Greece's camp goes up in flames, conflict and COVID-19 collide, and USAID disbands its task force: This week in development

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The Greek and European Union flags. Photo by: (Mick Baker) rooster / Flickr / CC BY-ND

Europe’s largest refugee camp burns, the United Nations warns of famine in countries affected by conflict and COVID-19, and USAID deactivates its coronavirus task force. This week in development:

Fires have destroyed most of Europe’s largest refugee camp, Moria, on the Greek island of Lesbos. Home to roughly 12,000 residents — down from a peak of 20,000 but still overcrowded — the camp had become a symbol of Europe’s resistance to refugee resettlement and the inadequacy of facilities available to house people fleeing war and persecution. Authorities are investigating whether the fires, which occurred Tuesday night and Wednesday evening, were started deliberately after residents were forced to quarantine when 35 people tested positive for COVID-19. Most of the camp was destroyed, including a facility for 400 unaccompanied minors, and observers described a chaotic scene in which residents fled to escape the blaze despite having nowhere to go. Thousands of refugees have been forced to sleep on the side of the road, in parking lots, and in fields, while Greek and European Union officials attempt to come to agreement over what to do next. “E.U. member states need to have a serious discussion about reducing numbers on the island, and alleviate the pressure on Greece, because Greece cannot deal with this alone,” Eva Cossé, research lead for Human Rights Watch in Greece, told The New York Times. The relationship between refugees and local residents was already at a breaking point, with those stuck in the camp complaining of squalid conditions and little assistance to help them leave and area residents saying that they are overwhelmed and receiving little support, while sometimes responding violently to new arrivals.

United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres warned of increasing food insecurity and growing famine risk in four conflict-affected countries: the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Yemen, Nigeria, and South Sudan. Guterres wrote to members of the U.N. Security Council — in a note obtained by The Associated Press — that recent analyses place these countries among the worst in the world for food security but that funding to respond is inadequate. Conditions in other conflict-affected countries are also deteriorating, he cautioned, “exacerbated by natural disasters, economic shocks and public health crises, all compounded by the COVID-19 pandemic.” On Wednesday, Undersecretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator Mark Lowcock told Security Council members that roughly one-third of the 26 million confirmed global cases of COVID-19 are in “countries affected by humanitarian or refugee crises, or those facing high levels of vulnerability.” He noted that the fatality rate in fragile countries may be lower than initially feared but warned that “the indirect consequences of the pandemic in the most fragile countries are dwarfing the impact of the virus itself.” More than 200 cases of COVID-19 have been reported among U.N. staff members working in Syria, according to a letter obtained by Reuters, but humanitarian workers believe the actual number is much higher when taking into account NGO partners overseeing the United Nations’ humanitarian efforts in a country widely believed to be underreporting the severity of its outbreak.

The U.S. Agency for International Development has deactivated its coronavirus task force, the agency team that was set up to coordinate COVID-19 response efforts. The task force’s functions will be transferred to the agency’s existing bureaus, with assistance from a new “Readiness Unit,” according to Politico. A current USAID official confirmed the move to Devex and added that one reason for disbanding the task force is that without additional funding for the international COVID-19 response from the U.S. Congress, the group has little left to strategize or program. “The money is already pushed to the missions, so I’m not sure what the [task force] is really doing,” the official said. USAID has also launched a longer-term strategy process called “Over the Horizon” to anticipate and plan for the ongoing effects of the pandemic. “As the pandemic will be with us for the foreseeable future, existing USAID structures and processes can meet just these kinds of long-term challenges,” USAID acting Spokesperson Pooja Jhunjhunwala told Politico.

About the author

  • Michael Igoe

    Michael Igoe is a Senior Reporter with Devex, based in Washington, D.C. He covers U.S. foreign aid, global health, climate change, and development finance. Prior to joining Devex, Michael researched water management and climate change adaptation in post-Soviet Central Asia, where he also wrote for EurasiaNet. Michael earned his bachelor's degree from Bowdoin College, where he majored in Russian, and his master’s degree from the University of Montana, where he studied international conservation and development.