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Isolation Facilities for Refugees on Samos

‘Worse than in Syria’

Isolation Facilities for Refugees on Samos
Maher al-Khalaf with his son in the isolation facility in Vathy camp on Samos Photograph: Fareid Atta

Inhumane conditions and inadequate handling of the pandemic are rampant in isolation facilities for refugees on the Greek island of Samos, as camp residents recount.

On a small, Greek island, a few kilometres from Turkey, 2,000 refugees are currently squashed into a space only fit for 650. Most of them live in makeshift tents in what is colloquially referred to as the ‘jungle’, a forested area next to the official facility. The camp residents lack access to showers and sanitation as well as appropriate shelters to keep them warm.


The COVID-19 pandemic has only added to the woes of refugees and asylum seekers on the island. In the period between March to May 2021, hundreds of refugees, currently residing in the camp in Samos, Greece, have been marched off to complete a mandatory fourteen-day quarantine period in the Vathy Reception and Identification Centre (RIC), the official part of the refugee camp.


In the isolation facilities, clinically vulnerable, pregnant, and chronic patients with complicated health issues are thrown together in closely packed containers in one space. Those with chronic illnesses are ignored and repeat prescriptions for vital medication such as insulin and anti-psychotics have been denied, labelled by the camp authorities as “non-essential.”


For Alaa Suleyman, a woman with severe mental health problems caused by years bombs and shells raining down on her, this medicine is vital. According to her husband Mohammed, a 35-year old Kurdish man who spent two weeks in the Vathy RIC quarantine, the conditions in the camp are inadequate. “There are no showers or cleaning facilities available in the containers, no hot water for bathing or washing hands. Neither are the containers cleaned on a regular basis. There are holes in the floors, infestations of bed bugs, and the mattresses provided are filthy.”


“Under these circumstances, an isolation facility such as this is ineffective as a tool to protect public health”


Other camp residents who have been quarantined in these facilities told me that those with negative and positive test results are bundled all together in the same container. The absence of any discernible test and trace system to determine whether an individual has come into contact with anybody tested positive for the virus, begs the question: why are they being held there in the first place?


According to Greek law, the current isolation facilities are lawful on the basis of protecting public health. Through the period of March to May, Samos’ risk level was raised to “red” after prevalence of the virus on the island had crept up over a number of weeks. Dimitris Choulis, a local lawyer who works on behalf of many migrants in Samos told me: “The measure of isolation facilities in order to protect public health is lawful. What is not lawful or rational is the conditions with which these isolation facilities are upheld.”


“The conditions in these isolation facilities are unacceptable. There is no hand-washing available and is hard to see how COVID-19 can be contained given the lack of social distancing. Under these circumstances, an isolation facility such as this is ineffective as a tool to protect public health.”


“I had no idea they were giving me a C-section, I wanted a natural birth,” Farah al-Khalaf, a Kurdish woman in her late twenties recounts. The story of her two-week quarantine in the Vathy RIC is a potent example of the camp authorities’ failure both to treat refugees humanely and contain the spread of the virus.


“When the doctor spoke to me, I couldn’t understand what he was saying”


On March 3, Farah was admitted to the isolation facility in the Vathy camp, nine-months pregnant, along with her husband and her 1-year old son. Her husband, Maher al-Khalaf, started to become concerned when his wife suddenly felt abdomen pain. With no medical staff to hand, Maher desperately petitioned the police for her transfer to the hospital.


After two hours of agony, Farah was finally allowed to leave the isolation facility, though without her husband. She would spend a further hour in the freezing cold, waiting for the ambulance to arrive. At the hospital, the gynaecologist advised that Farah get a C-section, though the reason behind the doctor’s insistence on this procedure was unclear when I spoke to Farah. And in absence of an Arabic interpreter, she was unable to give her consent.


“When the doctor spoke to me, I couldn’t understand what he was saying. I had no idea they were giving me a C-section, I wanted a natural birth.” Farah’s baby girl was delivered in Samos hospital at 6am on the 6th of March. Farah was re-admitted to the isolation facility several days after giving birth.


Unfortunately, this is not the first time refugees have been maltreated in these isolation facilities. There was a similar instance of a pregnant women being mistreated in the camp’s quarantine facilities in October of last year.


The why and how of Farah’s journey to Samos are similar to those of thousands of Kurds that have sought refugee status on the island. “We fled to Turkey periodically when we were in danger from ISIS. We lived in Adana, Turkey for six months in 2018. After ISIS were pushed out, our family returned to Kobani, but in 2019, when Turkey unjustly attacked Kobani and areas such as Tal Dawol, we had to leave for good. “


“My only wish, and hope for the future, is to see that my children can live in a safe country and go to school”


“We were smuggled to Greece by boat and arrived in Samos at the end of 2019.” Farah was not happy about her time on the island. “The situation [in Samos] is worse than my situation in Syria. I’ve been in Samos for a year and three months in a tent, two traumatic childbirths, and I’ve suffered flashbacks from the war, it’s difficult to stop these horrible memories.”


“My only wish, and hope for the future, is to see that my children can live in a safe country and go to school, to look forward to our future lives. We’re literally still at sea, reliving the horrors of our previous lives, but now in Greece. Please help us.”


Farah’s story, although disturbing, is only one of many examples of asylum seekers being poorly treated in these facilities since the initial wave of COVID-19 infections in October 2020. In the same month, MSF released a report on the conditions in the quarantine facility, calling for stricter adherence to international standards of disease prevention.


“We need quarantine and isolation spaces [in Greece] that comply with COVID-19 international protocols and provide the minimum of dignified and humane living conditions.”


Supporting increased compliance to COVID-19 protocol in the country, in February 2021 Elias Kondilis and Dimitris Papamichail published a paper on the impact of the COVID-19 Pandemic on migrants, refugees and asylum seekers in Greece. Their research suggested that compared to the general population, the risk of a COVID-19 infection among migrants in reception facilities was 2.5 to 3 times higher.


EODY, Greece’s Public Health Organisation, had been sufficiently forewarned that the conditions of these facilities were inadequate for containing the spread of the disease. As far back as September 2020, the ECDC (The European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control), has strongly urged “measures to decongest and evacuate residents” in enclosed environments, such as Samos, where distancing and other risk-mitigation measures could not be implemented. EODY were contacted with regard to their COVID-19 protocol in isolation facilities and ECDC’s recommendations but declined to comment.

Fareid Atta