Refugees in protective masks wait for a bus to take them to Port Mytilene.
The Covid-19 pandemic, among other issues, has allowed for a rise in anti-refugee sentiments in Greece. From the top-down, the country has blamed refugees and the refugee crisis for its spike in Covid-19 cases and a slew of other loosely related problems. However, Greece’s refugee predicament comes after years of negligence following the European Union’s earnest requests for the country to take a commanding role. The country’s current refugee crisis, then, is in large part of its own doing.
While the media hype surrounding Europe’s broadening refugee crisis seems to have faded from the public eye in the past years, Greece’s immigrant and refugee situation remains dire. In 2015, over 1 million people entered through Greece, and in 2019 a reported 190,900 new “people of concern” entered European nations, according to the UN Refugee Agency. Greece is an inevitable participant in this influx of refugees to Europe as the main entry point to the European Union for refugees from Northern Africa and the Middle East seeking asylum.
Following the Greek suspension of immigrants arriving from Turkey, however, the number of refugees permitted entry to European nations through Greece drastically declined in 2020. The flow of Turkish immigrants into Greece first peaked in 2014, when a mass number of Turkish immigrants flooded into European countries and communities—bringing with them an infiltration of Turkish politics, language, and way of life. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan strongly discouraged Turks from identifying with their new communities and homes, suggesting that immigrants “integrate but not assimilate.” Such attitudes have pushed some Greeks, especially those on the far right, to resent Turkish immigrants and the cultural baggage they bring. Among some Greeks, such sentiments fueled an overall disinterest in offering asylum.
Nonetheless, Greek disregard for the lives of those seeking asylum was overlooked as Covid-19, and related media consumed public reporting beginning in February 2020. Greece’s initial response to the virus was vigilant—in April 2020, by the end of Europe’s first wave of infections, Greece had managed to keep its infection rates some of the lowest in Europe. From February to June, Greece’s new daily cases remained under 100. However, as the pandemic’s presence became normalized in the international community, reports of Greek authorities using force, threats, and violence to discourage refugees from entering its camps surfaced. The country’s refugee crisis and controversial refugee mismanagement yet again reared their ugly head.
From one standpoint, it is understandable for authorities to discourage refugees from entering the country during an international pandemic. Refugees often make their way into countries through boats, caravans, and other close-contact methods of transportation. Not only do refugees enter countries in non “Covid-19 friendly” ways, but upon arrival, they are often sent to live in close-quartered, ill-managed, and often unsanitary refugee camps—the perfect breeding ground for an already rapidly spreading disease, such as Covid-19.
Furthermore, the Greek government, as discussed in the first part of the Regional Focus series, has struggled for over 30 years to maintain its finances and control a mounting national debt. The Greek economy has shrunk by 25% since the 1980s, the beginning of its national debt crisis, and has yet to show signs of sustainable growth. An influx of immigrants, especially amidst a health crisis, would be unfavorable to any country, let alone one in an economic crisis; as such, Greek authorities’ responses are understandable.
Though the European Union has long advocated for a decongestion of the Aegean Islands, where Greece houses the majority of its refugees, the islands—which were built to accommodate a maximum of 6,000 residents—held over 37,000 people in March of 2020. In April 2020, Europe’s largest refugee camp on the Greek island of Lesvos became one of the most population-dense refugee camps worldwide, holding 203,800 people per square kilometer. In March of 2020, the EU pledged to decongest Greek asylum camps, and 11 countries, including Germany and Portugal, agreed to house teenagers from the camps and allowed them to relocate within their nation. The relocation services, which proceeded smoothly at its inception, faced mounting difficulties as the pandemic progressed.
Yet, the impact of Covid-19 on the plan was not entirely negative. The pandemic encouraged the European Commission to move with increased commitment and speed in the relocation of an even larger number of refugee children as the overcrowding of camps became an even greater threat to public health and safety. By August 2020, hundreds of children had been transferred from Greek holding camps to cities throughout Europe.
However, in August, a second—and more detrimental—wave of Covid-19 hit Greece and its refugee camps and prompted strict lockdowns and restrictions. Such restrictions were not communicated clearly to the refugees living in the camps, causing confusion and unrest. Furthermore, while little evidence suggests that refugee camps feature higher infection rates than permanent communities within Greece, the Greek government has linked the rise in the nation’s cases to the arrival of immigrants. Such association with the disease has further amplified anti-refugee sentiments within the country.
As such, Greece’s handling of Covid-19 was a major detriment to refugees seeking asylum in the European nation. Mismanagement of Greek economic and refugee affairs has long plagued the country; an already devastating pandemic became even more devastating to those seeking freedom, safety, and new lives in Europe.