In the early stages of the pandemic, there was great concern amongst aid workers, policy makers and the general public that refugee camps could become a hotbed for the spread of the coronavirus. While rates of coronavirus have not got out of hand in most refugee camps, COVID still poses a significant risk to these communities, plus multiple lockdowns and the pause placed on normal functioning of society have had major impacts. Become the Voice recently interviewed Tom Marsh who has been working with asylum seekers and the local community in Thessaloniki, Northern Greece. The discussion was revealing of the poor conditions that asylum seekers are forced to live in, despite Greek media suggesting a far brighter picture. This article will cover some of the important insights Tom gave us into the impacts that the coronavirus pandemic and lockdowns have had for the asylum seekers he works with.
A question that has been on most of our minds this past year has been: when will we get our vaccine? Frequently heralded as our only safe escape from lockdown, we are increasingly aware of the importance of vaccinating as much of the population as possible. But this could be more complicated for asylum seekers who lack Greek citizenship and are often excluded from wider society.
Tom explains, “My understanding is that Greece is due to vaccinate anyone that lives here regardless of nationality, but that, of course, comes with the condition of the right paperwork and legal status of living in the country, which many people struggle to obtain…Once they apply for their asylum interview, it can take up to two years just to get that interview…so I shouldn’t imagine that they will be invited for those vaccines any time soon”.
Access to testing equipment seems to present similar problems; “In terms of testing, many are afraid to go to hospitals because they fear that their details will be taken and that will provide the police with the tools they need to deport them”. As a result, many asylum seekers rely on nongovernmental organisations (NGOs) who are working hard to provide the tests they need.
Tom tells us about the impact that the pandemic has had on the other projects carried out by NGOs he works for. The aim of many of their activities was “to enrich the lives of people who are in this waiting game for the long run, whether that is providing employability services for people who have been granted asylum…whether it’s a safe space for children and women, workshops to provide people with transferable skills, and of course language classes because integration is a massively important part of this picture.”
One aspect of this work is to promote healthy relationships between asylum seekers and local populations. “They invited fitness coaches to do hikes in the mountains and eventually came to an agreement whereby the local football pitch could be used for a match every Sunday, and the teams would be mixed between local residents and people in the camps…I think these programmes really went a long way to overcome the fear and to help both sides build some new connections that they otherwise wouldn’t have done”
Unfortunately, these activities were halted by the pandemic, and whilst the lockdowns were necessary for the safety of the entire Greek population it is important to recognise the specific impact this has had for vulnerable groups. The cancellation of these activities meant that “apart from queuing up to get their food and clothing, all they had to fill their days was waiting to find out the result of their asylum interview…Ultimately, that has a really, really big impact on people’s mental health.”
“I don’t know many people whose lives were made easier over the last 12 months, and I don’t mean that facetiously, it has made almost everyone’s lives more difficult…Of course, it’s frustrating to have to queue outside the local supermarket for an hour. But for most of the people who were doing that in the UK and France and so on, they knew that once they had done their shopping, they were going back to a home and they were going to be dry and warm that night…For the thousands of people living precariously across Europe, they really do need to look after their health, because if you catch coronavirus when you don’t have access to healthcare and you don’t have shelter, the implications are likely to be that much more severe.”
Our discussion with Tom was a reminder of the stark reality for asylum seekers living in desperate and vulnerable conditions, completely unaware of what their future will look like. The organisations that Tom works for who are determined to provide some relief in this situation are The Inter-European Union Human Aid Association and Wave Thessaloniki.
By Ben Sturt and Katey Cottrell