Can Europe Make It?

Lead poisoning risks in a Greek refugee camp: environmental racism as a dangerous new normal?

Once-shocking drownings in the Mediterranean have become dangerously normalized. Will environmental racism become the norm for asylum-seekers in Greece?

Carly A. Krakow
13 January 2021, 10.17am
Mavrovouni refugee camp, Mytilene, Greece, September 2020.
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SOPA/PA. All rights reserved.

On 8 December 2020, Human Rights Watch published a report urging Greek authorities to investigate concerns that Mavrovouni refugee camp (also known as new Kara Tepe) may be contaminated with lead. Mavrovouni, on the island of Lesbos, was a military firing range from 1926 until its September conversion to a residential camp. Human Rights Watch also reports that authorities failed to remove “unexploded mortar projectiles and live small arms ammunition, which could injure or kill if disturbed or handled.”

The camp hosts more than 7,500 people, primarily from Syria and Afghanistan. It was born out of the demise of Moria camp. Moria was Europe’s largest camp before it was destroyed in September 2020 fires. The fires followed months of “hell”– extreme overcrowding, lack of sanitation (more than 100 people sharing one toilet), and violence. Six former Moria residents face prosecution for arson. More than 12,700 people were living in Moria, which was at more than four times its capacity.

People who ended up in Moria because they were displaced from their home countries have been doubly displaced by the fires. As non-Europeans who fled violence and hardship, primarily from countries in the Middle East and Central Asia, Mavrovouni residents find themselves in Europe as a minority community of colour facing disproportionate toxic exposure risks. This environmental racism is exacerbated by COVID-19, as hundreds in the camp have already tested positive.

Lead exposure’s health impacts include permanent nervous system damage, with particular risks for children’s brains, and for foetal development. As Dr. Bruce Lanphear has demonstrated, there is “risk across the entire range of [lead] exposures,” with no safe levels for adults or children, and a high risk of death from cardiovascular disease for adults.

Diminishing shock value of the refugee crisis

International law, including General Comment 14 from the United Nations (UN) Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, protects “the right to the highest attainable standard of health.” States are called upon, in the Convention on the Rights of the Child (to which Greece is a state party), to consider “the dangers and risks of environmental pollution.” The World Health Organization’s (WHO) Draft Global Action Plan ‘Promoting the health of refugees and migrants’ (2019-2023) emphasizes unique barriers to the right to health for displaced people.

International law, though damagingly vague regarding enforcement, in principle protects the rights of displaced people. The Greek government should fulfil obligations to shield asylum-seekers from toxic exposure. Greece’s constitution recognizes the right to a healthy environment. The situation at Mavrovouni camp, however, is not really a story about legal obligations, whether international or domestic. Like so many harrowing stories out of Greece’s camps, Mavrovouni’s story is about forcibly displaced people, and a Europe that does not want them. With most of Europe’s doors slammed shut, they remain in limbo in Greece, a country under-equipped to host them.

In March 2016, the EU-Turkey Deal went into effect, mandating that all people arriving in Greece irregularly would be returned to Turkey. Rights organizations have documented the deal’s flaws and fallout, including “the untrue, but wilfully ignored, premise that Turkey is a safe country for refugees and asylum-seekers” as Amnesty International notes. The agreement’s instability was exacerbated in early 2020, when the Turkish government “opened the doors” to Europe to pressure the EU. Escalating violence in northern Syria has increased arrivals in Turkey. The Turkish government cites lack of EU support to cope with this increase.

It has been more than five years since the world first saw images of Alan Kurdi, a three-year-old Syrian boy. But in the years since Alan’s death (2016–2020), more than 13,800 people have died attempting to cross the Mediterranean. Media coverage is far less frequent than at the height of the crisis.

Will the Greek government and EU’s motivation to take action also decrease?

Toxic exposure impacts: initially intangible

Lead poisoning’s effects often do not noticeably manifest for months or years. If residents remain stranded in Mavrovouni, unable to move on to the Greek mainland or elsewhere in Europe, their bodies may be accumulating lead while the bureaucrats in charge deny that forcing people to reside on the site is unjust.

In a 19 November 2020 letter to Human Rights Watch, Greece’s Migration and Asylum Minister Notis Mitarachi claimed that the camp was not lead-contaminated, but that soil testing would be conducted. (I contacted Minister Mitarachi’s office for comment, but have not heard back as of this writing.) On 6 December 2020, General Secretary for Reception of Asylum Seekers, Manos Logothetis, told Human Rights Watch that no lead testing was conducted before moving people to the camp, but claimed results are pending. The urgency of housing people after the Moria fires does not justify lead exposure. Human Rights Watch doubts claims that on-site weapons are lead-free: “lead-free bullets are expensive and very rare, particularly prior to the 1980s.” Even for bullets with lead-free coatings, coatings disintegrate easily and lead cores become exposed once bullets enter soil.

I spoke to Manos Kalaintzis, a Greek lawyer who has worked on legal advocacy for asylum-seekers, including in Moria. He is from Lesbos, and currently on the island. “A bystander, even someone that is not familiar with health or environmental protocols, could have seen that it is not a suitable place, even temporarily,” Kalaintzis told me. Mavrovouni “is meters away from the sea, and at the level of the sea. There was no impact assessment or any kind of assurance to prove that it was safe.”

Kalaintzis emphasized the government’s recklessness after the fires. “The authorities were under pressure to resolve the situation as quickly as possible.” The decision was made with approval from the Greek military. “No authorization from local authorities was needed in order for the camp to be settled there. That is the real reason behind why it was chosen,” Kalaintzis stressed. In the days before the camp’s establishment, the Ministry of Migration was “playing hide and seek, and reporters were trying to find where the location would be … they built it literally overnight,” he explained. “The soil is not very solid. This place was a swamp.”

Concerns about disturbing lead-contaminated soil persist amid flooding and operations to build wood floors underneath tents. A major concern is construction, started in November with the intention of improving water and electricity access. Construction increases the likelihood of releasing any lead in the soil.

Belkis Wille, senior crisis and conflict researcher at Human Rights Watch, told me that the Greek government has taken unnecessary risks. “We wrote to the government … saying you have to not commence construction work until you have done the testing because the risk of increasing exposure through construction is so high. Unfortunately they ignored our concerns. Not only is that putting migrants at risk, and all the aid and other workers, but also the construction workers. They are not wearing special PPE [personal protective equipment], and they are operating machinery in direct contact with this dust.”

I spoke to Katharina Rall, senior environment researcher at Human Rights Watch, who sees the construction situation as “the worst of all potential risk scenarios, where you have potentially contaminated soil, and you move it around with big machinery. That is the last thing you should do.”

Because people were moved to Mavrovouni before it was investigated, the situation now presents a challenge. “People should not have to choose between access to safe water and protecting their health. It should not be either/or,” Rall emphasized. “It is very hard to make it a safe place for people to live when they already live there.”

The hope is that soil tests will be negative for lead. Even in this best case scenario, however, the Greek government has facilitated environmental racism by neglecting its responsibility to ensure the site’s safety prior to placing a vulnerable population there.

The Greek government has facilitated environmental racism by neglecting its responsibility to ensure the site’s safety prior to placing a vulnerable population there.

Long-term lead exposure is often a slow-burning form of environmental injustice. It is not more, or less, threatening than that unexploded mortar adjacent to where children sleep. But unlike the mortar, people cannot know how to avoid it.

An urgent issue in Mavrovouni, Kalaintzis noted, is lack of sewage disposal. Residents fear walking across the camp at night to reach temporary toilets. To avoid traveling, people are “digging self-made toilets in the ground near their tents.” There have also been widespread reports of sexual assault in Lesbos camps.

Kalaintzis also emphasized that the July 2020 closure of the Médecins Sans Frontières COVID-19 isolation center in Moria ignited tensions before the fires. Local Greek authorities had imposed fines and threatened criminal charges related to building regulations, forcing the closure and increasing fears among residents about COVID-19. These fears have carried over to life in Mavrovouni.

The latest episode in a long-term crisis

If more than 13,800 deaths during Mediterranean journeys are not sufficiently shocking, how could a health threat that could take years to become fully visible spur governmental action?

When I wrote this 2017 essay about the refugee crisis, drawing on my experience volunteering in Greece’s Diavata camp and reporting from Athens’s City Plaza Hotel – a hotel squatted by activists to house displaced people between 2016 and 2019 – I criticized portrayals of the crisis as “a new phenomenon plaguing Europe”. In fact this was only the latest episode in a long-term crisis. Ignoring the rights and dignity of the displaced is not new. We need only reflect on the plights of World War II refugees, Palestinians since 1948, Venezuelans since the 1990s, the millions displaced following the 1948 partition of India, and countless other examples to recognize that displacement, expulsion, and abandoning the rights of the vulnerable are inseparable from the 20th century’s key geopolitical events. “Displacement and misplacement are [the 20th] century’s commonplace,” the writer Joseph Brodsky said in 1987.

Just as displacement has been a core component of life across eras and borders, environmental injustice is a defining element of contemporary life. In 2010, lead poisoning from gold extraction was discovered in Zamfara State, Nigeria. At least 163 people were killed, including 111 children. In Torreón, Mexico, home to the world’s fourth-largest lead-zinc metal smelter, children have had elevated blood lead levels for at least three decades. In Hunan, China, more than 1,300 children were poisoned by lead emitted from a manganese factory in 2009. Battery recycling operations poison people worldwide, including in Vietnam and Senegal. In December 2020, illness affecting more than 500 people in southern India was traced to high lead and nickel levels.

The Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) estimates that lead exposure caused over one million deaths in 2017, and in 2016 accounted for 63.2% of idiopathic [cause otherwise unidentified] developmental intellectual disability and significantly contributed to rates of heart disease and stroke. Lead poisoning remains a crisis of the poor. Children in low- and middle-income countries have elevated blood levels while levels in high-income countries have dropped. In the United States, however, a 2017 Pediatrics study found that 1.2 million children between twelve months and five years of age had elevated blood lead levels from 1999 to 2010. As rampant as lead poisoning is in the United States, undertesting and lack of detection are believed to be even more widespread throughout the Global South.

Rall has worked on lead poisoning in Kosovo. About 600 Roma, Ashkali, and Balkan Egyptian minorities lived in lead-contaminated UN-operated camps for more than a decade following the end of the war in Kosovo. “The situation in Kosovo should be a real warning,” she said. “When you put already marginalized, vulnerable communities in a camp under very difficult circumstances and then expose them to toxic lead, this makes their life so much harder in the short term but can also affect them for years to come.” Rall told me how families “face challenges with being able to afford healthy and nutritious food, which is particularly important for children who have been exposed to lead,” and find there is “little support for children with disabilities at school.”

Setting the stage for catastrophe

The proven, inseparable link between developmental disabilities and lead makes Mavrovouni’s situation especially alarming. Displaced people with disabilities struggle to access food, hygiene, and basic services. Chelation therapy, the treatment for acute lead poisoning, is expensive, can have severe side effects if used over extended periods of time, and is likely inaccessible for asylum-seekers.

By refusing or delaying soil testing, and by delaying prompt relocation of residents while it is determined whether the camp’s land can be cleared of lead and weapons, the Greek government leaves residents steeped in environmental racism. If any of the several thousand children in the camp have been exposed to lead, will they be adequately tested? If they acquire illnesses or developmental disabilities, will the Greek government, or the EU, or the UN, pay for their treatment? Who will fund the children’s lifelong care if needed?

In a 2001 feature on Dr. Herb Needleman, the physician who spearheaded research on lead’s damaging effects, Rebecca Skloot recounted Dr. Needleman’s experience treating a young girl who had ingested lead from paint on the walls of her Philadelphia home. Though close to death, the girl responded to EDTA chelation. When Dr. Needleman told the girl’s mother that the family must move from their lead-contaminated home, located in a low-income neighborhood, or the child would become brain damaged, the girl’s mother replied, “Where can I go? Any house I can afford will be no different from the house I live in now.” Dr. Needleman realized that the poisoning he had treated was not the true disease. The patient’s disease “was where she lived and why she was allowed to live there.”

The Greek government’s shirking of its responsibilities in Mavrovouni is not only a result of the EU’s, and the world’s, mishandling of the displacement crisis. It is a warning about another potential catastrophe. Displaced people must not merely be provided with minimal shelter, basic sustenance, and subpar sanitation. They are entitled to live in an environment guaranteed to be safe from toxic exposure, and guaranteed not to put them at heightened risk for illnesses and disabilities. Anything less is blatant environmental racism. (Especially damning in light of evidence of the links between environmental racism and COVID-19.)

Conditions at Mavrovouni must be recognized as abnormal. The first step forward is a full inspection of Mavrovouni, and lead blood testing for residents. The Greek government, and the EU, must reform policies regarding camp establishment and management to ensure transparent, thorough investigations of camps. Sites must be determined to be safe, in accordance with international health and environmental standards, prior to placing displaced people there.

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