I thought I knew what to expect.
MSF’s Thalia had told me about her first day on Lesbos: her shock at the refugees’ forced march from one end of the island to the other; her joy at witnessing a boatload of new arrivals celebrate their safe landing; her tears at the sight of a young Afghan woman who had lost her husband and had no milk to feed her baby; and then her indignation at conditions in the camps.
“On the way back, we visited the two refugee camps on the island, and that’s when I got angry,” she told me. “The camps were dirty and crowded. The toilets were blocked and there were flies everywhere. I couldn’t believe that children had to sleep in this place.”
So as we approach Moria camp, I am surprised to find the road blocked by a dustbin lorry, and an army of rubber-gloved cleaners at work, binbags and hosepipes in hands.
We soon discover an official visit is due, hence the springcleaning. Little can be seen of Moria camp itself, which is hidden behind a high security fence, uniformed guards at the gate.
This is the island’s reception centre. But it can’t cope with the numbers of new arrivals, so refugees wait outside the centre – often for days at a time – for a place inside the barbed wire: a twisted irony for people in pursuit of peace and freedom.
“We are waiting for a place in the camp,” says Mukhtar, 24, from Somalia, sitting under a tree with a group of men. “Inside, there will be food and water and toilets. It might be tomorrow, it might be two or three days. But I hope it will be soon, because I’m hungry and we didn’t get any sleep last night.”
An Iraqi man joins in. “No toilets, no showers, no food – anywhere is better than this.” He is fearful of giving his name, but says he is travelling with seven relatives, who left Baghdad when the city became too dangerous.
“Baghdad is not safe. At night there are shootings. Islamic State kill children, women, Sunni, Shia – everything and anything.” But despite the dangers, the women in the family stayed behind, with the plan to join them later. “They would die if they came on this journey with us,” he says. “We run to democracy, but we don’t see anything of it right now.”
Mukhtar, the Somali, tells us that one of his group knows MSF already, having worked for us in Somalia. But when we try and talk to the former community health worker, he looks at us with glazed eyes and turns away, too exhausted to engage in conversation.
This isn’t the first time I’ve heard about refugees arriving on Europe’s shores who are former MSF staff – and perhaps no surprise, considering that MSF works in the world’s most troubled countries. But it helps explain the emotion behind the team’s practical energy: they know both sides of the story, and it hurts.
MSF field coordinator Elisabetta tells me: “The people we meet every day, we have spent a lot of time working in the countries they come from, so we understand very well why they leave. I feel uncomfortable, because now they are in Europe, we know what difficulties they will face. We know that most of their dreams will be broken. It is painful. I feel ashamed to be a European.”
Her eyes fill with tears and she looks away.
I visited the Greek island of Lesbos in August with MSF UK director Vickie Hawkins. MSF had launched an emergency response a few weeks earlier as the Turkey-Greece sea crossing became the most popular route for refugees trying to reach Europe. In July alone, 50,000 refugees arrived on the Greek islands, the majority of them on Lesbos and Kos.