Asmaan * from Afghanistan is 10 years old. For eight months, she lived in a makeshift tent with her family on the outskirts of the olive grove surrounding Moria camp in Lesbos. She is one of more than 17,000 asylum seekers and refugees living in detention here since March 23.
Asmaan is a familiar face in the MSF-run pediatric clinic just outside the main entrance. “She was throwing up, shivering through the nights and became listless,” her mother Sharif * said. “We were really alarmed when she was bleeding while going to the bathroom.” Diagnosed with acute inflammation in her kidney, Asmaan was transferred to the island hospital. Sharif said staff wanted to send her daughter to the mainland for treatment. But the family cannot leave Lesbos until their asylum procedure is completed.
“Only very serious cases can be transferred to the mainland,” Babis Anitsakis, director of infectious diseases at Mytilene Hospital, told The Guardian. “This is also the case for the local population.” Such cases often involve waiting two to three months in the camp before a transfer can be arranged, he said.
“We are confronted daily with patients from Moria who have diseases such as tuberculosis or HIV. We are simply not equipped for these treatments. In addition, we are facing enormous translation difficulties. At night, medical staff work with a phone translation app to communicate with patients, which can be disastrous in an emergency.
For Giovanna Scaccabarozzi, doctor at MSF in Lesvos, Asmaan’s case is typical of a system in which refugees and asylum seekers find it increasingly difficult to access appropriate health care, often despite of desperate need.
“Even survivors of torture and sexual violence are now on their own with no one to talk to and no possibility of escaping the highly traumatic space of Moria,” she said. The lockdown of the camp allowed fewer people to reach the MSF mental health clinic in Mytilene.
“From five to ten appointments a day, we’re now down to two to three a week in the city’s torture clinic,” Scaccabarozzi said. Even when people arrive at the clinic, “it feels like you are treating a burnt person while they are still standing in the fire.”
The closure of the Covid-19 isolation unit on Thursday fell to the island authorities who enforce town planning regulations, MSF said. “We are deeply disappointed that local authorities were unable to reverse these potential fines and charges in light of the global pandemic, despite the efforts of relevant stakeholders,” said Stephan Oberreit, MSF Head of Mission in Greece. “Lesvos’ public health system would simply be unable to cope with the devastation caused by an epidemic in Moria – that’s why we intervened. Today we had to reluctantly shut down a crucial part of the Covid-19 response for Moria.
Athens has become a beacon of hope for those living in the overcrowded camps on the island, but a recent change in policy has seen people arriving in Athens with virtually destitute refugee status, many of whom are struggling with permanent health.
The changes, which mean that cash assistance and housing end one month after refugee status is granted, affect around 11,000 refugees in Greece. MSF told the Guardian it was concerned that a number of patients were at risk of deportation and that many refugees in Athens were sleeping rough.
Hadla, 59, from Aleppo, who had suffered several heart attacks, died a few days after leaving the apartment she shared with her daughter Dalal in Athens. She had been invited to leave several times. “I told them my mother was terribly ill and showed them the medical records, but they told us there was nothing they could do about it and the decision was from the ministry,” Dalal said.
Fearing deportation, Dalal took her mother to the Schisto refugee camp on the outskirts of Athens, where her brother was residing. Two days later, Hadla suffered another cardiac arrest and died. Dalal is still in the apartment with the rest of her family but continues to be evicted. “We have nothing and nowhere to go,” she said.
Kelly Moraiti, a nurse at the MSF Athens crèche, said the evictions put the health of patients at risk, especially those living with diseases such as diabetes. “A person who is faced with a disease for life should have permanent and uninterrupted access to treatment. They should have access to adequate food and space to store medicines, which should not be exposed to the sun; being homeless in these conditions is extremely dangerous. ”
MSF has urgently called on the Greek government and the EU to help house refugees sleeping rough in Athens and to end the evictions of vulnerable people.
Some of the refugees on the streets of Athens are heavily pregnant women and new mothers as well as survivors of torture and sexual violence. Many have significant health issues that are often complicated by their stay in camps such as Moria.
The Greek Migration Ministry did not respond to requests for comment.
* Names changed or shortened for confidentiality reasons