Boat tripping with no allies


I witnessed my first boat arrival last week. The boat was found by the coast guard having reached Greek waters. A rescue boat manned by volunteers was able to guide the people to safety by towing the refugee boat to an appropriate area. 

When they were some distance away they seemed to be in quite good spirits.  You could hear laughter as they realised that they were so close to Europe. I suppose they now felt the sense of hope and the fear of not making it here, was beginning to lift. It was a relief for me to see them in such good spirits.

As they got closer to the shore however, a sense of panic started to set in. We learn about the importance of situational awareness in medicine. The ability to mentally remove yourself from a situation, devoid of emotion and make a sensible decision can be life-saving. This frenzied scene required situational awareness from the volunteers but it could not be expected from these poor passengers. The reason for this fear may have been that armed Frontex ‘soldiers’ were on a dinghy seemingly harassing them, and as the people in the boat reached the shore they became panicked and started shouting, crying for help. Children were being lifted up and passed forward, sometimes being held over the side of the boat. It was very dangerous. The EU border police were certainly being very heavy handed and, to me, seemed to perfectly reflect the EU’s policy towards these displaced people. I believe the refugees panic was a sign of their desperation more than anything. It was clear that the border police had been trying to intercept them for some time so it doesn’t make sense that they would become panicked once they were so close to the shore. This was a much more intense situation than when we had helped them onto the ferry. There were about fifty people in a dinghy not designed for more than ten and there was real danger. The volunteers acted swiftly however and tried to calm them down.


A very disordered exit of the boat was made, from all sides and everyone was helped to shore. It was difficult not to get immersed in the situation and start helping individuals. There were about twenty volunteers helping and as the only doctor there (as far as I was aware – not always clear here), I thought it best to observe and look for any critically unwell patients. The first person I saw was a child who fainted as he got onto the shore. He was a young male who looked around ten years of age. While I was assessing him he started to regain consciousness. As it became clear he was well, he started to get up so I decided to move on and look for any one else who may have needed help more urgently.

There are a few different NGOs around and sometimes it's not always clear what everyone's role is. 

There are a few different NGOs around and sometimes it's not always clear what everyone's role is. 

The people were spread out along the shore and so I decided to take a step back to look for sick patients. I couldn’t see anyone who looked particularly unwell. Volunteers, then started coming to me and asking me to see people. I saw a little girl who was about 18 months old. She had angioedema of her R eye and a cough. The oedema had developed over 24 hours ago and her parents had bought some saline to wash it out. Both pupils were reactive and she didn’t seem like she was in any pain. She was able to fix and follow. She had some crackles on the R side but otherwise seemed fine (chest infection). Her details would need to be given to the medical staff in the camp for follow up; the UNHCR takes care of this. I then was asked to see a child who was reportedly having an allergic reaction which turned out to be a viral rash following a stomach bug. I saw a few more coughs and colds with the children but no one was critically unwell. The weather is improving now and so even though many of the refugees clothes were wet, hypothermia was not something that we were very worried about. Nevertheless we were able to provide them with emergency blankets to help keep them warm.

What happened next was difficult to watch for volunteers who had been on this island for weeks. Until about a week ago, transporting the refugees was organised by NGOs such as the UNHCR, MSF and IRC but since the EU deal, the Greek government has taken over this duty as some NGOs pulled out in protest of a deal they saw as being inhumane and of questionable legality. I’m not going to go into the specifics of the deal but the long and short of it is that the majority of refugees coming to Greece will have no chance of receiving asylum in Europe and will be sent back to Turkey.

Where previously transporting the refugees had been organised by NGOs and was to an open facility, now it was arranged by the Greek authorities and they are taken to a closed detention centre. For us volunteers it was heart breaking to know that these unfortunate people were not going to get to Europe as they had hoped. The reason I make the distinction between who was organising the transport is because it is the coast guard or police who now do this. There is obviously a very different culture within NGOs when compared with the police and this is very evident in the manner in which the boat arrivals are handled now. Refugees have the right to be treated with dignity and respect and it was very difficult for the team to watch as the refugees were herded up and ordered to get onto the bus. This coupled with the hopeless political situation made for a mournful evening as we came back to the apartment.

I find that concentrating on the medical side of things helps me keep detached from the emotion of the situation. When I stop to think about it though, it seems our governments are handling this situation with a careless disregard for the human beings caught up in this appalling war. Are their actions a reflection of our society’s attitude towards refugees? It makes me wonder what it is we fear about stretching ourselves a little to help people who really do need it. 


A Greek Ferrytale

Things have become very quiet on the island. Our job here is to provide medical assistance to those arriving on the shore. I haven’t had much to do medically here. Since the agreement between the EU and Turkey, which amounted to Europe paying Turkey to keep the refugees, there have been less refugee boats arriving on the shores of Lesvos. Those that do make it into Greek waters are picked up by Greek coastguard and taken straight to a camp where they will be ‘held’. Having said that, last Sunday, while I was in the north of the island, two people died on the shore. It seems they may have suffocated as a result of being crammed onto the boat.


What we have been able to do, however, is go to the port and help those who are travelling onwards to Athens by giving out sandwiches and helping where we can. A few days ago, when they were asked to board the ferry taking them to Greece, the scene became slightly chaotic. There was no reason for this. Everyone who had the correct papers would get on, and there was no rush, but you could see a little bit of panic in the eyes of the worried mothers travelling with two or three children, all their possessions packed into a couple of bags. They clambered onto the ramp leading to the ferry, just about keeping their emotions in check. I imagine after such a long journey and the uncertainty they have faced, they never take anything for granted, always being vigilant and never relaxing.  


The ferry was big, with an escalator taking you to the middle deck. It seemed quite luxurious to me and I’m sure it must’ve seemed that way to most of those about to board. Many of the families had too many bags to carry themselves and so we tried to help the families with their bags. I too walked with ‘them’, up the ramp and to the entrance of the ferry. As I was standing there, I felt for a moment as if I was about to board the ferry. As if I were fleeing some disaster. I imagined my behaviour in such a situation. Would I stand there and help others, calm and gracious?  Or in my desperation would my eyes be filled with the fear and uncertainty that I saw in most of the people around me. I realised that even though I cared about these people, I had no real empathy for them. We are so used to seeing images of terrorised people that we easily disconnect. It’s natural and I don’t think anyone should feel guilty about this. How can any of us imagine such hardship unless we ourselves have experienced it? It’s important to remember though that the people displaced by the war in Syria are from all walks of life. People who have much have lost everything and those who didn’t have much, have lost the little they owned. War seems to have a way of levelling society out, the rich and the poor are affected in the same way.

I am new here compared to people who have been volunteering for months, and although this was not a shocking experience for anyone involved, on reflection it did affect me. I’m a bit ashamed to admit this, but seeing how people from all walks of life, people like me, have been affected made me feel a little uncomfortable. There was no longer a distance between us. Going on to the boat and being asked for my papers certainly brought it home in a very tangible way.

The truth is, there is no way I can even come close to knowing how these families feel but this experience has certainly made a lasting impression on me.  

Lesvos - a shaky start

So I’ve finally decided to put some of my thoughts down on paper. This may sound silly to some of you but over the last couple of years I’ve learnt the importance of reflection; so as well as letting you guys know what is going on, this serves as a space for me to process my own thoughts.

Not sure what's going on here.. I think it has been parked like this.

Not sure what's going on here.. I think it has been parked like this.

Let's start at the beginning...

Day 1: I arrived in Mytilene on a cold windy night. The plan was to pick up a car that I had arranged to rent, drive an hour north to the hotel/guest house I had booked for the first 5 nights. I had bought a sim card in Athens and put some credit on it. Having data on my phone gives me a sense of reassurance. It really does help you get out of sticky situations and I knew if I had google maps I would be alright. I didn’t want to be getting lost at night on an island I’d never been to with only the vague directions from the hotel owner to direct me. ‘It is easy, there is only one road. You will know us by the palm trees outside’, she said. Umm, not that helpful in the middle of the night love.

As soon as I got off the plane, I put the sim card in. The instructions on the package were literally Greek to me. But the shop had printed out some instructions in English. They were about as vague as the hotel directions unfortunately though. So I put the card in and was waiting for it to magically sort itself out.

Whilst waiting I decided to walk out (maybe I can get the car sorted, and then deal with sim card). I found a guy holding a piece of card board with my name spelt correctly ('this must be a professional outfit', I thought). He took me outside to a scratched up Suzuki Jimny. The car was running which I thought was a bit odd. He then proceeded to tell me that I shouldn't stop the car as the previous people who rented it had run the battery down, so if I stopped it then I might not be able to restart it. He then showed me round the car and pointed out various scratches and repairs. 'Don't worry', he said. 'You only have to pay first 800 euros if it's your fault. If not your fault then write down number plate'. Oh, so that's what they meant by 'full insurance' on the website. To make it even more interesting he then told me that there was only an 1/8th of a tank in the car and I would probably need more to get to the north. Excellent, 'And I can't stop the car when I put petrol in?'. He assured me the petrol station would be fine with that. 

After explaining all of this to me, I probably should have refused to take the car and asked for one that actually works but I was tired and had been ravelling all day. I didn't have the energy to argue so I blindly just accepted their terms and decided to focus on getting to the north. It was 9:30 by now and I didn't want to be driving late. I turned my attention to the sim card. I followed the vague instructions and it worked. Waves of relief washed over me; I wouldn't be sleeping in my car tonight. Finally I could begin the journey.. 

Apparently they drive on the other side of the road in Greece, this was a complication I didn't need at 10 at night. Changing gear did take some getting used to but I was managing to stay on the right side of the road and look the left at roundabouts. Luckily by that time at night the roads were pretty quiet. I pulled into the first petrol station I could find and of course the man there looked at me as if I'd asked him to light my cigarette when I told him I needed to leave the engine on. Nonetheless he filled the tank and I began my journey through Mytilene. 

Mytilene is a small town with very narrow streets. Not the sort of place you want to take wrong turn. That didn't stop me though, and within 5 minutes of driving around the town I found myself on the narrowest of streets with a motorcycle waiting behind me. To make matters worse the street was on a steep incline. I was sure that if I kept going I would be able to turn off at some point, and besides I did not want to be the guy reversing out of the street causing all the cars behind me to back up. I kept going, I needed to take a left to get back on track but the left didn't come. Google maps couldn't help me now - I can't make a U turn here! I carefully managed to negotiate the car passed 3 other cars that were parked on the side of the road. I made it round the bend and then to my horror I came up to a dead end. I had no choice but to reverse back down the street. I looked behind me and thankfully there were no other cars. 'Please don't let any other cars come up the road', I prayed. I painstakingly reversed my car without getting a scratch on it. When I got near the bottom a couple of cars pulled into the road I was on. I got out of the car and apologized to them that they would have to reverse back. 

By the time I had got myself out of that little pickle it was close to 11 and I could finally be on my way to the north. Needless to say it wasn't 'just one road' to Molyvos (where I was staying) but luckily I had the lady's number and I was able to ring her with my Greek sim card. I found the place after a few phone calls and was glad to rest my head at the end of a long days travel.

Hopefully the rest of the trip would be a little smoother.