No Welcome for Migrants, Refugees Landing in Greece

Alessandro Penso

The number of people arriving in Greece after fleeing war, violence, or poverty in their home countries has risen dramatically this year. This should not come as a surprise, as the number of displaced and refugees globally has risen to unprecedented levels, 59.5 million at the end of 2014, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

Since the beginning of 2015, more than 46,000 refugees have reached the Greek islands by sea. More than 14,000 landed in the Dodecanese islands. Since March 2015, Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) has been working on one such island, Kos, to provide care to newly arrived migrants and refugees.

So far, the MSF team has conducted more than 1,500 medical consultations, treating patients for chronic diseases that require medical follow-up, upper respiratory tract infections, skin infections, muscle pain, and gastrointestinal diseases. The majority of newly arrived people are staying in or around the Hotel Captain Elias, an abandoned, dilapidated building on the outskirts of Kos town. Hundreds of people sleep wherever they can find a space—in hallways, staircases, and on the dusty ground floor that used to be the hotel lobby.

Most are from Afghanistan or Syria, but there are also Iraqis, Iranians, and Bangladeshis among them. They traveled from Turkey in small, overcrowded, rubber dinghies, and have been directed by the Kos authorities to stay in this old building while they await permission from the police to leave the island, a process that can take several weeks.

In addition to providing medical care, MSF has also distributed more than 14,000 essential relief items such as blankets, hygiene kits, and energy bars. In the absence of any kind of management from the authorities, MSF has installed water points and latrines, and cleans the building every day. In order to provide assistance to more people, MSF also launched a mobile boat clinic on June 11, which travels to neighboring islands to respond to the needs of newly arrived people.

MSF is currently the only organization working to improve the living conditions inside Captain Elias and provide medical and psychosocial care to the migrants and refugees staying there. Below are the words of the head of mission for MSF on the islands and an Afghan who made the journey:

Stathis Kyroussis, MSF Head of Mission: “Nobody is Lifting a Finger to Help”

It seems the stance of the EU is to see these migrants and refugees as enemies. They want to build walls; deploy the military; limit, or even deny, assistance; anything to keep these people out.

I have worked in many refugee camps before, in Yemen, Malawi, and Angola. But here on the island of Kos, this is the first time in my life that I have seen people so totally abandoned. The authorities identified the disused Captain Elias hotel as it was some distance from the town center—and just threw them in there with no information, no help, no provisions, nothing…

What we are seeing every day is completely unacceptable. There seems to be a policy of ‘Let them suffer—if they don’t suffer, more will keep on coming.’

There is no central authority taking responsibility for the management of this ad-hoc refugee camp to ensure the safety of the refugees and their well-being. Nobody is lifting a finger to help.

Managing this influx of people is fully the responsibility of the state. But in the absence of any meaningful assistance, in MSF we decided we had to do something for the health and basic dignity of these people.

We have been cleaning up the hotel. We emptied the swimming pool, which was full of stagnant water and a danger for small children, and installed toilets and showers. We do health consultations and we have a psychologist in the team now. So it has improved a little, but it is still at five or six times over-capacity, and the people are pretty much abandoned there.

Mostly these people have nothing, apart from the little assistance that MSF is giving. The local communities cannot keep giving and giving—they have already been donating clothes to newly-arrived refugees, but there is a constant stream of people passing through.

Across the islands there are thousands of people in totally sub-standard conditions, with very little information about their next steps and no perspective for their future.

When you ask most of the people here, they don’t know what is going to happen to them—no idea. They have [received] very confusing information. Some people I have spoken to say they want to join up with their families in Sweden, but they have no clue of how they will get there.

What should be happening here is a state-provided package of reception services, including accommodation in decent conditions with reasonable hygiene and functioning toilets (which MSF has arranged in the Captain Elias camp), basic health services (which MSF is also providing), and clear information about where they are, what options are available, and what the next administrative steps should be.

These are obligations, and it is utterly shameful that they are being so totally neglected for people who have suffered so much.

Muhammed: “I Was Thinking About my Family, Not Myself” 

On the rooftop of the Captain Elias camp, 26-year-old Muhammed, who left Afghanistan a little over a month ago, recounts his experience of being an asylum seeker. Having traveled to Kos through Iran and Turkey, he is preparing a meal for himself and his three travel companions, among the shattered glass and rubble, on a small open fire.

“Back in Afghanistan I was running a pharmacy and doing some teaching in a local school. I also wanted to teach women in the village how to be healthy and how to care for their children. One day, some of the men in the village came to me, accusing me of teaching Christian ideas to the children. They said ‘You’re not a true Muslim, very soon you will be beheaded.’ Then, at the same time, I discovered that everything in my pharmacy had been smashed to pieces and that my father had disappeared without any explanation.

It’s now about three months since we last heard from him, and I don’t know if he is dead or alive. For this reason I decided to escape from Afghanistan, while hiding my family in another part of the country. I have come here in the hope that the governments in Europe will let us live as humans and not as animals.”

Muhammed is one of the 14,000 refugees who have arrived since the beginning of the year to the Dodecanese islands by boat from Turkey. More than 90 percent come from countries experiencing war and conflict, primarily Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, and Somalia.

“I traveled by foot, bus, and boat. The boat journey here from Turkey was very dangerous. You pay a smuggler to get onboard a rubber boat. When you pay him, he says there will only be 25 people onboard. And in the night time when you are getting in, you see that there’s already 50 people sitting in the boat and you can’t say no."

"They carry guns and they say they will kill you if you don’t get in. When I got in the boat I was thinking about my family, not myself. In this situation you just have to be brave. Some people in the boat were crying. It was too small for all of us, only about eight meters long. I feel lucky that I made it here safely.”

“I already spent $4,000 to smugglers to bring me here. It was money that I had saved over six years from running the pharmacy and I also borrowed some money. I have given about $1,000 to my family to survive in Afghanistan. After this, I will go to Athens and then God will decide where next. It’s better to go out of Greece because it’s the poorest country in Europe so we need to go further. But you have to pay lots of money for that, and I don’t have any left, so I will have to try and do it on my own.” 

2015. "'The boat journey here to Kos from Turkey was very dangerous. You pay a smuggler to get onboard a small rubber boat, only eight metres long. When you pay him, he assures you there will only be 25 people onboard. But in the night time when you are getting in, you see that there’s already fifty people sitting in the boat and you can’t say no. The smugglers carry guns and they say they will kill you if you don’t get in. When I got in the boat I was thinking about my family, not myself. In this situation you just have to be brave. Some people in the boat were crying. It was too small for all of us. I feel lucky that I made it here safely." - Mohammed, 26, from Afghanistan
Alessandro Penso