Veteran aid worker Stathis Kyrousis is appalled by Greece’s handling of the refugee crisis engulfing its holiday islands, decrying worsening conditions as the world reeled from images of a 3-year-old boy who drowned trying to reach its shores.
Kyrousis, a Greek national who heads the medical charity Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) in Greece and the Balkans, said the authorities’ response was the most frustrating he had experienced in his 23 years in humanitarian work.
Greece, viewed by migrants as a gateway to the European Union, has seen a surge in the number of refugees and migrants – mostly from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan – arriving in rubber dinghies from neighboring Turkey this summer.
The United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR) estimates 80,000 people landed on the Greek coast in August, with at least 12 Syrian refugees – including 3-year-old Aylan Kurdi, his brother and mother – drowning this week in a bid to reach the southeastern Aegean island of Kos from Turkey.
A photograph of Aylan’s tiny body washed up on a beach at the Turkish resort of Bodrum has spawned sympathy and outrage at the perceived inaction of developed nations in helping refugees.
“I have never seen such a poor reception to a refugee situation – and this is backed up by my colleagues,” Kyrousis said in a phone interview with the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
“The sheer numbers [of arrivals] are not unmanageable. In Africa we had far more in terms of people. The Greek government is behaving as though nothing is happening,” said Kyrousis, 62, who has worked in disaster zones in Africa and Asia.
Cash-strapped Greece has said it lacks the infrastructure to cope with the rise in numbers arriving from mainly conflict-ridden nations but NGOs fear the lack of response and rising levels of squalor will lead to disease outbreaks.
The influx of refugees, mainly from Syria, has strained an already ill-prepared reception system in Greece that relies heavily on volunteers, forcing thousands to camp out in filthy conditions and triggering sporadic clashes and brawls.
MSF provides medical assistance through mobile clinics on the islands of Leros, Simi, Kos and Lesvos, often the first landing point for refugees and migrants who are then ferried to the mainland by Greek authorities.
But local NGOs and volunteers working around the clock to support what they describe as insufficient state services are struggling to meet the needs as the migrants and refugees get a warmer reception on some islands than on others.
“A huge problem is sanitation. People stay in towns where the public toilets are locked. We’ve had many cases of women saying they don’t drink the water because they don’t want to go to the toilet,” Kyrousis said, adding this leads to dehydration. “We found this out because suddenly we were dealing with lots of urinary infections.”
MSF says it has provided 12,000 medical consultations since the start of the year in Greece and Serbia, where the charity also provides assistance to thousands coming through the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM).
But it is the situation in his home country that has shocked Kyrousis the most. In a recent blog post he said people have been “completely abandoned,” with MSF stepping in to fill the void of a central authority to cater for the refugees.
The Greek government on Wednesday did announce plans to set up a new operations center and take steps to improve conditions at existing refugee centers, which UNHCR has previously described as “shameful.”
Kyrousis said for some of the new arrivals, the problems begin even before they reach the European coast, with his teams in Greece seeing more chronic diseases such as diabetes and tuberculosis, but many patients do not want to go to hospital.
“These people do not want to lose time to be treated. They want to get to their destination,” Kyrousis said.
Kyrousis said some island communities have rallied, providing clothes and shelter, knowing that after two or three days the refugees will move on, ferried to the mainland.
But in other areas, the thousands who survive the sea crossing find no help from local people.
“In Africa, in any poor country, it is taken for granted that the international community will provide medical support, shelter, but here, in many places, no one is doing anything,” he said.