Hosting migrants in a crisis: access to COVID-19 health care services for migrants and refugees in Greece

Greece is hosting many of the third country migrants in Europe. At the same time it deals with a second wave of COVID 19 and the impacts of years of austerity. While facing the COVID crisis, the financial crisis, and the so-called Migrant Crisis, Prolepsis is clear about what is needed to improve migrants’ access to health care services.

Written by Pania Karnaki

Europe, like much of world, is experiencing a second wave of the COVID–19 pandemic. It is disrupting social and economic structures in unprecedented ways, new at least to this generation. According to the WHO, globally, as of the 19th of November 2020, there have been 55,928,327 confirmed cases of COVID-19, including 1,344,003 deaths (Covid-19 Dashboard, WHO live statistics).

Discussions on the impact of the pandemic, the world’s response to it, as well as the long-term consequences have swiftly brought into focus the issue of inequality and its effect on people’s health.  Greece is still recovering from a prolonged period of economic austerity; at the same time, the country has also been in the forefront of the flows of Migrants arriving in Europe over the last 5 years. Migrants and refugees represent just some of the vulnerable people living in Greece who suffering the consequences of the pandemic.

How can migrants access health services?

Asylum seekers and those stranded in Greece have problems accessing health services, and COVID-19 is making the situation worse. A recent law saw the distribution of a Temporary Healthcare and Social Insurance Number for Alien Citizens (PAAYPA, Law 4636, O.G. 55.2/01.11.2019) which has contributed to these difficulties in accessing health care services.

Mental and physical health and well-being consequences for migrants

Strong COVID-19 prevention measures are currently in effect in Greece. However many migrants and refugees are living in precarious situations and cannot benefit from them. Overcrowded conditions in camps make social distancing hard. There are difficulties in accessing clean running water and few toilets, particularly in the Kara Tepe camp on the island of Lesvos. Migrants and refugees also feel the impact on mental health. Prolonged travel bans cause long periods of isolation in overcrowded camps. Asylum procedures and interviews are disrupted for long periods as long as the country is in lockdown.

Unofficial accounts describe migrants and refugees being turned back from regular medical appointments as they do not have negative Covid-19 tests. However, testing is not free for them or Greek citizens unless serious symptoms exist.

Professor Athena Linos, President of Prolepsis Institute and Professor of Epidemiology at the Medical School of Athens is calling for the immediate implementation of public health measures that promote equality and equal access to health care services for all people who reside in Greece regardless of legal status.

Testing for Covid-19 should be free for everyone living in Greece. Removing the need for legal papers would encourage testing among migrants and refugees. This in turn would contribute to controlling the pandemic in the country. Contact tracing among migrants and refugees should be done without them risking being prosecuted for any legal matters connected to their stay in the host country. This will encourage people testing positive to Covid-19 to step forward and make their close contacts known. Access to vaccination, when it becomes available, should follow the same principles.

Pania Karnaki
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Pania Karnaki is the Director of European and International projects at Prolepsis Institute. Her research interests focus on the health of vulnerable populations and health inequalities. Prolepsis Institute implements a number of different projects concerning migrant/refugee health. 

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