Safeguarding health in a crisis: a snapshot from Greece

The resources of the 'RM Child-Health' initiative have been mobilized to respond to this ongoing crisis

Angela Hawke
 children participate in recreational activities at the new temporary accommodation facility on the Greek island of Lesvos
UNICEF/UNI375476/Canaj/Magnum Photos
01 February 2021

Greece has been at the heart of Europe’s refugee and migrant crisis from the beginning.

For many of those on the Greek island of Lesbos, in particular, 2020 was a catastrophic year. The COVID-19 pandemic curtailed their already limited movements still further, and the destruction of the once notorious Moria camp triggered a humanitarian crisis. Support from the ‘RM Child-Health’ initiative has helped UNICEF and its local partners react at speed to these dramatic events, aiming to safeguard the health of children amid the chaos.


Seen as a potential gateway to the rest of Europe, Greece hosted almost 120,000 refugees and migrants by the end of 2019, many of them from Afghanistan and other countries to the east. They include eight-year old Amir*, one of an estimated 42,500 refugee and migrant children now living in the country. He and his mother had endured a gruelling journey from Afghanistan and had managed to build some kind of life in the over-crowded Moria camp on the Greek Island of Lesbos. That precarious life was already being rocked by the COVID-19 pandemic and the resulting restrictions when the camp burned to the ground in September 2020.

As Amir explains, they lost their home and belongings, and were uprooted once again:  “Our house burned down. Some of my things were also burned in the fire. That is how it was in Moria when the fire happened.”

For all Moria’s faults, Amir still misses it. “We had beds there. Beds that we made. When Moria burned down we came here. Here is not good.”

The fire displaced more than 12,000 refugees and migrants, and Amir and his mother were among many who were rehoused in a new camp: Kara Tepe, which was built on an old firing range. For many refugees and migrants, Kara Tepe is no better than Moria, with over-crowding and, in winter, flooding. “One day it rained here,” says Amir, “and under the tents was full of water”.

Following the Moria fire, UNICEF worked with the local authorities and partners to launch an emergency response and services to reach affected children and women with vital support, including health care. Its existing Tapuat Center, a Child and Family Support Hub on Lesbos, was transformed immediately into an emergency shelter for vulnerable women and children. And interventions were launched to ensure basic services to protect children’s health, including clean water, safe sanitation and hygiene measures, as we as psychosocial support.

TAPUAT centre
UNICEF/UNI375481/Canaj/Magnum Photos

The resources of the 'RM Child-Health' initiative have been mobilized to respond to this ongoing crisis, which has been heightened by the additional and severe pressures of the COVID-19 pandemic and lockdowns. Funds have been used, for example, to support mother and child care services, including counselling on infant and young child feeding, which is available to all refugee and migrant children.

Health literacy materials have been shared on maternal and child health, as well as protection from COVID-19, and positive parenting during COVID-19 lockdowns. Services to prevent gender-based violence – always a risk in such stressful situations – have been maintained, with UNICEF continuing to support survivors’ access to state-run counselling centres and shelters through the provision of interpretation services, as have services for mental health and psychosocial support for children and adolescents.

In the absence of a long-term and permanent solution for refugees and migrants like Amir and his mother, UNICEF and its partners on the ground will do whatever it takes to safeguard the health of children and adolescents in Greece, with the continued support of the ‘RM Child-Health’ initiative.

Asked what he hopes for, Amir is clear: “To get out of here. To be somewhere good. A house. A big house with everything, where I can study.”


*Name changed to protect privacy.


This story is part of the Project Strengthening Refugee and Migrant Children’s Health Status in Southern and South Eastern Europe, Co-funded by the Health Programme of the European Union (the ‘RM Child-Health’ initiative). Its contents represent the views of the author only and are her sole responsibility; it cannot be considered to reflect the views of the European Commission and/or the Consumers, Health, Agriculture and Food Executive Agency or any other body of the European Union. The European Commission and the Agency do not accept any responsibility for use that may be made of the information it contains.