Doctors call on Government to resettle 400 migrants from Greek camp

Protocols allow for safe relocation of refugees during pandemic, say healthcare workers

Refugee camp on Samos, Greece: Irish doctors express concern about the 12,000 people who were left destitute after a fire destroyed the Moria refugee camp on Lesvos, in September 2020. File photograph: Medecins Sans Frontieres

Refugee camp on Samos, Greece: Irish doctors express concern about the 12,000 people who were left destitute after a fire destroyed the Moria refugee camp on Lesvos, in September 2020. File photograph: Medecins Sans Frontieres

 

Hundreds of Irish healthcare workers have signed a letter calling on the Government to relocate 400 migrants from the Greek island of Lesvos to Ireland “as a matter of urgency”.

The letter, which includes the signatures of 260 leading medical practitioners from across Ireland, says that 2020 was a “catastrophic year for asylum seekers and refugees trapped on Lesvos” and that 12,000 people were left destitute after a fire destroyed the Moria camp in September 2020.

More than 7,000 are now in a new camp where “conditions are arguably worse than before, directly impacting their physical and mental health”, says the letter. “No human being should be forced to live in these conditions, let alone in the midst of a pandemic.”

The doctors express concern about children, older people, pregnant women, people with severe medical and mental health conditions and survivors of torture and sexual and gender-based violence, who are living in these conditions.

The Government committed last year to accept 50 people in family groups and 14 unaccompanied minors from the burnt-out Moria migrant camp, but said relocation had been delayed because of the pandemic.

However, doctors involved in the campaign say it is “imminently possible for public health experts to safely move 400 people from Greece to Ireland” and that the structures and protocols already exist to make it happen.

EU-Turkey deal

The publication of the letter coincides with the fifth anniversary of the EU-Turkey deal, which was introduced to stop migrants from Africa and the Middle East travelling to European shores.

Under the agreement, Turkey agreed to take back asylum seekers who landed in Greece while in return, the EU agreed to give Ankara funding to support the millions of Syrians stranded in Turkey.

Dr Claire Dunne, who is leading the campaign and recently returned from Greece after spending 18 months working with migrants on the islands, says she has been “haunted” by what she saw during her time there. “It’s impossible to forget or accept what’s happening when you know there’s a solution. These camps are funded by EU member states and Ireland is part of that system.”

While working in Moria, Dr Dunne met people from all walks of life – journalists, doctors, nurses, artists – who had shown “strength and bravery” in escaping war but are now “contained and trapped in these camps, where their basic human needs are not being met”.

The makeshift camp built after Moria burned down is surrounded by high barbed-wire fences, and people are only allowed leave for three hours a week during the pandemic, she said.

Many of the camp’s residents have contacted Dr Dunne through the winter, saying it is impossible to sleep due to the freezing conditions in tents. She recalls working with a woman in her 60s who had spent years sleeping on the cold ground and “cried with thanks” when she had the opportunity to sleep in a bed for one night.

Trauma

Meanwhile, many children have suffered additional trauma since the fire, with reports from NGOs of children repeatedly sleepwalking towards the water in the months following the blaze.

Dr Suzanne Carter, a respiratory specialist based in University Hospital Galway who has worked in Lesvos four times since 2018, agrees that resettling 400 people to Ireland during a pandemic is possible.

“As a medic you cannot sit back and use Covid as an excuse when thousands of people are suffering. These people don’t have the luxury of self-isolation and sanitation. This is inhumane and this suffering was going on long before Covid-19. We understand there are limitations with the virus, but we can do this safely.

“At the end of the day there is no alternative, these camps don’t work. If we refuse to engage in a more humane solution we are part of the problem. Covid was a valid concern at the start of the pandemic, but we understand the restrictions and risks now. This is an issue of access to healthcare and human rights. We can deal with the politics after.”