Doctors Without Borders Forced to Shut Down Coronavirus Clinic at Refugee Camp Over Threats

Doctors Without Borders says it has been left with no choice but to shut down its coronavirus clinic supporting asylum seekers and refugees in Lesbos, Greece, after receiving fines and threats of "potential criminal charges" from Greek local authorities.

In a statement shared with Newsweek, Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) said it had been forced to to close its Lesbos clinic, warning that the closure could "have terrible implications" should an outbreak occur at the Moria refugee camp, where more than 15,000 migrants, asylum seekers and refugees are now estimated to be living.

The MSF COVID-19 isolation center had opened up on May 6 and had initially received the support of public officials and the local hospital in Lesbos.

"The isolation center was the only place on Lesbos providing a safe space in which people from Moria with COVID-19 symptoms could be isolated and offered medical care," MSF said in a statement.

Things changed, the organization said, starting on July 1, when local authorities said the center was in violation of "urban planning regulations" and imposed a €35,000 fine, while also threatening "potential criminal charges."

Speaking with Newsweek, MSF spokesperson Faris Al-Jawad said the fine came after a complaint was made about the clinic's presence in the city. It is unclear who exactly made the complaint, Al-Jawad said. He noted that local groups have sought to hamper MSF's efforts in the past.

It is unclear why exactly local authorities cracked down on the clinic, however, MSF said: "These fines and potential charges are being levied against MSF despite the fact that the COVID-19 center is part of the emergency preparedness plan set out by the Minister of Migration aimed at preventing the spread of COVID-19 among the men, women, and children living in the Moria camp."

Concerned that keeping the clinic going could result in criminal charges, MSF shut down the clinic on Thursday.

"Today we had to unwillingly close a crucial component of the COVID-19 response for Moria," Stephan Oberreit, MSF's head of mission in Greece, said on Thursday. "We are deeply disappointed that local authorities could not quash these fines and potential charges in light of the global pandemic, despite some efforts from relevant stakeholders."

"The public health system on Lesbos would simply be unable to handle the devastation caused by an outbreak in Moria—which is why we stepped in," Oberreit said.

Despite overcrowding and limited access to sanitation, MSF says there have been no positive cases of coronavirus at the Moria camp, with the organization treating less than 60 people for symptoms related to coronavirus.

Meanwhile, Greece itself has also had relatively low numbers of coronavirus cases identified. As of Thursday, the country had 4,336 confirmed coronavirus cases identified, with 203 cases resulting in death, according to an online tracker maintained by the Johns Hopkins University.

Still, Oberreit said: "It's astonishing that we are being hampered by local authorities while trying to protect vulnerable people."

With the roughly 15,000 people living at the camp having "little space and limited access to soap and water, making it impossible to carry out preventive measures against COVID-19 such as physical distancing and regular handwashing," MSF has warned that asylum seekers and refugees are still at risk.

"More than 300 people at high-risk due to their age or chronic medical condition, as well as their families, remain trapped in these dangerous conditions," the organization said, adding that "MSF continues to call for the immediate and urgent evacuation from Moria of all vulnerable people, including those at high risk to COVID-19, to safe accommodation elsewhere."

"This is not the first and it probably won't be the last time that we and other humanitarian organizations face these types of obstacles as we try to cover the gaps left by European and Greek authorities in assistance to migrants and refugees," said Bertand Perrochet, MSF's director of operations.

"For the past five years we have seen the terrible harm inflicted by containment policies on people trapped in reception centers where refugees are living across the Greek islands," Perrochet said. "Now, during a global pandemic, MSF has been prevented from responding to a public health risk that the authorities have neglected."

Newsweek has contacted local officials for comment.

This article has been updated with more information from MSF.

The MSF coronavirus clinic pictured has been forced to shut down following the fine and threats of criminal charges. Anna Pantelia/MSF