How Greece's Biggest Refugee Camp Avoided a Catastrophic Coronavirus Outbreak

“If there is a positive case, it will trigger panic, and this panic will spread to the local population.”

MORIA CAMP, Lesbos — When the COVID-19 pandemic swept through Europe in early 2020, Greeks feared the worst: After a decade of austerity following the financial crisis, the country’s weakened health system would be quickly overwhelmed by a significant outbreak — especially if cases started spreading in the packed refugee camps dotting islands in the Meditteranean, close to Turkey.

Instead, there’s been fewer than 200 COVID deaths in all of Greece, and remarkably only a few suspected cases of COVID-19 in the camps.


At Moria camp on Lesbos island, despite the crowded conditions and lack of basic sanitation, authorities were able to prevent the spread by making sure no one showing symptoms of the virus was able to get in in the first place.

Dr. Nassos Galis, a pathologist who runs the temporary clinic for the North Aegean regional government, outside the state-run camp. “Overall this medical unit functions as a kind of filter that lifted a lot of the strain off the hospital,” he told VICE News. “The conditions here are very difficult, so if there is a positive case, it will trigger panic, and this panic will spread to the local population.”

Quarantine areas have been set up in two parts of the island. New arrivals who come to Lesbos from Turkey by sea remain in isolation in these designated quarantine areas for at least two weeks. They’re tested twice before they’re allowed to be transferred to the camp in Moria, designed to hold 2,800 but now home to about 15,000.

The Moria camp is still a dangerous place to be, with a surge in crime and violence this year which has resulted in five deaths. The Greek government has also been accused by human rights groups of using COVID-19 as an excuse to restrict the movement of migrants. Even though life returned to normal Greece in May, the country’s migrant camps are still in lockdown, though restrictions have been eased slightly, allowing aid workers to visit.

Cover: Migrant children play with kites inside the Moria refugee camp. (VICE News Tonight/VICE TV.)