Covid-19 and discriminatory practices against refugees on Lesvos, Greece

This post by the Department’s newest member, Evgenia Iliadou, is reproduced with permission from Covid19Chronicles.

Since the outbreak of COVID 19 there has been increased criticism of various discriminatory quarantine policies and practices which have been enforced upon refugee populations living in camps in inhumane, appalling and degrading conditions. These COVID 19-related quarantine practices at borders are often presented as something new, responding to a particular crisis. However, discriminatory treatment of refugee populations on the grounds of the protection of public health is not at all new.

Historically, quarantines have been an integral part of the control and surveillance of borders, used to manage, screen, sort and exclude people who are deemed unwanted. They are inextricably part of the violence of border practices, the forceful limitation of human mobility by states. A famous example is Ellis Island in the USA. Between 1890 and 1954, the island operated as an immigration and health inspection site. Migrants with contagious diseases were systematically banned as a threat to public health.

There are historical ironies here from a Greek perspective. The Greek state today forces very similar discriminatory health inspections and quarantine on refugees. But between 1892 and 1924, when more than half a million Greek people went through Ellis Island inspection processes, many of these migrants seeking a better life were banned from the USA on health grounds. No less ironic is the fact that today many Greeks treat migrants with racist hostility, while a century ago, Greek migrants frequently faced racism from Americans with slurs such as “greaseballs” and “dirty Greeks”.

Status of Asia Minor Mother with Lifejackets
Iconic Statue of Asia Minor Mother in the Port of Mytilene, Lesvos. She is draped with lifejackets and represents a potent symbol of refugee mothers and children, past and present, who have arrived on the island’s shore.
(Photograph courtesy of Knut Bry and Communities of Solidarity).

Today, Lesvos Island is a good example of quarantine as a discriminatory practice at the borders of Europe. I worked for several years as a sociologist in detention centres and other sites of confinement on Lesvos and the Greek mainland. Between 2008 and 2010, I worked in Pagani closed detention centre on Lesvos for forcibly displaced people arriving through Turkey. At that time Pagani was the only detention centre operating for the purposes of containment and expulsion, and most of the refugees were detained there on arrival.

One of the first things refugees were submitted to was a mandatory health inspection at the local hospital, which included blood tests and X-rays aiming to detect any contagious diseases, such as tuberculosis or infectious skin diseases. These inspections were conducted without informed consent and the people were not informed why they were subjected to them, nor of the results – whether and what kind of a disease they had. Frequently they had no access to their medical files, and their right to medical confidentiality was systematically violated by the staff.

I vividly remember a big whiteboard inside the registration office, which was used by state officials, the guards and other staff. This whiteboard was regularly updated and indicated who was sick in the rooms (adapted containers) with what disease. This was allegedly for staff protection, but the way people were represented was dehumanizing, stigmatizing, racist and discriminatory:

I was often told by state officials and medical staff that I should always wear a surgical mask and gloves because, as they used to say: “Illegal migrants carry contagious diseases”. Although there was physical distancing between refugees (who were locked up in cells) and me (I was mainly outside the cells), the fear of contagious diseases were so intense that state officials threatened to deny me access into Pagani unless I wore a mask. I was often not allowed to enter the registration office, as the guards would tell me: “You are filthy” or “You are carrying illegal migrants’ microbes and you will infect us”.

For detainees with tuberculosis symptoms, severe quarantine practices were enforced. But due to the lack of adequate medical facilities inside Pagani, refugees with tuberculosis symptoms were not quarantined alone but in ‘rooms’ packed with up to 300 people, with no sanitary facilities and no physical distancing. The quarantine of a whole room could last for weeks. Therefore, these quarantine border practices did not really protect public health: on the contrary, they endangered it, while simultaneously violating refugees’ rights.

“Hell on earth” as refugees call it or Moria Refugee Camp, Mytilene, Lesvos
“Hell on earth” as refugees call it or Moria Refugee Camp, Mytilene, Lesvos
(Photograph courtesy of Knut Bry).

Conditions on Lesvos have worsened recently. COVID 19 has been used to justify the increased militarization of borders and the increased use of unlawful practices of push-backs and expulsions. Refugees who do reach Lesvos are being abandoned in sites with no appropriate medical care and treatment, no physical distancing and other hygienic measures. Underlining the discrimination and racism involved in these practices, since March 2020, the Greek state has extended the lockdown restrictions for refugee populations living in Moria and Kara Tepe camps no less than seven times up until 31 August. Meanwhile, for Greek citizens and tourists from European Union countries, COVID-related restrictions have been lifted.

However, since writing this blog at the end of August, with deep sadness, I have had to report on further tragic events. On 8 September fires took place by destroying large sectors of the Moria hotspot and living refugees homeless. The discrimination and racism towards refugees continued since the authorities did not allow (and continue to do so) refugees to move from Moria to Mytilene due to concerns about the spread of COVID.

These discriminatory quarantine border practices, which have been intensified in the name of COVID, should be seen as part of a continuum of violence across time and space around racialised borders, targeting the poorest, most powerless subjects of human mobility.

Evgenia Iliadou obtained her PhD in Social Policy and Criminology at The Open University in 2019. Her PhD research focused on the 2015 refugee crisis and border violence. Her main fieldwork site was the Greek Island of Lesvos where she investigated refugees’ lived experiences of social suffering, border harms and violence. More broadly, her research analyses the historical development of “crises” around refugee movements. She tracks continuities in the politics of border violence across time and place. Her work delves into the human suffering caused by and the consequences of EU border regimes on the lives of refugees. She is currently a Research fellow at the University of Surrey on the Horizon 2020 project PROTECT- The Right to International Protection: A Pendulum between Globalization and Nativization?