An open letter to European leaders: Stop punishing asylum seekers on the Greek islands

As asylum-seeker children on the Greek islands are driven to self-harm, MSF International President Dr. Christos Christou urges European leaders to act.

27 Nov 19

My name is Dr. Christos Christou, I'm the International President of Médecins Sans Frontières/Doctors Without Borders. 

I have just come back from the Greek islands and I was shocked by what I saw and by the accounts I heard from my colleagues on the ground.

They told me about a 12-year-old boy who came to our clinic in Moria, on Lesbos, after repeatedly self-harming by cutting his head with a knife.

And they told me about another child, a nine-year-old girl with serious injuries from a bomb blast in Afghanistan.

She was still smiling when she arrived in Greece. But in the months she’s been trapped on Lesbos she has stopped talking, stopped eating and completely withdrawn from life.  

They have survived war and persecution, but months in unsafe and miserable places like Moria have driven many of our child patients over the edge, to self-harm and thoughts of suicide.

It is for these children and for all the other people who you continue to trap on the Greek islands, that I feel compelled to address this letter to European leaders today. 

"No political reasoning can justify measures that deliberately and consciously inflict harm"
Dr christos christoumsf international president

Children are not the only ones who are vulnerable.

There are currently nearly 40,000 men, women and children trapped on the Greek islands.

People who survived torture are made to share tents with complete strangers for months on end.

Survivors of sexual violence tell our team in Vathy, on Samos, that they are too scared to use the toilets at night.

Our teams have identified these people, but many of them are not considered vulnerable by the Greek authorities and so their needs disappear in the cracks of labyrinthine administrative procedures. 

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In 2016, you decided that trapping people on these islands was a necessary and temporary measure.

We warned you of the humanitarian consequences of your deal with Turkey.

In protest, we even decided to stop accepting funding from EU member states.

Today we see the result of that deal: a chronic state of emergency and an endemic cycle of human suffering.

Over the last four years, the humanitarian situation has become worse, not better.

In just the last three months, one woman, a child and a nine-month-old baby have died due to the unsafe and appalling conditions in Moria and the lack of adequate care.

They were looking for safety in Europe, they found death in a European reception centre.

The situation is comparable with what we see after natural disasters or in war zones in other parts of the world.

It is outrageous to see these conditions in Europe – a supposedly safe continent – and to know that they are the result of deliberate political choices.

Rather than acknowledging the human cost of your approach, you continue to call for a more forceful implementation of the EU-Turkey deal.

You even consider more brutal measures, like the Greek government’s recently announced plans to convert the current "hotspots" into mass detention centres and to accelerate deportations.  

Stop this madness.

After four years, it should be clear to you that policies that attempt to deter people from coming to Europe will only result in more deaths and suffering.

From the chaotic cycle of suffering you have created in the Mediterranean and Libya to the violent pushbacks in the Balkans, where thousands are forced to live in inhumane conditions, the harm these policies are producing is immeasurable.

And the same measures of pushbacks, containment, arbitrary detention, discrimination and abuse are increasingly being replicated on a global scale.

No political reasoning can justify measures that deliberately and consciously inflict harm – and we have repeatedly warned you that these policies do so.

Stop ignoring it, stop pretending that they don’t.

"They have survived war and persecution, but months in unsafe and miserable places like Moria have driven many of our children patients over the edge, to self-harm and thoughts of suicide"
Dr christos christoumsf international president

European governments, including the UK, must support humane policies that relieve suffering and put an end to this intolerable limbo on the Greek islands.

It is outrageous that the UK Government has not made any significant commitment to resettle people trapped in Greece.

Meanwhile, men, women and children live in misery and fear.

As the general election and Brexit loom, these people must not be forgotten.  

As a medical doctor representing a humanitarian organisation, I am outraged to see how Europe has justified and normalised this suffering as if it were an acceptable price to pay to keep as many people as possible out of Europe.

As MSF, we can’t accept this blatant dehumanisation.

No matter what assistance we provide to our patients, afterwards we have to send them back to the conditions which are making them ill, conditions that you have deliberately created.

There is little that our teams can do to stop this cycle of suffering – we don’t have the treatment for it.

It is in your hands. You must find the political will to act, now.  

This human tragedy needs to stop. Stop this deliberate collective punishment of people seeking safety in Europe.

Urgently evacuate the most vulnerable people from these centres to safe accommodation in other European states.

End the policy of containment.

Break, once and for all, the cycle of suffering on the Greek islands.

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