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People in the Moria refugee camp on the Greek island of Lesbos wait to use one of the few overcrowded water stations in the camp. © 2020 Moria Corona Awareness Team/Aman Hussaini

Soap, now more than ever, is a central part of our daily lives. But not for many refugees.

I’ve been in refugee camps worldwide. This they all have in common: refugees make great efforts to keep clean, but often lack these necessities: soap and water.

Preventing people from being able to keep clean is short-sighted as a matter of public health and downright inhumane, but many governments are reluctant to expend resources for humanitarian needs. And some choose to dehumanize refugees, asylum seekers, and migrants to make them less sympathetic so it’s easier to reject their claims or to deter more from coming. Last August, it took a federal court ruling to require the Trump administration to provide soap to children in migration detention – a Justice Department lawyer argued soap was not necessary to fulfill the legal requirement that detained children be kept in “safe and sanitary” conditions. 

Last month, I was amongst about 20,000 people crowded into the Moria refugee camp on the Greek island of Lesbos, a European Union-sponsored camp constructed for fewer than 3,000 people. It lacked running water throughout the day and sufficient soap. On the eve of the coronavirus pandemic reaching Europe, the main public health preoccupation at the time was a scabies outbreak sweeping through the camp.

At that time, organizations providing essential health, educational, and water, sanitation, and hygiene (known as WASH) services were evacuating their staff and volunteers because anti-refugee thugs were blocking them from entering the camps. I spoke with Alison Terry-Evans, a leader of my all-time favorite-named nongovernmental organization, Dirty Girls of Lesbos, an organization whose mission is washing dirty blankets and providing clean ones. “We’ve seen blankets with cockroaches, dead mice, nasty stuff,” Alison told me, but said her group had stopped its work. “We haven’t been able to get past the roadblocks.”

But the coronavirus threat has overtaken that of thugs. With the camp on lockdown by government order, which allows only the barest entry and exit, one can only imagine the difficulties for refugees to keep clean and put in place the social distancing requirement to prevent widespread transmission of the virus.

Moria and other overcrowded camps need to be decongested as quickly as possible and health services ramped up. But among the most urgent imperatives is making clean water, adequate sanitation, and hygiene – basic human rights – available for everyone, refugees included.  

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