U.S. Gave Millions to Help Vulnerable in Greece Amid COVID-19, yet Biggest Refugee Camp Saw Little Support: Aid Workers

The U.S. government has provided Greece with nearly $5 million to help support the most vulnerable in the country's coronavirus response. Yet, aid workers on the island of Lesbos say little support ever made its way to the thousands of migrants and asylum seekers who were living at the country's biggest refugee camp before it burned down.

On Thursday, two days after a major fire tore through the Moria refugee camp, leaving the more than 12,500 staying at a camp designed to accommodate 3,000 displaced, the U.S. State Department said it would be coordinating with the Greek government and the European Union to help provide humanitarian assistance in response to the disaster.

"The United States is coordinating with the Government of Greece, the European Union, and our humanitarian partners to assess needs, and we continue to provide humanitarian assistance, including critical aid such as food, water, shelter, and protection to vulnerable refugees and migrants in Greece," the State Department said.

Further, it said that over the past year, the U.S. provided more than $8 million in humanitarian assistance to assist vulnerable people in Greece, "including nearly $5 million to support the COVID-19 pandemic response."

"I don't know where it's been spent, but it hasn't been spent on Lesbos," Stephan Oberreit, Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières' (MSF) head of mission in Greece, told Newsweek on Friday.

In the lead-up to the Tuesday's fire, there had been widespread unrest over the handling of recent a coronavirus outbreak at the camp, which saw as many as 35 people test positive for COVID-19.

A quarantine had been enforced at Moria, causing unrest among those living there, while aid workers on the ground were left frustrated by the fact that local authorities had forced them to shut down a coronavirus clinic ready to provide care just before the new outbreak was identified.

The clinic, which had been opened up by MSF had been forced to shut down in July after local authorities began issuing fines and threatened criminal charges due to alleged violations of urban planning regulations.

At the time, MSF had warned that "the closure of the center in Moria, on the island of Lesbos, could have disastrous consequences should there be a COVID-19 outbreak on the island."

Weeks later, that fear became a reality, when more than 30 coronavirus cases were identified at the camp.

With assistance from the Dutch government, Greece opened up a separate coronavirus clinic on Lesbos in the wake of the MSF facility's closure.

However, Oberreit said the clinic was effectively an "empty shell" because it was not providing actual care, just coronavirus testing.

Hundreds of tests were administered at the site, but non-profit organizations were left to oversee care of those who tested positive.

"It would have been normal and expected that Greek authorities would have prepared a medical response...but, they didn't," he said. "It was a minimum investment, given the situation of the camp."

Ultimately, he said, if MSF had not been forced to close its own clinic, those in need would have been receiving consistent and adequate care.

Now, thousands of people displaced from Tuesday's fire are being forced to sleep on the streets, with nowhere else to turn as the Greek government, local authorities and non-profits race to come up with a solution.

Asked for comment, Greece's embassy in the U.K. shared comments made by Deputy Minister to the Prime Minister and Government Spokesman Stelios Petsas on Thursday acknowledging that the situation on Lesbos "should not continue."

"It is already obvious that the events taking place in Moria raise serious concerns about national security, humanitarianism and protection of public health," Petsas said.

A coordinated effort, Petsas said, was in effect to provide immediate support to displaced migrants, asylum seekers and refugees, including a focus on the coronavirus response.

"With regard to protection, first of all, any spread of the Coronavirus must be restrained," Petsas said, asserting that thousands of COVID-19 tests were underway, while thousands more were being sent to the island.

"The tests should be done, any cases should be confined and the situation should be normalized," Petsas said, adding: "For all that, there is no room for division and irresponsibility. Instead, the government calls for unity and responsibility."

However, the deputy minister also took aim at those behind the recent unrest, asserting that "some people do not respect the country that is hosting them."

"They are trying to prove that they are not really looking for a 'passport' to a better life," Petsas.

Looking forward, the deputy minister said, Greece will be working to "protect our borders" as well as the "external borders of Europe".

Newsweek has asked the State Department for comment.

People who had been living at the Moria refugee camp on the Greek island of Lesbos carry belongings out on September 10, 2020 as a fire that broke out there on Tuesday, September 8, 2020, still burns. Milos Bicanski/Getty