THESSALONIKI – Greek officials said Tuesday they have registered the first cases of the new coronavirus in two migrants on an eastern island after they arrived from Turkey last week and were placed in a special quarantine facility.
They said the two asylum seekers have not developed symptoms of COVID-19, while tests are being conducted among the other 68 migrants in the secluded facility on Lesbos, and among people who came into contact with them. All 70 had been placed in two-week quarantine when they arrived on Lesbos.
The officials spoke on condition of anonymity, pending an official statement.
Close to 40,000 people live in camps on Lesbos and other eastern Aegean Sea islands, where human rights groups have warned that heavy overcrowding could lead to a quick spread of the disease should it reach the facilities. No cases had been registered up to now on the islands.
The quarantine camp at Eftalou, on the northern coast, is far from the country's biggest camp at Moria on Lesbos, where nearly 18,000 people live in facilities designed for fewer than 3,000.
The 70 asylum-seekers, who arrived in two boats on May 6 and May 10, were the first to reach Greece by sea in more than a month, as Greek authorities stepped up border surveillance due to the pandemic and departures from Turkey slackened.
Earlier Tuesday, police in northern Greece arrested 25 people during a protest at a migrant processing center that damaged converted shipping containers used as living quarters and other facilities but caused no reported injuries.
Authorities said officers intervened to stop several hours of rioting at the center, located near Greece's border with Turkey. People who enter Greece illegally are registered there and temporarily detained until they apply for asylum.
The protest occurred following weeks of delays in processing asylum claims due to the coronavirus pandemic. The center currently houses 250 asylum-seekers, including unaccompanied minors, the Evros Police Department said.
The Greek asylum service’s operations have been scaled back, like many public services, amid restrictions on travel and movement the government set in response to the pandemic.
Greece has struggled to cope with illegal immigration from Turkey, both at the land border and on the Greek islands, that spiked before the country's virus outbreak.
A dispute between Turkey and the European Union led to a standoff at the Turkey-Greece land border in late February and early March. Thousands of Europe-bound asylum-seekers flocked to Turkey's side of the border after the Turkish government said it would no longer prevent migrants from trying to cross over to Greece.
Human rights groups have frequently criticized the Greek government for holding migrants under age 18 and traveling without guardians at detention camps.
Miltiadis Varvitsiotis, a European affairs minister, said finding appropriate placements within the European Union for children and teenagers remains a priority.
"As you know, our capacity has been exhausted, so our initiatives are being taken on a European level, and we have already had some success with Luxembourg and Germany,” he said. ___ Paphitis reported from Athens. Derek Gatopoulos in Athens also contributed. ___ Follow Kantouris at http://www.twitter.com/CostasKantouris