In this blog post, Dr. Theofanis Exadaktylos from the University of Surrey, UK, and Professor Francesca Longo from the University of Catania, Italy address the situation for refugees, migrants, and asylum seekers in Greece and Italy.

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Travel restrictions are not stopping the flow of refugees to Greece 

By Theofanis Exadaktylos, University of Surrey

Despite original fears focusing on the island camps, the main outbreak spot among refugee camps is now Ritsona, near Athens. More than 20 cases of COVID-19 have been confirmed and the Greek government is setting the camp under quarantine, extending testing to all residents of the camp. According to recent medical reports, there are currently eight confirmed cases of COVID-19 and one death on the Greek island Lesvos (Note, these numbers were last updated 7 April 2020). The refugee camps on the island, especially the one in Moria, are already in a bad state with limited sanitary facilities and low accommodation standards. As the island is already quite stretched out in terms of the medical facilities available and the medical personnel, a further outbreak is likely to bring down any capacity of the island to cope.  

The local and international NGOs have requested formally assistance by the Greek and European authorities. However, given the state of play of the Greek national health system, the geographical fragmentation of the country because of the islands and the fiscal stability of public finances, most resources are already channelled to the reporting hospitals on the mainland. Currently, there are also repatriation operations for Greeks within the EU and already confirmed new cases are found among those who return. It was only on 7 April that the first relocation schemes began with Luxembourg to reconnect unaccompanied minors. Similar calls have been extended in Germany by the SPD demonstrating the need for an EU-wide approach to the issue. NGOs and the Greek government are also alerting for increase of cases of domestic abuse. To that end, the Greek government has also announced the hiring of about 150 new personnel to be assigned to camps. 

Also read: How is Corona affecting refugees, asylum seekers and migrants in South Africa and Canada?

In all camps in Greece, multilingual instructions are being broadcast on a daily basis. More specifically, the official guidance from the government to all refugee camp sites suggests: (a) there is a lead medical professional from the local health authority that deals with any potential cases; (b) if there is an active case, the lead arranges the transfer to the hospital; (c) the medical lead is issuing self-isolation orders to people who have travelled from areas with steady rates of cases and need to report to the clinic of the camp and avoid using external health services; (d) notification of test results comes centrally and cascaded to the local medical lead; (e) the medical lead is responsible to trace any contacts. The medical leads are also tasked with preparing the camps with personal protection equipment (masks, gloves) and training the medical staff to handle cases and trace contacts based on the guidelines of the central governments and the National Organisation of Public Health.  

The restrictions on movement currently imposed on the whole of the country are quite severe but the flow of new refugees has not stopped. The government has requested European support to accelerate the transfer of refugees to the mainland where, understandably, medical facilities are better equipped and, in this way, reduce the strain on the camps on the island and in the mainland.  

The real stress comes as arriving refugees are not permitted to enter the camp but they have been seen to find shelter on beaches on in derelict homes as the official guidelines are ones of quarantine for 14 days. This has increased xenophobic attitudes in the local population and has effectively left the refugees without practical support. It has also increased the number of incidents against refugees and the xenophobic rhetoric in the public sphere. Voices from the extreme right have even suggested prioritising Greeks over refugees in hospital which of course presents itself as an unethical dilemma from medical and humanitarian points of view.  

Theofanis Exadaktylos is Senior Lecturer in European politics at the University of Surrey in the UK. He has been researching the Greek financial crisis and the aftermath of austerity politics on Greece for many years alongside studying the implementation of public policy reforms in the country.  

Italy should follow Portugal and grant all migrants and asylum seekers full citizenship rights

By Professor Francesca Longo, University of Catania

Italy is currently in its third week of total lockdown. Borders’ closure and limitations to personal movements have been in effect since March 8 and will last until at least April 13. These exceptional circumstances strongly impact vulnerable and marginalized populations such as asylum seekers, refugees, and international protection seekers. A list of negative direct effects on these vulnerable people is to be considered.  

First and foremost, the reinforcement of xenophobic attitudes. At the outbreak of the COVID-19 emergency cases of hostility towards Asian people were reported in Italy and right-wing parties criticized the decision of the Italian Government to authorize two migrant rescue ships – Ocean Viking and Sea-Watch 3 – docked at ports in eastern Sicily, on 23 and 27 February respectively, pushing the notion that foreign migrants are some way involved in the spreading of the virus. This consolidates the Italian decision to approach the emergency with isolationism and border-closures, turning COVID-19 into an external threat. 

The outbreak of COVID-19 is also slowing the administrative procedures related to migrants and asylum seekers and this is the second effect of the emergency related to these vulnerable persons. Italy has actually suspended applications and renewals of residency permits for foreigners. Moreover, hearings and services for the recognition of the right to asylum or international protection were suspended until at least 25 March, with the possibility of further extensions. There is a risk that these persons are deprived of their rights to health and public service just because their application has not yet been processed. IMO, UNHCR and NGOs are asking governments to find a solution to allow these categories to have full access to the countries’ healthcare as the outbreak of the novel Corona virus evolves and therefore reduces the risks for public health. Italy should follow the Portuguese best practice and decide to temporarily grant all migrants and asylum seekers currently in the country full citizenship rights. 

Also read: How do pandemics and shut borders affect the lives of people on the move? Two Protect researchers share their insights

The third negative impact on migrants and asylum seekers is the lack of subsistence for those who are engaged in illegal work. Since almost all the economic activities are suspended in Italy, they have lost their work, and, at the same time, they are excluded from any form of public support. They risk being caught between the Scylla of lacking means for their subsistence and the Charybdis of being engaged in organized crime networks. At the moment, only NGOs are providing support to these people. Syndicates and NGOs are claiming for inserting this topic on the emergency agenda and they advise the Government to produce a special law permitting the regularization of illegal migrants to permit them to be included in public support systems.   

Last, but not the least, COVID-19 raises concern for the health condition of migrants and refugees hosted in the Reception and Identification Centres (CIE). Italy has actually five CIE located in Rome, Caltanissetta, Bari, Turin, Trapani. Before the reform of the reception system, approved in 2018 with the so-called “Salvini Decree”, Italy had 13 CEI. The actual five camps are overpopulated, and it is very difficult for hosts and personnel to respect social distancing, to stay apart, and to comply with the measures of personal hygiene required by the current situation. Even if the number of COVID-19 contagions in CIE has been low so far, their overcrowded and unsanitary environments represent a risk for the health of people living and working in these structures. At the moment, this topic is not on the Italian authorities’ agenda, except for a directive from the Ministry of Interior which decided the permanence in the Centres for those people who in this period would have lost the right to stay there. Nevertheless, not all asylum seekers stay in CIE. In 2018 the above mentioned “Salvini decree” reduced asylum-seekers’ rights by abolishing humanitarian protection residency permits — previously issued to asylum-seekers who do not qualify for refugee status but who cannot be sent home. The decree was, however, retroactively applied and it obliged humanitarian permit holders to leave from the CEI and they and are now effectively homeless. 

Francesca Longo is Professor of Political Science and International Relations at the University of Catania. She is Jean Monnet Professor of European Union Public Policies and Ph.D. doctor in International Relations. Her research interests are focused on the EU migration policy, EU policy against organized crime, and the security policy of the EU.