Uncovering the gaps immigrants fall through
The exploratory mission conducted by the medical humanitarian organization Doctors Without Borders / Medecins sans Frontieres (MSF) in February 2008, in order to assess the needs of undocumented migrants entering Greece, confirmed the precarious conditions for migrants in the detention centers and temporary settlement in Patras. This became evident fairly soon into our investigation, through the testimonies that we gathered from the migrants themselves. Moreover, our visits to Evros, Lesvos, Chios and Samos – locations of detention centers – revealed the same problems. Of course, nobody expected that an exploratory mission would reveal ideal conditions for the migrants, but the care provided to undocumented migrants in Greece was and still is far behind what it should be, while the living conditions inside the detention centers and in the temporary migrants’ settlement in Patras are really unacceptable. No medical care is provided to vulnerable groups of people (such as women and children) at the entry points, while no reception mechanism is in place that would work in a humane and effective way, and of course (sadly, this is what I have learnt to say: «of course») there is absolutely no coordination or plan to deal with the influx of all these people to the land or the sea borders of Greece. As a matter of fact, 12,000 people passed through the island of Lesvos only last year, coming from Somalia, Afghanistan, Iran, Palestine and other countries where fleeing from their homes was the only choice. But these are only numbers: behind them we find children, babies, people with chronic illnesses, victims of torture, people with special needs. The law is explicit: Unaccompanied minors and asylum seekers shall not be detained (but «of course» almost nobody applies for asylum in Greece, as the authorities granted it to just 8 out of 25,000 people during 2007). For the rest – including families, children, men, and pregnant women – detention lasts up to three months. Detention in Greece is often confused with reception, due to the lack of planning and mechanisms in place. The phases that the migrant goes through once he enters the country are the following: arrest, medical examinations at a hospital (of course this is not always the case, since no hospital director has received instructions or the means to perform those medical examinations in Evros, Rodopi and the islands), detention in one of the centers and release three months later. Then – and without access to the healthcare system or other help – the migrants are responsible for finding a way to leave the country themselves. But what happens to them? They might become seasonal workers, fall victim to traffickers or just manage to survive until they transit – suffering violence even in their attempt to leave the country. In any case, the state does not follow up on what happens next. The exploratory mission revealed these gaps and Doctors Without Borders shared them with the authorities and the media. The initial planning of the program that the organization decided to implement for the provision of medical and humanitarian aid to migrants included the detention centers of Mytilene, of Peplo in the Evros region and the temporary settlement in Patras, because these were the places where we found the worst living conditions. Since May 2008, more than 9,000 migrants have received medical care through this program. At this moment, Doctors Without Borders is continuing is mission in Patras but we are also aiming to return to the detention centers of Lesvos, Evros and Rodopi with a team consisting of psychologists and logisticians. Our aim for 2009 is the systematic and continual provision of assistance at the entry points and in Patras, and, more importantly, we want to witness the institutional changes that would guarantee a more effective provision of care for this population: migrants’ access to primary healthcare, institutionalized provision of specific medical examinations and medical care procedures upon reception, psycho-social support at all the entry points, hiring of psychologists and amelioration of living conditions inside the detention centers. Finally (as a prerequisite for all the above), our aim is to show the reality we are recording and the humanitarian needs of the undocumented migrants. There are many people among us who do not know, sadly, about the trip that they have undertaken and the reasons for fleeing their country, as well as the present situation that these people face. The changes we are calling for are feasible and can be implemented. As we often reiterate at the meetings we hold with the relevant authorities, we don’t have to solve the migration problem in Greece to be able to guarantee humane living conditions and medical care to undocumented migrants. I believe that this confusion has the same causes as the apathy toward the fate of these people, namely ignorance and indifference. It is important to realize that the responsibility lies with all of us who have the choice. For all of us who are participating in the mission, all discussions regarding the migration issue will no longer be theoretical exchanges of opinions on a «political» issue. It will be an analysis of an acute humanitarian crisis. What we have seen in the port of Mytilene, in Patras and inside the detention centers will always be a vivid reminder of this. Yiorgos Karayiannis is the head of MSF Greece’s mission for migrants.