Greek refugee crisis: "How could this ever become normality?"

The horrific conditions in refugee camps on the Greek islands have made headlines around the world. But, nothing can prepare MSF communications specialist Valeska for what she finds when she visits two camps on Samos and Lesvos...

Vathy refugee camp on Samos was built for 650 people but currently hosts about 8,000

Never before have I felt as ashamed as I did during the days I spent in the refugee camps on the Greek islands.

Since those days in Samos and Lesvos, various questions keep on haunting me:

Where is the social outcry?

How could the appalling conditions – under which tens of thousands of people seeking protection in Europe have to survive – become a kind of normality? People who are being ignored year after year are living between rats and rubbish.

How have we been able to get used to this happening on this rich continent, which sees itself as a haven of peace, as a defender of human rights? How can we let our politicians get away with the fact that there is no immediate solution for the refugees?

This is a testimony from a place where despair and hopelessness have become a part of everyday life.

Visiting Vathy camp

As I stand in the Vathy refugee camp on the island of Samos at the end of January, I can hardly imagine that somewhere in Europe there is a place where people have to live under even worse conditions.

We walk up the mountain on narrow well-trodden paths, over rubbish and sewage ditches, through mud.


Refugees and migrants on the island of Samos live in dire conditions
Refugees and migrants on the island of Samos live in dire conditions

The separated "official" part of the camp is only a small area. Most of the people live outside the high fence, in an olive grove, in small summer tents or self-built sheds made of wooden posts and plastic sheets.

Everywhere people sit around small fires and children of all ages play, many of them walking barefoot despite the cold temperatures.

They hope for safety and protection – in vain

The people who arrive here have usually been on the run for several months, if not years – from war, violence and poverty.

Some of the children have never attended school, some have been living in tents since birth.

People come from areas where you are shot at by a sniper on your way to work... People have lost their homes and their jobs, family members... they have lost their future. What are their alternatives?

Before they arrive on the Greek islands, the refugees hope that they will finally find shelter in Europe. That this will be the place where they are finally safe, where their children can go to school, where they do not have to fight to survive every day.

But, once the people have survived the perilous flight and arrive on one of the Greek islands, their history repeats itself: constant insecurity, precarious living conditions, violence and disease.

Inside the reception camps

The reception camps have been completely overloaded for years – in recent months the numbers have risen enormously once again, while at the same time only a few people are transferred to the mainland. 

The living conditions – now widely known due to numerous reports from the media and NGOs – are absolutely unacceptable.

Apart from the inadequate accommodation, there is not enough water, food, showers, toilets or medical care. Pregnant women and women and their newborns have to live in unheated tents.

The danger of becoming a victim of sexual violence is particularly great for women travelling alone and unaccompanied minors.

"I didn't think it could get worse until I visited Moria"

Two days later I visit Camp Moria on the island of Lesbos and have to admit: it gets worse.

In Moria, there are about three times as many people as in the Vathy camp on Samos – at the moment around 19,000. Officially there is room for about 2,800 people.

When we arrive at the camp, it starts to rain in torrents and within minutes it becomes clear what it means when tens of thousands of people have to pitch their tents in an olive grove. Everywhere muddy water flows down the slopes, making its way past and through the tents, undermining them.

In some places, people have tried to build steps and small ditches so that they can safely go down the slopes and the water can flow off in a more regulated way. Nevertheless, everything gets soaked.

The laundry on temporary washing lines, the tents (which are not made for this weather), the people... with the cold, everything remains damp even after the rain.

"Everyone loses hope"

I walk through the camp with one of our health advisers, Alaa Aldin. I quickly notice how desperate he is, as well.

"When you live in these conditions, where everything is lacking, everyone loses hope. I lose hope," he says.

"I no longer know what to tell people, what to advise them. It gets worse and worse and worse and more and more people are coming"

"People come from areas where you are shot at by a sniper on your way to work, and you are lucky if he hits the person next to you and you only see the body... that's just madness," he adds.

"After all this experience, to have at least a tent and maybe a meal – that's worth a try.

"People have lost their homes and their jobs, family members– they have lost their future. What are their alternatives?"

It is not only the conversation with Alaa that leaves me stunned. In almost every exchange with our colleagues onsite, it is apparent just how difficult it is for them to hope that the situation will improve.


In Vathy camp, MSF provides water and toilets, and runs a healthcare clinic
In Vathy camp, MSF provides water and toilets, and runs a healthcare clinic

Helping victims of violence

This is also the case in our clinic in the town of Mytilini, near the camp, where survivors of sexual violence, torture or other extreme violence are treated with the aim of giving patients back the strength they need to survive in this situation.

They are the opposite of weak

"We try to minimise the worst symptoms," explains our psychologist Greg Kavarnos.

"We cannot offer long-term therapies but we do try to stabilise people so that they can function in this terrible environment in which they live.

"We try to give them strength and make it clear that they have survived terrible experiences, which makes them much stronger than many other people. They are much stronger than they think. They are the opposite of weak."

Moments of humanity

And then there are those two little moments that don't need a big explanation: they just stand for themselves and demonstrate that people, despite the terrible experiences they have had here, have not lost their humanity and hospitality. 

As I walk through the Vathy camp on Samos with a colleague, we pass some Syrians who have built a small oven and are baking bread. Immediately they invite us with gestures to stop and they hand us a freshly baked flatbread.

I can hardly imagine that somewhere in Europe there is a place where people have to live under even worse conditions.

We try to refuse in a friendly way because we know how little food the people here have and we have heard them complaining about how bad the camp-provided food is. But that is out of the question.

Even though we can barely speak a few words with each other, it is clear that we are cordially invited to eat the bread. It is as delicious as it smells and the joy of the group is sincere when we accept their gift. 

How could this ever become normality?

In Moria, after a good half an hour of walking through the rain, we are standing in the middle of the unofficial part of the camp on a muddy unpaved slope as the rainfall becomes even heavier.

Next to us, some men are cleaning up a small shop where they sell food and other daily necessities. They wave us over and offer us shelter in their storeroom and hot tea.

This inhumane chaos is politically intended

Between empty boxes, we wait until the rain dies down. And, while the water drenches the people's dwellings, I stand in the midst of the chaos and begin to ask myself: How could this ever become normality?

The answer is as simple as it is cruel: This inhumane chaos is politically intended.

People pay the price for a conscious political decision. They pay it with their dignity, their future and sometimes even with their lives.


Read more: From our teams in Greece

"I cannot even look our patients in the eyes anymore"

"It is difficult to believe this is Europe": The mental health crisis in Moria camp