23 Jul 15 11 Mar 19

'Precarious limbo': MSF Canada's Dr. Heather Culbert reports from the front lines of the migrant crisis in Greece

Thousands of migrants and asylum seekers are currently stranded in dire conditions across several Greek islands, where a lack of reception capacity has forced refugees from conflicts in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere into overcrowded facilities with few essential services. Dr. Heather Culbert, President of Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) Canada, recently visited MSF's projects on the front lines on one of Europe's largest but lesser known migrant crises, where teams are working to provide shelter, water and medical care. In the piece below, she shares some of what she saw on the ground.

By Dr. Heather Culbert, President of MSF Canada

The first thing you notice when you enter the Captain Elias Hotel is the smell.

It is the odour of too many people, unwashed, sleeping or lounging in close proximity on mattresses in the grey light of the foyer. The floor is dirty and the toilets, down a dimly lit hallway, have no water. Upstairs the smell is less intense but the gloom is deeper, as you walk by rooms inhabited with families or young men, each with a small piece of real estate. There is no electricity and nowhere to cook; the only water comes from a couple of taps in the yard outside.

The Captain Elias is the home of several hundred refugees on the Greek island of Kos. It exists as a kind of no-man’s-land: ignored by the municipal authorities, but without any direct support from the UN agency responsible for refugees. The people here have arrived at this sunny tourist destination after, at the very least, a dangerous crossing from the coast of Turkey, brought by smugglers at night in overcrowded dinghies — just one part a long and perilous journey to reach the relative sanctuary of Europe.

Refugees seeking respite from war and violence

Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) is providing medical assistance to new arrivals — many of whom are fleeing conflict and war in their home countries, and have no access to basic healthcare — and I am in Greece to see with my own eyes MSF’s work on the front lines of Europe’s lesser-known refugee crisis. Unlike the boats arriving on the shores of Italy, the wave of migrants coming to Greece this year has been largely ignored by the media. Yet there are more migrants travelling along this route than across the Mediterranean. This year 43,500 refugees had entered Greece by the end of May, more than during all of 2014. Approximately 60 per cent of these were Syrians, followed by people from Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq and Somalia. The names of their countries of origin say much about the stories that brought them here.

At the hotel, MSF has installed water taps, chemical toilets, a shower and tents; the organization also runs a medical clinic on site

I have been brought to the Captain Elias Hotel by Omar, an Afghani interpreter who works for MSF. (I have changed Omar’s name as his request.) Omar is part of a team that works to provide medical, psychosocial and hygiene services to the refugees passing through the Greek islands. At the hotel, MSF has installed water taps, chemical toilets, a shower and tents; the organization also runs a medical clinic on site. In addition, a team goes out daily by boat to visit known refugee landings on other local islands and to ensure that people have their basic personal and medical needs met. An additional service is provided by the work of Omar: As an interpreter, he makes the refugees feel at ease and gives them a sense of human connection in a foreign country.

Omar’s own story is not an easy one. He left Afghanistan as a child to escape the war and spent years as a refugee in Pakistan.  As a teenager, he felt his safety was threatened, and fled to the West. He spent months travelling alone across Iran and Turkey when he was only 15. Eventually, he made his way to Greece, where he lived homeless and hungry in the parks of Athens, until he was taken in by someone who recognized his plight – another former migrant. He is now speaks Greek fluently and is proud of his adopted home.

A Syrian refugee sleeps under an olive tree in Kara Tepe camp on the Greek island of Lesbos.

Safe from war, but still vulnerable

When we enter the Captain Elias we are quickly surrounded by eager faces, full of curiosity and questions. There is a group of Afghan youths who banded together on their way across Turkey. They range in age from 18 to as young as 12, and there are no adults with them.  They are bursting with enthusiasm to meet Omar, and to know that they are within the relative safety of Europe. Many of them have left home to avoid being press-ganged into military service, the Taliban or the Islamic State. However, they remain vulnerable: They are at risk of exploitation, they can expect poverty and limited opportunities on the streets of Europe, and if caught they may face extended detention in prison-like conditions or even deportation.

Down the hall, we meet an older man, dignified in a crisp dress shirt, cordial with his few English words. He tells us that he is an engineer from Damascus. He has left Syria with his wife and four sons to find refuge in a land he hopes will grant them an opportunity for a normal life. The Syrian conflict has generated four million refugees, but it is only the fortunate few who can manage – or afford – the journey to Europe. Before the war, Syria was a middle-income country with an educated, cosmopolitan population and a rich history. The Syrians I have met in Greece are at pains to let me know that they are fundamentally no different from me, just caught up in dreadful circumstances. They are seeking refuge from a vicious and seemingly endless war – hence, they are refugees, and need our protection.

A group of around 150 Syrians set off to cross the Greek border with the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia.

Underfunding and lack of capacity amid economic uncertainty

The migrants in Kos and other Greek islands will not stay there. Their goal is to travel northward, through Macedonia and Serbia, and eventually Hungary, to reach northern and western Europe. Greece will just be a toehold in Europe for many of them. Greece has a limited and chronically underfunded asylum system, and does not have the capacity to address the needs of so many refugees; this situation is aggravated by Greece’s own immediate economic difficulties. Meanwhile, the EU and UN have not met their obligations to the asylum seekers under international law. Rather than being provided shelter and legal protection, the migrants live in a precarious limbo, reliant on the aid of local charities and a few international organizations like MSF.

Later in my trip, I visit the border with Macedonia, where hundreds of migrants congregate with the hopes of crossing. There is garbage everywhere, and little shade offered by the few nearby thorn trees. MSF has installed a water tap, but until now has not been granted permission to put in toilets or other services because of the proximity to the border. The organization runs a mobile medical clinic, treating mostly heat stroke, rashes and blistered feet for people who have been forced to walk the 65 kilometres from Thessaloniki. The Macedonian border guards don’t look much older than the Afghan youths I met earlier, but they have guns and the migrants wait patiently for an opportunity to cross.

I meet one Syrian family waiting uncomfortably in the heat: men and women with several small children, including a baby not six months old who is covered with insect bites and crying. Some of them carry small, blue plastic bags with food: some biscuits and juice. They greet us courteously and invite us to share their meal. I need to look away to hide my emotion: much, from those who have little. I can only hope that they, too, will find a spirit of hospitality on their journey north.

Dr. Heather Culbert is President of MSF Canada.

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