Greece: Asylum seekers are trapped in a never-ending cycle of re-traumatization

An open letter to Ylva Johansson, the European Commissioner of Home Affairs

Samos - January 2021

Greece 2021 © Dora Vangi/MSF

On March 29, Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) delivered the following open letter to Ylva Johansson, the European Commissioner of Home Affairs, during her visit to the Greek islands of Lesbos and Samos. The visit comes shortly after the five-year-anniversary of the European Union (EU) and Turkey deal that continues to trap thousands of refugees and asylum seekers in inhuman conditions on the Greek Islands. 

European Commissioner Johansson,

You tell us you are coming to Lesbos and Samos to prepare for next winter, but you plan to implement the same policies that have created only suffering for the past five years since the EU-Turkey deal.

This isn’t the first winter where men, women, and children seeking protection in Europe have to live in miserable tents in the cold and the mud on the Greek islands. Five devastating winters have passed since Europe started trapping people on the islands. Five winters that have led to destitution, traumatization, and even to the death of people trapped in EU-funded reception centers.

Let’s be clear: the situation on the Greek islands today is not due to lack of winter preparedness. On the ground, Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) and others are here dealing with the terrible consequences of the EU's containment policy and we have seen this crisis unfold before our eyes. We have provided evidence of how it affects people whose only wish is safety and stability—just like you and just like any of us. If you are unwilling to hold yourself and the EU governments accountable for this continued harm and neglect, we are ready to take on this role.

Since 2017, we have been dealing with a permanent mental health emergency in the island camps. Among our patients there are children who fall into despair. They stop talking, eating, and playing, and they resort to self-harm. Did you know that last year alone, we treated at least 50 children who were self-harming or had thoughts about suicide on Lesbos? In January, three more kids tried to kill themselves. In 2020, our psychologists in Samos treated 254 new patients and half of them mentioned suicidal ideation or thinking about death during their first session. It is not only the harsh conditions that have a detrimental consequence on people’s mental health, it is also your containment policy, the lack of safety, ongoing limbo, and fear of being returned to unsafe places.

Over the past five years, we have treated hundreds of survivors of violence and torture who, after months in the European funded hotspots, fell into absolute despair. Several of them are still here, without protection, sharing tents with absolute strangers, suffering from chronic pain and recurring flashbacks from their current and previous traumatic experiences, trapped in a never-ending cycle of re-traumatization.

In Samos, MSF is providing safe water for thousands of people living in the camp. Can you believe that we are having to provide clean water to people in the EU, one of the richest blocs of countries in the world?

None of this is an unintended consequence nor an issue of lack of capacity or resources: the conditions on the Greek Islands are supposed to be a deterrent to those still thinking of attempting the journey. Ms. Johansson, this isn't the first time you've attempted a positive spin on what is in reality a disastrous situation.

After the fire that destroyed Moria last September, you said "no more Morias," yet more camps are being built. On several occasions before that, we have heard the EU speaking about the right to seek asylum and respectful asylum and return procedures. You even talked about solidarity among European countries. So, when you tell us today you are coming with solutions, forgive us for not believing a word you say.

You came here to promise better conditions in the new camps. However, you fail to address the root of the problem. As long as the EU prioritizes containing and returning migrants at the EU external border over protection and dignified reception, those seeking safety in Europe will continue to suffer.

Ms. Johansson, playing with words to brush over the same harmful policy is not convincing any more. You cannot repackage the same destructive ideas and tell us they will be more humane.

We have said it before: if you are really committed to properly resolving this crisis and protecting the lives and the rights of the people fleeing their countries seeking safety, it is time to hold European governments accountable. It is time to demand dignified alternatives to camps, allow access to a fair and dignified asylum procedure, and ensure adequate and tailored health care adapted to the needs of people fleeing violence, conflict, and trauma.

If you insist, for the sake of political compromise, on promoting and replicating the same model that has created so much harm and suffering, "no more Morias" will be only empty words. And new Morias will continue to be built again and again.

Dr. Hilde Vochten

Medical Coordinator, Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) Lesbos project