European policies continue to trap thousands in inhuman conditions on Greek islands

Testimony from Vathy Camp. Samos - July 2020

Greece 2020 © Enri Canaj/Magnum Photos

On September 8, several fires erupted in Moria refugee camp—Europe’s largest camp for displaced people on the Greek island of Lesbos. The fires almost entirely destroyed the camp leaving some 12,000 women, men, and children with no safe place to stay in the midst of the COVID-19 outbreak.

In response to the fires, on September 23, the European Commission announced a new Migration and Asylum Pact, calling it a “fresh start” on migration and promising “no more Morias.” But across the Greek islands, tens of thousands of refugees and asylum seekers continue to be trapped in overcrowded camps in unsanitary conditions similar to those of Moria camp.

“We will believe in a fresh start when we [no longer need] to treat so many people who are suffering unnecessarily,” said Dr. Christos Christou the international president of Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF). “For years, the European Commission has made new announcements, promises, and commitments, but what we see in the Greek islands and in the central Mediterranean is people seeking safety being systematically subjected to more misery, suffering, humiliation and violence.”

I do not have words to describe the situation in [Vathy] camp. There are rats and snakes. We have to queue for the toilet and the showers for hours. Sometimes we prefer to defecate in plastic bags . . . because there is no running water, or to avoid waiting in the lines. I cannot sleep at night because I do not feel safe. I want to ask the international community to stop treating us like animals.

Agnes, 43, from the Democratic Republic of Congo

Empty promises

Approximately 7,600 people displaced from Moria are living in a new tent camp near the ocean on the island of Lesbos, including 15 people confirmed to have COVID-19. There is no real protection against the weather, and our teams fear that the first rainstorms will cause flooding and miserable conditions. Our patients have reported that there are no showers in the new camp and tell our teams that the conditions are worse than Moria. Tents are shared by multiple families and are not adequately isolated. Some do not even have flooring and people are forced to sleep on dirt and rocks. The tent for single men is hosting approximately 100 people. 

Meanwhile, thousands of other refugees and asylum seekers, including pregnant women, elderly people, people with chronic disease, and children, are forced to sleep on the streets.

MSF continues to provide primary care, sexual and reproductive care, and mental health care to refugees and asylum seekers trapped on the islands of Lesbos, Samos, and Chios. Among them are thousands of children and hundreds of victims of torture and violence that have been retraumatized to a point that our doctors have repeatedly described as a mental health emergency. Our teams in Lesbos have identified 87 patients that require urgent evacuation to the mainland for specialized treatment, including 31 children and 56 patients who are victims of torture, sexual violence, or ill treatment.

A mental health emergency

Vathy camp, on the island of Samos, has the capacity to host 650 people, but 4,500 are currently held there. MSF runs a day care center near the camp offering mental health support and sexual and reproductive healthcare. We also provide more than 26,000 gallons of water to the majority of residents in the camp each day. 

“Right here, right now in Vathy camp, we are treating the tremendous suffering inflicted by cruel containment policies on our patients who have already been through so much trauma,” said Jonathan Vigneron, MSF field coordinator in Samos. “In this camp [there are] more than 1,000 children living in dirt and rubbish among rats and scorpions. It is an insult to thousands of people suffering in abhorrent and dangerous camps across the Greek islands to hear the European Union (EU) say there will never be another Moria.”

On September 20, the second fire in just a few days erupted in Vathy camp. The fire was controlled, and MSF’s mobile team treated people who were affected.

“In Moria, we have seen what can happen when this horrific recipe for disaster is ignored: the ticking time bomb exploded,” said Vigneron. “In Vathy we see exactly the same conditions, and we are warning the authorities of an undeniable storm on the horizon. Action has to be taken and it has to happen now before it is too late.”

“Enough is enough”

There are now more than 90 confirmed COVID-19 cases in Vathy camp, and MSF is particularly concerned about the lack of protection for elderly people and people who have chronic and acute medical conditions. Those who have tested positive for COVID-19 are isolated in terrible conditions with no access to medical treatment. The authorities have failed to implement or provide details of any response plan to prevent further spread of the virus in the camp. 


Call for urgent evacuation and radical change

“Enough is enough,” said Vigneron. “Over the past months, with the restriction of movement, the rise in COVID-19 [cases] and the [inhumane] conditions, our team has seen a concerning deterioration of our patients’ health and mental health.” MSF is calling for people to be moved from Vathy camp and other camps on the Greek islands to safe accommodation on the mainland, or in other EU states, immediately.

In September, in response to the new migration pact, MSF co-signed a petition with hundreds of organizations and individuals calling on European leaders and the European Commission to end policies that trap people in inhumane conditions across the Greek islands.

Stories from Vathy camp 

At the end of July, MSF collected testimonies from patients living in Vathy camp. Since then, COVID-19 has reached the camp. Some patients have been transferred to other accommodation in Samos or on the mainland, but others are still trapped in Vathy camp living in overcrowded, unsanitary conditions that make it impossible to implement measures that will help to protect them from COVID-19.