Violence and Virus on the Greek Islands

The moment feared by medical and aid workers involved in the ongoing refugee crisis has arrived: The coronavirus has hit the Greek Island of Lesvos. On Monday, March 9, authorities confirmed that a forty-year-old woman had contracted the virus.

Surrounding this mass hysteria and resulting xenophobia is a lot of misinformation. In fact, the virus COVID-19 is most dangerous for already vulnerable populations—people with pre-existing compromised immune systems. 

Ironically, the woman is a local Greek who brought the COVID-19 virus back from a vacation in Israel, not an incoming asylum seeker from Turkey like the Greek government had predicted. Nonetheless, the case is being used to justify Greece’s decision to halt the asylum process for refugees traveling from Turkey for one month—a move deemed illegal under international and European law. Moreover, The New York Times revealed Tuesday the use of secret extraducial locals to house migrants, illegally and without due process, before sending them back to Turkey.

Surrounding this mass hysteria and resulting xenophobia is a lot of misinformation. In fact, the virus COVID-19 is most dangerous for already vulnerable populations—people with pre-existing compromised immune systems. 

Most refugees—mainly from Afghanistan, Syria, and Iraq—have been sheltering in Turkey long before the outbreak occurred. Turkey did not record its first case of COVID-19 until this week.

“Evidence proves that, in general, refugees and migrants show a very low risk of transmitting communicable diseases to host populations, but experience potentially greater risk due to their social determinants of health,” Tarik Jašarević, a spokesperson with the World Health Organization (WHO), tells The Progressive.

Jašarević relayed a quote from Tedros Adhanom, WHO’s director general: “We expect each and every country to take care of refugees and migrants within their borders, and they should not leave anyone behind, because this case can spark a fire.” 

Before news of Tuesday’s COVID-19 case on Lesvos, the Greek islands were already on fire.

Late last month, Lesvos saw unprecedented levels of violence between local islanders and mainland police forces over the construction of a new migrant detention center. This occurred only days before Turkey decided to break its 2016 deal with the European Union by opening its borders to the millions of refugees, giving hope to desperate people seeking a new safe haven in Europe after the years-long limbo they faced in Istanbul. 

Images circulated last week of migrants being met with violence by locals on the shores of Greek Islands and by Greek authorities at the land border with Turkey. NGO workers and journalists continue to experience heavy backlash by local vigilantes, who also set ablaze aid infrastructure for refugees on Lesvos and Chios. 


The Greek Islands have been a primary humanitarian player in the migrant crisis since 2015. Many locals welcomed the newcomers—and many still do—but the capabilities are teetering on the edge. As the mainland government and the European Union continue to let solutions fall through the cracks, they force the islands to bear the brunt of it all. This only further fuels populist flames, with fear over COVID-19 as just the latest excuse to justify xenophobia.

“The fact that anger is so strong is a result of misinformation, of false promises, of ideas regarding the advantages of being ethnically ‘pure’ and religiously homogeneous.”

Despite speculations of Turkey opening its border as a bid for EU monetary support in its war waging in Northern Syria, the EU commission granted Greece $700 million for being the continent’s “shield” against the incoming asylum seekers instead. This move is seen as a hyper-militarized response to the humanitarian crisis as the aid package includes an “offshore vessel, six coastal patrol boats, two helicopters, one aircraft, three thermal-vision vehicles, as well as 100 border guards to reinforce 530 Greek officers at land and sea borders.”

“There is no way to deter people from seeking a safe haven for their lives unless you turn the country into a hell place,” Antigone Lyberaki, general manager of the Greek NGO Solidarity Now, tells The Progressive about Greece and the EU’s ‘solution’ to this humanitarian crisis.

“There is a lot of anger against the European Union, definitely. And on the islands, there is a lot of anger against the government,” continues Lyberaki, who is also a professor of economics at Panteion University in Athens and firmly links the current situation to the economic blow Greece received back in 2010. 

“We have to have an understanding of the big picture,” Lyberaki says. “And the fact that anger is so strong is a result of misinformation, of false promises, of ideas regarding the advantages of being ethnically ‘pure’ and religiously homogeneous.”


The rise of populism in Greece—and throughout Europe and even the United States—stems from a feeling of not being listened to by those in power. Greeks have definitely felt abandoned by their government, and the European Union especially, from the financial crisis to the migrant crisis. 

The current migrant crisis did not create far-right, xenophobic groups. Nor did it put the current center-right New Democracy government in power. But the years of inaction to alleviate the situation on the islands by elites certainly fanned the flames. 

“They demand their lives before the crisis and before the refugees,” Lyberaki says about the recent surge of violence by locals. “And these groups are also tolerated if not helped by leftwing groups that are generally seeking opportunities to denounce the state, the government, and the police,” she adds. This unlikely coalition is nothing new in recent Greek history, and says more about the unifying anger toward government mismanagement than xenophobia.

The government’s inability to properly aid the situation has spelled disaster for asylum seekers as well. The news of Tuesday’s confirmed case on Lesvos had little effect on the already hopeless feeling refugees have on the island, who have been stuck there for several months or even years. 

Michael Trammer, a German journalist who was on Lesvos during these recent weeks of disarray, shares with The Progressive the stories he heard. “It’s not important for me at all if I die,” one Afghan woman, twenty-five-years-old and pregnant, who’s been in the Moria camp for several months, told Trammer about the Coronavirus news. “I lost everything, so why should we be scared from death?”

“There’s no possibility of just quickly washing your hands or normal hygienic procedures. So you spread things very easily,” explains Paulien, a German doctor who volunteered at a refugee camp on the Greek island Samos for thirteen months. She asked her last name be omitted. “Everyone is advising you to wash your hands regularly, to not cough into other people’s direction, but with so many people so close together, it’s just impossible to avoid this.” 

The Samos City camp has a capacity of 650 but now houses more than 7,000. Lesvos’s main Moria refugee camp currently houses more than 20,000 asylum seekers in a former-prison meant for only 3,000. In both Moria and Samos City, asylum seekers have no option but to pitch tents in “jungles” surrounding the existing camp. They have limited access to water, electricity, and proper medical care.

Supplies, medical and otherwise, are already low. But sources on the ground in Lesvos tell The Progressive that locals hoarding items in fear of the outbreak are already causing issues, including a surge in prices for basic necessities. 

“There is a real range of options, but these options do not include stopping population movements,” Lyberaki notes. Hyper-militarizing borders will not stop the problem of asylum seekers. Sowing the seeds of xenophobia by augmenting hysteria over the COVID-19 pandemic will not bring Greek islanders’ lives back to how they were. 

As Lyberaki puts it, “We have to decide how to deal with them in not only a more humane way, but also in a way that will improve the welfare of all of us—locals and newcomers.”

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