Greece: “Refugees arrive often cold, scared, unsure, confused and in distress”

Interview with Elspeth Kendal-Carpenter, nurse, superving MSF's Mobile Landing Rescue Team

Based in Samos Island in Greece, MSF nurse, Elspeth Kendal-Carpenter supervises the Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) Mobile Landing Rescue Team to bring fast assistance to refugees arriving by sea.

What is the situation on Samos and Agathonisi islands?

We provide assistance for refugees through medical screening (and referral), provision of information, food and blankets, clothes, etc. Since the European Union/Turkey agreement implemented in March, the number of refugees arriving has reduced considerably. But, for those who have arrived, instead of leaving for Athens to complete documentation within a few days, over 1,000 refugees remain on Samos, mostly staying at the detention camp, which was built to accommodate just 280.

The living conditions have deteriorated and those locked up have little information advising them of what will happen or how long they will be held. Access to clean and safe water is often threatened, previously stable health conditions worsen, and the risk of infectious diseases spreading increases. With the detention centre closed, many of our activities have been suspended but we are currently developing a transition camp that will enable us to support the most vulnerable people outside the detention site.

What happens when refugees arrive?

We respond to all calls alerting us of their arrivals, mostly in the night, frequently after harrowing sea passages. They are cold, scared, unsure, confused, and in distress. We only have a short time before the police transport them to the detention centre. We offer blankets, water and biscuits and we do a quick health assessment check. This medical screening allows us to detect potential emergencies and to refer them promptly to the hospital.

We also support vulnerable refugees outside the detention centre, for example women with advanced pregnancy, or families with young babies, who after 25 days, though still not allowed to leave the island, are entitled to live outside the camp. We offer them shelter and provide health care and psychosocial support.

What kind of support do you provide those with psychological trauma?

Psychosocial support is very important. Some people have witnessed atrocities in their home countries and have made desperate decisions to leave their homes, their livelihoods, their loved ones, to risk a journey into the unknown, in a desperate bid to find safety and security to rebuild their lives.

Many of the refugees arrive with hope that soon turns to despair as the current conditions deteriorate and added unpredictable challenges can trigger post-traumatic stress relapses which requires skilled support and understanding.

We support separated families; unaccompanied minors are identified and referred to the child protection services and eventually placed in a separate shelter. And we support those who have lost family members following a shipwreck.

Do you have specific stories of individuals or patients that you can share?

I remember a group of 53 refugees on the beach. The refugees came ashore, excited, kissing the ground, taking photos with us, the children splashing about in the sea. One young man removed his shirt and came running up to me. “MSF!” he said, “see this!” He showed me scars on his arm and shoulder, “Dr John from MSF saved my life in Jordan. I love MSF”. It was an emotional moment, for him but also for us, because we had to advise him that he was going to be locked up with the possibility of being returned to Turkey under the new accord. It was the day the new EU/Turkey agreement was implemented.

Recently a boat with about 50 refugees, including 10 children under five, managed to get through the Turkish patrol boats. They showed us harrowing footage filmed on a mobile phone of the boat chasing them and circling them creating a wave to try to swamp them and force them to turn back to Turkey. I saw very real fear portrayed on their faces and heard the sounds of their terrified screams.

How important is MSF’s role in providing medical assistance to refugees?

Many of the refugees we meet are physically healthy; it is more the emotional scarring that leaves its mark.

Some people arrive with chronic health conditions such as diabetes or hypertension and we can monitor their condition and supply them with a top up of medication. Some have suffered trauma during the crossing and we tend to their injuries, while others are limited in their physical capacity by long-term problems, some even arrive with their wheelchairs. But from everyone, as we greet them and ask if they are ok, we receive appreciation. Offering a health check allows them the chance to feel that someone cares. Maybe for the first time in a long while, someone is showing a genuine interest in their well-being, is treating them with dignity, with kindness and for a brief period – it kind of ‘normalises’ an abnormal situation.