When I said I was going to Europe to volunteer with refugees, many people asked the same questions. “Is that still happening?”, “What is going on now?”
In truth, I didn’t know the extent of the current situation. Yes, it is still happening but how many refugees and what the circumstances are, is difficult to describe until you see it for yourself.
The media has gone quiet.
A young boy washed upon the shores of Greece in 2015 was enough to finally awaken the press to the refugee crisis but since then little has been reported. The hype is over. But after 6 weeks working in Greece it is safe to say that despite the lack of publicity, the crisis is far from over.
The conditions I have seen whilst working in Greece, are in some cases, shocking. I have seen a child with a severe disability, living in an empty container in a refugee camp, alongside 4 other families. 28 people, adults and children living together in under 250 square foot.
These disused cabins have no furniture and no belongings other than simple blankets to keep out the winter cold. On meeting the child and his family, I also discovered that two of his siblings had infected scabies which needed urgent treatment and which, as they are unregistered, the camp and camp doctors would not provide.
As a medical organisation that is currently funded entirely on donations, we are having to provide high cost medications, to offer basic care to children in need. Children, who are living within EU funded refugee camps in Greece.
Although the conditions inside the camp are bad, and likely to get worse with the expected influx of people from Moria on Lesvos, the conditions outside are worse.
As mentioned in a previous blog post, the abandoned building currently houses over 100 refugees. I am not saying I promote the use of the abandoned building; I know the locals are resolute in their fight to get rid of the refugees, all I’m saying is this is fact.
There are over 100 homeless refugees that seek refuge here and for however long or short a period they remain in Thessaloniki, they use this as their base. On some occasions, the refugees who initially look for the comfort of the camp, realise after arrival that they are not going to get shelter/ accommodation, access to showers or even food, they often leave again and opt to sleep in the building, as at least it is near the city centre and they are more likely to find food. A few centres in the city offer food during the day and another organisation distributes food in the evenings to the homeless refugees.
On arrival to clinic last Thursday, our car park was deserted.
Admittedly, there has been a large turn around in the last few days and many familiar faces have moved on to try and cross the border. Despite this however, there are generally a few people already awaiting medical care when we arrive. To investigate, we walked around the area behind the abandoned building and saw some local tradesman fencing it off, so it was inaccessible. When a colleague and I asked one of the workers where he expected the people inside to go after it was sealed, he said he did not know. He replied that we should ‘take them to Germany’ with us.
When we walked around the building the police were present. They had lined up all the refugees and began evicting all of them from the building, without any evidence of papers. Any who didn’t already have police papers were arrested on the spot and the remaining few were advised that if they were there later on, when the police returned, they would be arrested with or without documents.
When we left the clinic that evening, two further refugees had been arrested walking in the area, as they did not have police papers. As we drove away, the streets either side of the abandoned building were lined with boys and men, unable to go inside and waiting with their possessions for who knows what.
They are not allowed back in, as they will be arrested. They will not be allowed to sleep on the ‘streets’ or in ‘parks’, as suggested by the police at the time, as they will likely be arrested. Just a fortnight ago, refugees gathered in Aristotelous square, Thessaloniki’s main square. They camped outside the police station in order to be arrested, just to try and obtain the papers they need to seek asylum. With winter approaching, they are anxious to submit their requests for asylum in order to get a place within a camp for winter. However, the majority of people that camped out in Aristotelous square were families and therefore more likely to attract publicity and subsequently actions.
The refugees from the building are often single men. If they get arrested they run the risk of being detained from a few days to months and are much less likely to get a space within a refugee camp unless they are a minor. These men have no options.
In the six weeks that I have been in Greece, I have seen that the crisis is not over. It is as bad as ever.
I have seen within refugee camps disabled children without any therapy input or basic equipment, such as seating or a wheelchair. I have seen a severe pressure sore with a 5cm deep sinus in need of surgery, managed and dressed by the refugee’s mother without any regular support from the medical team in the camp. There is a man sleeping outside in a tent with brachial monoplegia from a bullet wound through the shoulder, unable to use his arm and yet having to manage without help in such conditions. Next to him is a man unable to walk who suffered a leg injury and burns from a bomb blast; unable to walk yet living in a two person tent. We have discovered severely ill children, one with a temperature of over 40 degrees, again sleeping in tents pitched on hard floors.
I have spoken to those that are medically well but not registered in the camp, who are without access to showers and food. I have tried to help heavily pregnant women that can not be housed. I have seen numerous children with infected scabies that as they are not registered cannot receive treatment. I have seen streets full of men, with nowhere to go and who sleep at risk of being arrested and having all their possessions taken (in some instances not returned).
I have seen all of this and the Greek government want to reduce the number of migrants in Moria camp, Lesvos from 8 500 to half that in a few weeks. Currently Moria is a humanitarian disaster; MSF have reported that even children are attempting to commit suicide. Our own response team in Lesvos is struggling with the psychological pressures and MSF, recently stated that since May, at least one person a week is being raped within the camp. The truth is these statistics may be even higher. Half of the victims are boys and girls under 18 and two children as young as 5 years old.
At what stage do we say these conditions are unacceptable for refugees in Europe?
Around 186 000 refugees crossed into Europe last year and UNHCR estimate around 116 000 have entered this year so far. Although down from previous years figures with over 1 million refugees arriving in 2015 alone it is unlikely that this situation is going to go away quickly. It is a basic human right to have access to food, shelter, washing and health facilities. I am shocked and upset that I have to leave people in this position and that despite all our best efforts, we can do little to help beside offer basic medical care and friendship.
I think most people would be shocked to hear of the conditions these people live in within Europe. Many have said that if they had known how bad it was, they would not have left their home countries. A Syrian family with a disabled child said he was seen monthly in a hospital in Turkey and yet they feel abandoned here in Greece. His parents fled during the war, at which stage his mother was heavily pregnant and the stress of the bombings and shootings greatly impacted her pregnancy. As a result, she eventually had a very difficult birth in Turkey and her baby suffered asphyxia. He is now three years old, fed through a tube in his nose and has no sitting balance or head control. He sleeps on a mattress, on the floor in a container.
Predominantly my role in Greece has been working as a physiotherapist, I can provide much needed care and rehabilitation to those who need it. However, I have also been coordinating the project along with a German nurse. I have been arranging appointments for people the red cross have not made; putting vulnerable homeless families in contact with the right organisations to provide shelter and discussing with a legal volunteer team the legalities to the police evictions and retention of the refugees possessions which I believe is in violation of the refugees rights. We have been working with the new camp manager to try and find containers for the most vulnerable and ill children and adults, as well as working out a way we can improve the effectiveness of the medical care we give.
Ultimately the people in Europe need to open their eyes and hearts to this situation. Greece, chronically underfunded and struggling with their own economy needs more support from the EU and UN to improve the basic circumstances of the thousands of migrants that arrive weekly, risking their lives. We need to share the burden of the crisis amongst Europe to relieve pressure on countries like Greece, Italy and Spain before it is too late and we need raise awareness of the reasons why these people are making these perilous journeys to Europe to eradicate the racism associated. However, until then, if anyone reading this believes this is a worthy cause then please donate to my just giving page. This work means a great deal to me. I was extremely upset the other day when we had to leave one of the refugees I am close to on the streets for the night. We treat him like a friend and then we have to leave him to this awful situation and it was truly heartbreaking. If I could do, more I would, I have five more weeks to try and make as much as a contribution as possible. All of our work is funded by volunteers and by donations. If anyone wants to contribute to my work and all that I am doing please visit my just giving page. None of this work would be possible without support and it scares me to think how the refugees would manage without any support from our organisation.