Greece: Three years of "cruel, inhumane, and cynical" treatment of migrants and refugees

Moria's olive grove

Greece 2018 © Anna Pantelia/MSF

ATHENS/GENEVA/NEW YORK, MARCH 18, 2019—Thousands of people remain trapped in overcrowded, unsafe and unsanitary Greek island camps three years after the implementation of the European Union-Turkey deal, said Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) today, calling on European leaders to immediately evacuate children and other vulnerable people from these locations.

The European Union (EU) and Turkey deal, signed three years ago today, is a set of policies aimed at preventing refugees, migrants, and asylum-seekers from crossing irregularly from Turkey to Greece. These policies now trap about 12,000 men, women, and children in unsafe and degrading conditions in five Greek island camps, where they have little access to basic health services and suffer widespread misery.

"Greece has become a dumping ground for the men, women, and children that the European Union has failed to protect," said Emmanuel Goué, MSF head of mission in Greece. "What was once touted as a 'refugee emergency' has given way to inexcusable levels of human suffering across the Greek islands and on mainland Greece. The EU and Greek authorities continue to rob vulnerable people of their dignity and health, seemingly in an effort to deter others from coming. This policy is cruel, inhumane, and cynical, and it needs to end."

The lack of safe, legal pathways for people forced to flee their homes is painfully apparent. While the overall number of arrivals in Greece has greatly decreased since 2016, more than 5,000 people have arrived in Greece since the beginning of 2019, overwhelmingly from war-torn countries such as Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq, and Democratic Republic of Congo. More than half are women and children.

In Vathy camp, on Samos, conditions have deteriorated drastically in recent months due to severe overcrowding, prompting MSF to send a medical team back to the island a month ago, with plans to increase activities in the coming weeks. The camp currently hosts more than 4,112 people in a space meant for 648, with thousands languishing in a filthy and unsafe area outside the official camp. Those outside the camp include at least 79 unaccompanied children, as well as pregnant women, elderly people, people with chronic health conditions such as psychosis, and survivors of torture and sexual violence. 

"The EU and the Greek government are still failing to provide dignified and humane living conditions and proper medical care to those trapped on the Greek islands," said Vasilis Stravaridis, general director of MSF Greece. "In Vathy, more than half the camp's population is living in summer tents or under plastic sheeting, surrounded by rubbish and human excrement."

On the Greek mainland, thousands of migrants who arrived after the EU-Turkey deal was implemented now live in camps or in temporary accommodations run by the United Nations or aid organizations, while others sleep on the streets or in other rough conditions. All face obstacles to accessing medical care. Teams of MSF psychologists are working to care for people suffering from mental health issues, including depression, anxiety, and psychosis, and to rehabilitate survivors of torture. MSF psychologists cite the housing situation of their patients as their biggest challenge.

"How can we help a woman overcome trauma related to previous sexual assaults when she lives on the streets?" asks Goué. "Not only does she live in constant fear of another assault, but it would be dangerous for her to take medication that makes her drowsy. There is no recovery without safe housing, and yet there is a real shortage of safe housing for our high-needs patients all over Greece."

MSF has been providing medical and humanitarian assistance to asylum seekers and migrants in Greece since 1996. In 2014, MSF expanded its activities in Greece to meet the needs of an increasing number of asylum seekers, refugees, and other migrants. MSF medical teams in Greece have provided services including basic health care, treatment for chronic diseases, sexual and reproductive healthcare, physiotherapy, clinical psychological care, and psychiatric care, along with a comprehensive social support package. Today, MSF teams work on the islands of Lesvos, Samos, and Chios, and in central Athens.