the right to seek asylum for all people entering the country and their return without registration, to their countries of origin or transit. Applying such a regulatory provision is inhumane and illegal as it violates the fundamental principle of non-refoulement, incurs international responsibilities for Greece and endangers human lives. It is beyond dispute that Greece has the sovereign competence to control its borders and to manage any crossings there. Nevertheless, the right to seek asylum is a fundamental human right enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights.

Press Release: Workshop for victims of torture

Thessaloniki, 26th of February 2020

<<Support for victims of torture in motion: experience, challenges and concerns>> is the title of the workshop that is organized by ARSIS – Association for the Social Support of Youth.

The workshop concerns refugees, immigrants and asylum seekers, who have fallen victims of torture due to war and civil conflict, political persecution, religious beliefs, national origin, gender and sexual orientation.

The tasks of the workshop will happen on the 28th of February, Friday, from 9 in the morning until 4 in the afternoon, in the hall <<Manolis Anagnostakis>> at the city hall, with the support of the deputy mayor of social policy of the municipality of Thessaloniki.