The Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS) has warned that due to the coronavirus threat the situation for asylum seekers on Lesbos is a “health bomb”.

– Moria camp “nothing more and nothing less than a slum”

In the camps stretched well beyond capacity with some 23,000 aslyum seekers, “if the virus were to enter, it could spread very quickly”, Father Maurice Joyeux, head of the JRS in Greece, told La Croix in an interview April 21.

“Migrants live in crowded conditions, with one toilet available for every 250 people and no water or electricity in three quarters of the [Moria] camp”, the priest denounced.

“A stream of wastewater crosses it, with a high risk of infection… It’s nothing more and nothing less than a slum”.

– Due to European indifference migrants “feel rejected”

Asked about the state of mind of the migrants trapped on Lesbos, Joyeux denounced that what he is noticing first of all is a “feeling of abandonment”.

“The migrants (at the moment, 85% of them are Afghans) have telephones, they hear what is being said in Europe, and they are well aware that they are not a subject of attention. They feel rejected”, the priest deplored.

Joyeux continued by saying that that exclusion is being compounded by harsh government COVID-19 confinement measures, which have seen migrants forbidden to leave the camps for over a month now except in cases of hospitalisation.

The asylum seekers “are confined not so much to protect them as because they are perceived to be a large and dangerous community”, the priest decried.

– “Ashamed to be a European” in the face of the plight of migrants

Although NGOs on Lesbos “are doing what we can” – and good news has come in the transfer of migrant children on the island to countries such as Luxembourg and Germany – Joyeux still begged the EU for further “evacuation and protection” for vulnerable asylum seekers.

“Let’s not wait until the virus is here to react!”, the priest urged, asking: “Couldn’t we accommodate these migrants in a few cruise ships, real floating buildings, that are now blocked because of the confinement?”

The priest explained that “if the migrants were tested before boarding, their living conditions would definitely be safer there than in Lesbos”, and added that he had written to the Greek Minister for European Affairs and to French President Emmanuel Macron to lobby them for his “provocative” proposal.

“The truth is that France has received very few migrants compared to what (former president) François Hollande promised”, Joyeux complained.

“As for Greece (and especially the Orthodox Church), above all it must not allow itself to be paralyzed by the rhetoric of the extreme right.

“I am ashamed to be a European when I see what is being done to all these migrants”.

– “A project we will be proud to have achieved”

Protesting that he did not mean his call to greater European solidarity with the migrants on Lesbos to be a “burden” on consciences, Joyeux insisted that “it is essential to be ‘the voice for the voiceless’ at times like these”.

“I believe in civil society, in the intelligence of the French and other European peoples”, he explained.

“The virus reminds us that we share borders, not as barriers but as bridges, across which we owe it to ourselves to remain in solidarity.

“Isn’t it good, in this period of confinement and widespread depression, that we give ourselves a project for which, later, we will be proud to have achieved?”, the priest asked.

Joyeux concluded with a rousing call to action:

“The common enemy right now is the coronavirus. Let us not leave the tens of thousands of refugees in Greece in a blind spot”.

More on the Church’s defence of the dignity of migrants and refugees, on Novena:

“Human dignity is not in quarantine”: EU Bishops urge states to “generosity” in relocating asylum seekers from Greek islands

Caritas denounces COVID-19 cases among refugees on Greek islands, pleads with EU for relocation of unaccompanied minors

Cardinal denounces: “We in Europe give money to Turkey so refugees don’t annoy us

200 Church, civil groups launch COVID-19 SOS for 42,000 refugees “trapped” on Greek islands “in horrific conditions”


PhD in ancient Jewish/Christian history and philosophy. University ethics lecturer with 4 years' experience in religion journalism.