The Migrant Diaries: Vathy, Samos, Greece 2019

Wednesday 12th June

It’s unbearable.

I walk down a steep winding earth path between small tents and hovels made of plastic, scrap wood and blankets, clustered around smoking fires. There is rubbish everywhere, and the smell of human faeces. At one point the path runs beside a high mesh fence, topped with razor wire and cameras. Inside are the familiar white containers and yet more filthy tents crammed in between

… Don’t take photos of the camp! Stijn* yells at me as I raise my mobile phone to take pictures. It’s forbidden, they have cameras everywhere. The ‘camp’ which was once a military base, built to house 650, is now a Reception and Identification (RIC) centre for more than 1500, while another 2500 people squat out here in what is appropriately enough called the ‘Jungle’.

… Where do people wash or go the toilet? I ask

In the bushes. Stijn replies. There are no toilets, taps or showers out here, and those inside the camp are filthy, broken and with permanent queues. Aslam, whom I last saw working flat out in the Park hotel near the Macedonian border, is now based on the island. Like Stijn he now works for Help Refugees. He went to the police to get permission to put up portaloos. They sent [him] to the environment agency who sent him to the local authorities. We thought we had an agreement to put them on land that we rented, but the police took them down. There are some toilets and taps inside the camp. But if you are a woman, it is too dangerous to go out at night, it’s a nightmare, rates of sexual violence are really high.

And you can’t drink the water from the taps, Holly tells me. They dish out two litres a day per person for everything

Last November UNHCR urged the Greek authorities to urgently address the situation for the 11,000 asylum seekers that have passed through Samos, describing the conditions as ‘abhorrent’.

“New arrivals are left having to buy flimsy tents from local stores, which they are pitching on a steep slope in adjacent fields. This offers little protection from the cold weather, without electricity, running water or toilets. There are snakes in the area, and rats are thriving in the uncollected waste.

Many of the asylum-seekers arrive in Greece in a vulnerable state, but even those who turn up at the RIC in good condition soon find themselves suffering from health problems. A single doctor per shift provides medical care to the entire population and often only the most urgent cases get seen. Doctors at the local hospital are also overwhelmed. Many of the toilets and showers are broken, resulting in open sewage close to people’s tents. Others are using nearby bushes as a toilet. Vulnerable asylum-seekers – including some 200 unaccompanied children, over 60 pregnant women, the disabled and survivors of sexual violence – are left at risk in the RIC as alternative accommodation places on the island are taken. A container with broken windows and doors for unaccompanied children is hosting three times its intended capacity of six.”

It could not be clearer, but things have deteriorated rather than improved. The NGO’s have offered tents and blankets but the Ministry won’t collaborate, Stijn tells me. I watch two grubby, barefoot children running between shelters. At least they are laughing, but scabies and lice are rampant, and when migrant children attended the local school, Greek parents withdrew their own children in protest, saying they feared infection.

… Food is another problem Stijn explains. You have to start queuing three hours ahead, which means you spend most of your day in line for food. Meanwhile the nutritional value has not improved since my time in Lagkadikia so most of it gets thrown away, and there is not enough water so everyone is dehydrated.

Standing above the Jungle we can look down across the scruffy tents to the horseshoe of buildings that make up Vathy town as it curves around the bay of bright blue water.  Gold and white houses climb up to dark green wooded hillsides. Picture postcard loveliness, the width of one highway from the misery around us.

When I told friends at home, I was coming out to work with asylum seekers on Samos, some raised a quizzical eyebrow asking

… Is that still going on?

The answer is unfortunately yes. [Two] small girls, 4 women and 1 man drowned yesterday when their boat capsized near Mytilene on Lesvos. The other 57 on board were rescued. They were just a few of the 10,749 people have arrived in the Greek islands since the beginning of the year. 3,194 of those have come to Samos. And although the Turkish Coast Guard stopped 30 boats just in the last week, arrivals on the islands are increasing. There were some transfers to the mainland a month ago but people keep coming: 90 people arrived every day last week. Greece currently hosts over 70,000 refugees, including nearly 15,000 in these overcrowded Aegean island camps.

The illegal EU/Turkey deal is not working. The closure of European borders has done nothing to end the conflicts in Central Asia and the Middle East, or mitigate the wars, poverty and desperation that drive the global migration crisis. What the deal has done is trapped people on the Greek islands indefinitely while they wait for their asylum applications to be processed. Many have been here as long as three years.

At least you can go swimming, whether migrant or volunteer. Holly and Stijn take me to a nearby beach, where they have a meeting. Holly is a high dependency paediatric nurse who has decided she can do more out here on the front line of the migrant crisis than at home. She runs Indigo volunteers which matches people who want to volunteer with those who need their help. She has already connected me with a number of NGOs in Samos who want more training in mental health and psychosocial support. We swim in glass clear water next to rows of holiday makers lying on sun loungers. Besides the smart hotel with its balconies and restaurant by a bright blue pool, there is an empty boarded up café, and the skeleton of an older ruined hotel on the cliff side. Young asylum seekers sit in the shade at this end of the beach. Some are just relaxing, others jumping and somersaulting into the sea from a small headland. It’s a happy scene. At least the sea can provide some relief from the miseries and stresses of the camp above the town.

Continue reading this diary here.

Editor’s Note: This is part of a series of diaries about working with refugees and migrants that Lynne Jones has shared with the FXB Center. We are honored to publish them. All opinions are those of Lynne Jones. Read the previous diary here. Items in [ ] are editorial additions.

Lynne Jones, FXB Visiting Scientist, is a child and adolescent psychiatrist, writer, researcher, and relief worker. Her most recent book is Outside the Asylum: A Memoir of War, Disaster and Humanitarian Psychiatry.

*All refugee and asylum seeker names and personal details have been changed, apart from Mahmoud and Aboolfazl, who gave permission for their names to be used. All have known their photos were being taken.

©2015-2019 text and photos Lynne Jones