Some 38,000 people have found their way from Turkey to Greece, with many now camped out in tents surrounded by rubbish in a space fit to only house 6,000. Many are children, some with close relatives currently residing in the UK, who now face a “hopeless future” as the reality of Turkey’s insistence on disobeying its pledge with the EU four years ago to help control migration to the bloc bites. But perhaps most starkly is the genuine concern that this once understanding set of islands could soon be overrun with cases of coronavirus, which has so far claimed more than 14,000 people’s lives across the globe, with hundreds of thousands also contracting the infection.
Imogen Sudbery, the International Rescue Committee’s Director of Policy and Advocacy, told Express.co.uk, that if more isn’t done to stem this trend of people coming to the Greek islands without others being moved on, a “tinderbox is ready to explode” on the isles, which could cause devastation for years.
At present, Ms Sudbery said there had been no confirmed cases of the coronavirus within the camps of refugees in Greece.
But she did warn that just one case coming into the camp could spread to such dangerous levels that it could be hard to control.
She said: “You can imagine that when we’re all familiar with the social distancing measures that we are all supposed to be taking and the sanitary measure in terms of simple things like hand-washing, that is entirely impossible to put in place inside these centres on the Greek islands.
“So we’re really looking at a tinderbox which is just ready to explode.
“There aren’t any first confirmed cases inside the camps on the islands though there have been among the asylum seeking population.
“But we know that we have had the first confirmed case on Lesbos and there are two more suspected cases so of course we are really concerned that once this hits such overcrowded spaces with very little health provision and very, very low hand-washing facilities this could wreak absolute devastation.”
The root of this problem stems from the deal that was struck in 2016, which saw Europe allow third-world countries to manage migration to the EU.
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According to the IRC, Turkey opened its borders earlier in March which saw waves of people arrive in Greece to hopefully move on and seek asylum in the bloc.
But the organisation reports a worrying trend where, as Ms Sudbery described, citizens who were once “very welcoming” have “lost their patience because their islands have changed into really different places leading to huge overcrowding and an untenable situation”.
The Greek government, which has received millions in funding from Brussels, has also decided to make a stance – no longer processing applications for refugees who have made the “dangerous trip often from war-torn countries in the hope of a better future”.
It has left many in limbo – something that could explain the IRC reporting nearly 50 percent of those who made the deadly journey to Greece contemplating suicide.
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Ms Sudbery argues that other EU member states must act “while they still can,” especially ahead of a potential virus outbreak within the destitute camps and centres.
However, she did admit that securing any full agreement with the EU has “proved impossible” as the bloc had been “at a deadlock for months, even years” over what exactly needs to be done to stem the worrying situation.
Ms Sudbery said: “Once Turkey decided it didn’t want to do this anymore, the EU was completely unprepared because we didn’t have a system where you could share the responsibility with different countries.
“So Greece has effectively decided it is no longer going to go along and process the asylum claims for people who are arriving and the situation now risks becoming even more of a crisis when something like coronavirus hits.”
In images shared by the IRC, young children can be seen living out of battered tents, with towering piles of dusty water bottles nearby, sleeping bags strewn across their patch and washing lines decorated with gloves and old hooded sweatshirts hanging high above them.
She did set out how easy it would be to save the children currently stranded on the island, though.
Although a small number for each member state of the EU take on, she was aware that more children – and adults – would continue to risk their lives in the name of making it to Greece.
Ms Sudbery continued: “The trouble is this didn’t need to be a crisis on the island at all from the beginning. If the right response had been in place from European countries and all EU member states it would have been very manageable and have very small numbers if you divided the number of people arriving between all the different EU member states.
“There are thousands of unaccompanied children who are on the island and who haven’t been able to move to safe accommodation.
“If each EU member state were to just take their fair share of those children it would only be 70 children per country.”
But as the numbers of people who continue to try and flee to Greece and its iconic strip of islands rapidly rises, Ms Sudbery did welcome the fact that some countries such as France, Germany, Spain and Portugal had made a concerted effort to remove some of those most in need on the island.
Ms Sudbery added: “European leaders must immediately relocate the most vulnerable people trapped on the island.
“We welcome the recent decision of at least seven EU member states to evacuate 1,600 unaccompanied minors.
“But this represents just a fraction of real needs on the ground, as people with disabilities, chronic illnesses, the elderly and families with children are still left in limbo, facing an uncertain future.
“Safe relocation of the most vulnerable is all the more crucial to protect health and lives in the light of the Europe-wide developments related to the coronavirus pandemic.”
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