Since the beginning of the outbreak, voices grew louder to evacuate the refugee camps on the Aegean islands. The living conditions posed a severe risk to the residents if the virus were to enter the camp. According to the Lancet, a medical journal, “Compared to the general population the risk of Covid-19 infection among refugees and asylum seekers in reception facilities was 2.5 to 3 times higher. The camp on Chios was overcrowded, with few safe living spaces, meaning that it was almost impossible to maintain social-distancing measures; there was a lack of good sanitation; and there was a lack of access to proper medical attention (UNHCR).
In addition, the people living in the camp had to live under stricter, more inhumane controls. These included the requirement of a permission slip in order to leave the camp, as well as increased interventions by authorities on the streets of Chios. As of 6 November 2021 a certificate to access Greece was required, and a law, prescribing that masks had to be worn both indoors and outdoors, was introduced on 24 December 2021. For those arriving on the island, a quarantine area, with a capacity of 160, was created. In Chios’ hospital, there are six intensive care places as well as 29 places for Covid-19 patients for both locals and refugees or asylum seekers.
Furthermore, the Covid-19 pandemic made it more difficult for people on the move to reach Greece. In 2020, the year the pandemic took hold, there was a decrease of 80% from 2019 in arrivals on the Aegean Islands. The pandemic made travel more difficult in general, Turkey closed its borders, and other deterrence tactics were employed.
The pandemic also had a dramatic effect on the operations of Offene Arme. We had to stop running several projects, like attending boat landings, beach cleaning after landings, the tea project, Vial games, Vial cleaning, and our local shop. Covid-19 also affected our donors’ ability to give, since the pandemic was also a difficult time for them. This was challenging for us, since Offene Arme depends mostly on donations from individuals and small organisations. We had no government funding or funding from EU organisations. Despite these issues, the team only stopped for three days at the beginning of the pandemic, before continuing to operate.
In response to the Covid-19 pandemic, the team adapted so that we could keep helping refugees and asylum seekers on Chios. Supplies were still continuing to come in and were being stored in our warehouse, but because of the restrictions we had no way to distribute these vital supplies to those living in Vial and Chios town. Knowing that immediate action had to be taken, we decided that the safest and most efficient way to distribute non-food items was to open a distribution centre that functioned as a free shop, known as the Offene Arme Distribution Warehouse (OADW).
The first OADW distribution began in June 2020. Our aim is to serve the entire population of people on the move in Chios. Often we are able to distribute NFIs to people on multiple occasions, since when we finish one round of distributions to everyone on the island, we take into account our stock and new donations that have arrived to plan our next distribution. As well as distributing NFIs from our OADW, we continue to send out supplies to other organisations on the island when the need arises. These supplies are distributed to refugees, asylum seekers, local residents, and the Roma community.
Throughout the Covid-19 pandemic we have continued to build upon relationships with other actors here on Chios, in order to ensure there is no crossover when distributing non-food items. We continue to receive donations and supplies from various organisations and individuals across Europe. This challenging period has shown how important it is to cooperate with other actors and local authorities to ensure that we can help those most in need on the island.