A collective stain on Europe’s conscience
Up until relatively recently not many would have heard of the island of Lesbos, in the east Aegean Sea which, although part of Greece, lies just off the coast of Turkey. It enjoys a quintessentially Mediterranean setting, surrounded by turquoise waters, with the sun-kissed white traditional houses set into the hillside.
Due to it being fairly small and its proximity to the Turkish coast, it missed out on being one of the tourist Meccas, along the lines of a Corfu, or a Mykonos or Rhodes. Perhaps not altogether to its detriment.
Then Lesbos found itself the centre of attention of the world’s media – or at least Europe’s – as it became the epicentre of a migrant crisis, with hundreds of refugees pouring onto its shores on a daily basis. The world’s poor and hungry were – quite literally – being washed up on the doorstep of the rich and wealthy. Global inequality had come home to roost.
The scenes being transmitted into our living rooms were heart-breaking – families crammed into little more than dinghies, pain and human suffering so evident in their scared eyes and battered bodies. And these were the lucky ones. Goodness knows how many drowned or never made it.
Sympathy and horror on a human level is a given, but few of us have been willing to give up our creature comforts, our sheltered lives, to actually do something about it; to put ourselves at the frontline of this cascade of human misery and suffering.
Yet, that’s exactly what Cassie Northcott and James Penney, two locum junior doctors who spent the best part of a year at the Western Isles Hospital in Stornoway, did. Their experiences were, understandably, harrowing.
Cassie is in Lewis right now covering at the hospital for another two-week spell and James is back down at his parents’ home in Herefordshire, awaiting his next posting.
At 32 and 29 they are still early on in their life journeys, but their three-month experience in a migrant camp will live long in the memory.
“The camp we worked in was just next to a town so literally within a stone’s throw of the camp you had people who were leading normal European lives,” said Cassie. “We had an apartment in the town and we would leave it every morning to go and work in the camp. It was like experiencing a cultural shock every single day.”
“It’s a desperate situation for these people,” says James. “They had been stuck in camp for so long – some for four years – and while you do feel you’re helping, overall it was incredibly frustrating.”
“The clinic was right on the edge of the camp”, says Cassie. “NGOs (non-Government Organisations) are not allowed to go into the camp. People who wanted to see a doctor that day would simply join a queue and wait for a translator who were actually volunteers from the camp. You would see the usual things you would see in a GP clinic but also a lot of things you wouldn’t see because of the conditions people are living in and the circumstances they’ve come from; what they had lived through.
“There was a lot of mental health issues – people with real psychological distress having experienced torture, sexual violence, or witnessed horrible things happening to their friends and relatives in the countries they’d come from. Even people who had seen people drown on the sea crossing.”
She continued: “There were lots of things like skin complaints, people with scabies and lice, children with severe burns from falling into open fires or stoves, ear infections, urine infections, piles… from the ordinary to the very extraordinary.”
Cassie and James met while attending a course on tropical medicine for newly-qualified medical practitioners. As part of their studies they attended a humanitarian camp in Uganda and it piqued a sense that this was something they should do while they could and considering they had the capability to do so.
They enlisted with Med’Equali, a small organisation formed by a French GP, which runs a clinic for migrants on the island of Samos, just down the Turkish coast from Lesbos and, just like its larger neighbour, experiencing the same flood of migrants across the Mycale Strait. That’s where Cassie and James ended up.
“What surprised me,” says Cassie, “was there was the huge range of people from different countries for all kinds of reasons. You had people from west Africa – Cameroon, Mali, Senegal, the DRC – some east Africans from Eritrea and Uganda. But quite a big proportion were from Syria and Afghanistan, but also Pakistan, Iran and even some from Haiti.”
James adds: “Some people had fled war zones and had been persecuted in some way. But some people had fled their country of origin simply in pursuit of a better life and opportunity. They had no idea that these camps existed. Once they had been there for several years they just got sick of it and wanted back, although some wanted to stick it out and get into Europe. It varied depending on their circumstances.”
The one thing that was abidingly consistent was the awful conditions – and the lack of action by the authorities. The camp in Samos was originally built five years ago for 650 people, says James. “When we arrived in Samos the camp and surrounding jungle housed around 3500 people, down from a peak of around 8000 in winter 2019. Any excess just set up tents around the camp and that’s where the vast majority were, in tents and tarpaulins.”
“Malnutrition was a big problem,” says Cassie. “We were able to refer both children and adults to the charity running the refugee kitchen, but capacity meant we could only refer those most in need.”
What Cassie and James witnessed with their own eyes, to a far greater degree than what most of us are able to fully understand, is a global crisis.
Every day, according to Oxfam, 37,000 people across the world are forced to flee their home suffering from persecution, conflict, violence or human right violations. On top of that there is the unknown quantity of those simply seeking a better life, mostly young men or families, seeking new economic opportunity.
It is not just in Europe. North America is also facing a refugee crisis and it seems as if the whole world is on the move in one sense or another. Climate change, the obliteration of coastal communities across Asia and the destruction of farmlands, will only see it exacerbated.
For James and Cassie, however, what they saw was not this massive unsolvable riddle for the authorities – but a simple lack of action, or to put it another way, neglect.
“This is about how the asylum process works,” says Cassie. “The original thinking, when they set up camps like this in the Aegean Islands, was that the people would be there for a fast-track procedure for 30 days. It’s not working because some people have been there for four years waiting for their claims to be processed."
James agrees: “What is happening is certainly not a solution. The length of time these people have to wait is just so unfair - keeping people in limbo like this is showing disrespect to their lives, especially the conditions they are having to endure.”
Since Cassie and James were in the camp in Samos the numbers have reduced. But be in no doubt – this is not a crisis that has in any way been resolved. Many in the camp have subsequently been moved to the Greek mainland, but still in refugee camps. For the time being at least, less are arriving across the Mycale Strait.
Cassie explains: “There is a formal arrangement between the EU and Turkey known as ‘The EU-Turkey deal’ which came into effect in 2016. It was struck in order to control the crossing of refugees and migrants from Turkey to the Greek islands. In essence Turkey agreed to host millions of refugees, in return the EU pledged €3billion and made a series of political gestures to Turkey. This has slowed the flow of people for now but has done nothing to improve the lives of people stuck in the Greek camps.”
In a reflection of the sense of frustration they experienced, Cassie says: “What we did was just a sticking plaster. We were not able to do anything about the bigger picture and nothing we were doing felt it was changing the situation in that respect.
“This is a system crisis. Europe can accommodate these people if it wants. There’s a reason these people are doing it, there's a reason they're risking their lives – they’re fleeing war or they're fleeing persecution and economic hardship. And this is how we treat them.”
The harrowing experience they witnessed has obviously had an effect and little wonder. Samos may be an option again, but as Cassie says it is all a bit overwhelming. At the moment, for her and James it's a case of “looking for more overseas work”.
“It would shock a lot of people if they were to see the conditions people are living in within Europe,” says James. “You imagine this kind of thing exists elsewhere in the world where resources are limited etc, but this is in Europe – where people go on their holidays – and people are living without basic human needs. We asked our landlady what she thought and she said that Europe has pushed the problem onto Greece and Greece has pushed the problem onto the islands.”
He continued: “Europe seems to be washing its hands of the situation and they’ve just left it to this ring of small islands to deal with. Samos is small – it’s only 6,000 people – about the same as Stornoway. If you can imagine all these thousands of people wanting into the UK and they left it all for Stornoway to deal with and they set up camp on the outskirts… it’s no wonder the health services and other services are being over-whelmed. This should be Europe’s shared responsibility.”