More than 570 people, including 24 pregnant women, seeking safety on the island of Samos, Greece, have received emergency medical and psychological first aid over the past year by Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF).
All the people had travelled from the coast of Türkiye, which is just a few kilometres away. Many had experienced multiple forms of violence on their journeys to seek asylum and a better life in Europe.
The small inflatable boats carrying people seeking safety usually land on Samos’ remote and mountainous coast. Terrified of being caught by the authorities and forcibly returned, most run and hide as soon as they reach land.
“Some people are so severely affected by fear that they are unable to speak or walk,” says Nicholas Papachrysostomou, MSF head of mission in Greece. “Now, in the summertime, we see a lot of patients suffering from heat exhaustion and dehydration,” says Papachrysostomou.
This fear of being found by authorities has driven some people to stay hidden in the bushes for several days without food or water.
“During the winter months, we had to treat three people for frostbite as they were hiding outside for several days in freezing temperatures,” says Papachrysostomou. “We also frequently treat injuries from accidents occurring whilst climbing steep cliffs on the island, such as leg wounds, suspected fractures and shoulder dislocations,” he says.
“In April 2022, we treated an entire group who fell down a cliff whilst running from border authorities. To date, we have had to refer 37 people to the hospital by ambulance.”
They started to slap me, the men, the lady who was pregnant, everyone. They don't care.Loretta*, former MSF patient
Many of the new arrivals are women and children. One pregnant woman gave birth out in the open, without medical assistance, after reportedly spending more than two days hiding on Samos. Another pregnant woman was in labour when our medical team arrived on site.
Most people arriving on Samos describe having been intercepted by security and border authorities on the course of previous journeys, both on land and at sea. Some people have reported to our teams that they have been forcibly returned to Turkish waters, in one case as many as nine times. On multiple occasions, individuals assisted by our teams have told us they arrived with other people who were subsequently never found.
People treated by our teams report having been subjected to or witnessed physical violence or inhumane and degrading treatment, including beatings, strip-searches, forced genital examinations, theft of possessions, and being left adrift in motor-less dinghies at sea.
Loretta*, a former MSF patient, describes being intercepted by border authorities on the Greek island of Lesvos and sent back twice before she managed to reach Samos.
“When you have made it to the mountains and they push you back again, you feel like dying,” she says.
“They brought us to a big port. There were many, many policemen. We had to go inside a building,” says Loretta. “They started to slap me, the men, the lady who was pregnant, everyone. They don’t care.”
“They slapped us with a stick and with their feet. Since then, I have problems with my leg and my back. Then they put us on a big boat and it went.”
Not only are violent interceptions and forced returns illegal, but they also jeopardise people’s right to apply for asylum.Sonia Balleron, MSF field coordinator
While our teams have not directly witnessed violent interceptions and forced returns, reports from our patients suggest that these practices are becoming more frequent and more violent.
“Not only are violent interceptions and forced returns illegal, but they also jeopardise people’s right to apply for asylum,” says Sonia Balleron, MSF field coordinator.
“These practices also expose people to further trauma and the risk of long-lasting physical and mental health issues. It is the responsibility of Greek and European authorities to ensure that the law is respected and that the procedures regarding reception, identification and international protection are applied effectively.”
*Name changed to protect identity.
In Greece, MSF provides emergency medical first aid on the island of Samos. Before going to a location to assist people in distress, our teams notify all competent authorities and, once on site, coordinate with security and medical authorities for hospital referrals by ambulance. After receiving an emergency alert requesting medical aid, our teams reach out to the people, carrying first-aid kits, dry clothes, supplies of drinking water and emergency food rations. Our teams always wear white jackets clearly marked with the Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) logo during our humanitarian interventions.
After our teams have finished providing emergency medical and psychological first aid, the security authorities take the new arrivals to the Closed Controlled Access Centre (CCAC), a high-security reception centre located about an hour’s walk from the main town of Vathy. After five days’ quarantine, our teams are allowed to visit patients to check on their medical condition and make sure they have timely access to further medical care. Attending the reception centre is the only way for new arrivals to register. People have to wait in the reception centre while they endure long and complex legal procedures for the completion of their asylum claims.