In Depth

Moria refugee camp in Lesbos: a pandemic ‘waiting to happen’

Doctor warns conditions in overcrowded camp mirror those that first spread Spanish flu in 1918

The vastly overcrowded Moria refugee camp in Lesbos could be the source of a pandemic mirroring the Spanish flu outbreak in 1918 that went on to kill tens of millions, a senior doctor has warned.

The Guardian spoke to Dr Hana Pospisilova, a consultant cardiologist who regularly gives her time to treat refugees on the Greek island. She told the newspaper she had “serious concerns” that a major public health crisis could arise there.

What is the Moria camp?

Moria is a former military base on Lesbos in Greece’s eastern Aegean islands, converted for use by asylum seekers in 2015, at the height of the migrant crisis. It was originally intended to house 2,300 migrants – but there are now almost 20,000 people living there and on the surrounding hillsides, The Times reports. In five years, Moria has become “Europe’s most notorious refugee camp”, says the newspaper, a “vast and squalid tent city”.

What about the unofficial settlements?

A new refugee settlement has grown up around Moria, housing migrants hoping to escape the crowded conditions in the official camp. They are fleeing not only horrendous overcrowding but “routine violence and unsanitary conditions”, The Times says. In makeshift tents, families are living without electricity, water or heating.

Why are the migrants in Greece?

Refugees and other migrants are arriving in small boats across the Mediterranean after long journeys from countries including Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq, Palestine, Somalia and the DRC. An EU containment policy keeps them on the Aegean islands where they first make landfall until their asylum requests have been processed, a tortuously slow process.

Are there other camps?

Yes, Moria is not the whole story in Greece. The UNHCR told The Guardian that more than 36,000 asylum seekers are staying in reception centres designed for 5,400 across five islands – Lesbos, Samos, Chios, Leros and Kos. Another six thousand are estimated to be on the islands but not in the centres, making 42,000 in total.

How bad are conditions in Moria?

The Guardian says the public health situation in Moria is “alarming”. Pospisilova told the paper: “What I saw there had me crying.” She reported “many” children she feared would die of malnutrition, suffering from scabies and other parasites, unable to wash. She saw adults with respiratory problems and bleeding gums sleeping in wet tents, their clothes unwashed for months.

What did Pospisilova say about a pandemic?

The senior doctor told The Guardian she was deeply concerned that the squalid, overcrowded conditions could lead to a pandemic illness breaking out. She compared the situation now to the beginning of the Spanish flu epidemic in 1918, in which tens of millions were killed.

Pospisilova said: “If you read about Spanish flu it was exactly like this that is began to spread, in overcrowded facilities where people had a viral infection that became a bacterial infection that killed them. This is what makes me worried. We are treating patients but nobody is healed, it’s impossible to heal them in these conditions.”

What else is at stake?

The risk is not only one to public health: last week, the governor of the North Aegean region, Kostas Moutzouris, said he was “shaking” with fear at the situation, which was a “powder keg ready to explode” with violence. Riot police had to be sent to the island to control angry migrants, The Guardian reported.

What can be done?

The UNHCR is calling on Greece to move ahead with its proposals to shift migrants from the overcrowded camps on the Aegean islands to the mainland where they can be better looked after. Moutzouris wants a state of emergency to be declared and many in Greece are calling on the EU’s containment policy to be revised so that migrants can be spread around the bloc.

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