Reflection on the Targeted Attacks on Medical Volunteers and Refugees in Lesvos, Greece

By Ameer Sharifzadeh, MD

Note from MedGlobal: The situation in Moria Camp and throughout Lesvos Island in Greece is changing rapidly in light of the COVID-19 pandemic. The clinic discussed in this blog post is temporarily closed because of COVID-19 safety concerns, but MedGlobal is working with local partners to assess how best we can support the health needs of refugees in Moria Camp at this critical moment. This post highlights an experience on March 1, before the COVID-19 outbreaks had spread to Greece or had a global reach.

In the last few weeks, tensions between refugees and groups protesting their presence on Lesvos – a Greek island off the coast of Turkey hosting more than 25,000 refugees from Syria, Afghanistan and elsewhere – escalated to targeted attacks on refugees and volunteer staff on the Island. I was among the medical workers who experienced an attack.

I am an Emergency Medicine physician and medical volunteer with Chicago-based MedGlobal, one of several NGOs providing medical care to the thousands of refugees at Moria refugee camp on Lesvos. Compelled by the desire to provide medical care to underserved and vulnerable populations fleeing danger, I originally planned to stay for a couple of weeks, but my time at Moria camp was severely shortened.

After we finished up at the clinic for the day on March 1, we were notified that the bus system had ceased operations due to suspected protests against the growing number of refugees on the island. Several NGOs assisted in transporting us back to our volunteer homes. On our way back home, a roadblock was formed by a massive gathering of shouting protesters on foot, motorbikes, and the back of pick-up trucks all holding clubs, baseball bats, and chains. They ordered us to turn around, continued yelling, and in the midst of attempting to turn around, they began smashing the windows of our cars.

All 8 cars suffered severe damages and the back window of the car I was in was completely shattered. The experience was terrifying and disturbing, but fortunately, none of the volunteers in our group suffered injuries beyond minor abrasions. Other roadblocks had proceeded to form, necessitating our return back to the refugee camp, which had become the safest place on the island for us. Refugees kindly brought us falafel sandwiches and warm blankets while we awaited a safe return.

Word quickly spread that we were not the only ones. Reports of journalists, other aid workers, and refugees being attacked by rioters filled social media. The staging facility in the north shore of the island where refugees often arrive and are provided with blankets and essential items was lit on fire.

We were able to escape back to our homes in the middle of the night when the roads became somewhat clear but still with speckles of protestors on the roads.

Unfortunately, violence, intimidation, and fear tactics continued the next day. Numerous medical and non-medical volunteers had to evacuate due to safety concerns.  Medical volunteers who had been at Moria camp much longer than me stated it was generally a peaceful experience until recently.

In fact, in 2016, the residents of Lesvos attracted extensive praise in the media for their warm and welcoming reception of refugees. Moria camp, originally designed to support approximately 3,000 refugees, has increased in size to more than 25,000 refugees—spilling well beyond the original confinements into the adjacent olive groves. Since Turkey’s announcement to open their borders for refugees to freely cross into Europe, the number of refugees arriving to Lesvos and other Aegean Islands such as Chios and Samos had amassed to more than 1,000 refugees over several days likely exacerbating growing frustration of locals.

Local residents feel they have been dealt an unfair burden having to support increasing number of refugee arrivals whereas the island is at capacity due to Europe and Athens’ failure to alleviate the pressure on the Aegean islands. This desperation after seven years of dealing with this political crisis has led to violent fringe groups winning some support through targeted right wing messaging.

Despite the growing tension and descent into chaos on the Aegean islands, the EU announced support for further militarization on Europe’s borders without immediate plans to evacuate the camp of which about half are children­­ whose safety is at risk.

The people of Lesvos have been asked to do too much for too many with too few resources. It is up to the rest of the world to help them and accept asylum seekers within their borders, including the US. The US accepted 2,000 refugees from Afghanistan in 2018, and the camp has many cases of translators who helped US troops. The US has the responsibility and duty to accept refugees from all over the world, including Afghanistan, named the most dangerous country on earth this year.

We must stand together and help alleviate the burden of this humanitarian and political crisis on Greece before more human lives are lost.

Ameer Sharifzadeh, MD, is an Emergency Medicine resident physician based in Chicago and a medical volunteer with MedGlobal.

1. In light of the COVID-19 pandemic, the UNHCR has announced temporary suspension of refugee resettlement, though when the program restarts it is critical that the US and all countries accept their fair share of refugees.