A nurse and a paramedic from Portsmouth spent a month volunteering at a refugee camp in Lesbos, Greece and say the terrible conditions there ‘need to go back on the agenda’. PAUL GALLAGER reports
Despite working flat out for 10 days helping some of the thousands of refugees still making the perilous journey across the Mediterranean, one particular case still sticks out in Nikki McDonald’s mind.
The 31-year-old A&E nurse at Queen Alexandra Hospital in Cosham, Portsmouth, took unpaid leave at the end of October to volunteer with a 24-7 emergency medical team on the Greek island of Lesbos.
She joined her colleague Stian Mohrsen, a paramedic with South Central Ambulance Service NHS Foundation Trust who moved to Portsmouth from Norway two years ago, after discovering a shared interest in wanting to help the international relief effort.
Stian had already agreed to join a group of emergency medical volunteers organised by Medics Bergen, a Norwegian-based NGO, and Nikki was keen to do the same. It was the their first experience of using their emergency medical skills abroad.
While on Lesbos, Nikki was asked to go and assess a woman in a lady’s changing room on the interim camp of Moria, where the vast majority of refugees fleeing Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq, among other countries, are processed after arrival. Within half a minute, she had come running out with a malnourished 10-year-old Afghan boy who was slumped in her arms.
‘He was so small I was able to carry him in my arms, like a baby,’ Nikki, who has a young daughter herself, said.
The boy appeared to have underlying medical conditions akin to spina bifida – a condition that occurs when a baby’s spine and spinal cord don’t develop properly in the womb, causing a gap in the spine.
Stian says: ‘His arm was as thick as Nikki’s thumb, probably not that even.
‘We just had to assess him and everything was wrong. His blood sugars were off, his temperature was off, he wasn’t breathing properly. His weight wasn’t great. That really stood out for us – as a patient really dependent on high level care who we had nothing to help with.’
The pair immediately asked for an ambulance. Before emergency services arrived the pair managed to ascertain, with the help of an interpreter, that the boy was given a huge overdose of sedatives.
Parents often drug their terrified children to stop them from crying and screaming to avoid attracting the attention of nightime Turkish coastguard patrols who, following a deal reached with the EU, will bring any refugees they find back to Turkey if they are intercepted before they cross into Greek waters. ‘I know with my three-year-old daughter, putting her in a boat at night, travelling across the water, she’s going to be trying to jump out of the boat,’
Nikki says. ‘She’s going to be agitated. If adults are terrified on that water, what’s a child going to be like? I can feel for the parents, I can understand why they would want to give a child something to calm them down, but these are adult drugs they’re giving to their children – given to them by the smugglers who are organising the trip – and that’s the concern. This child had five times the adult dose – in a child who is emaciated with health conditions and who was absolutely tiny.’
Due to ‘island bureaucracy’ over helping refugees – only the Lesbos port police are allowed to call emergency services – it took so long for the ambulance to arrive that the pair were tempted to take the boy to hospital themselves.
However the pair, who both live in Portsmouth, could then have been arrested for helping ‘illegal aliens’, as the Greek authorities call the refugees until they have been officially registered and processed under refugee status. ‘If we got caught, they would say you are trafficking illegal immigrants,’ Stian says.
‘It’s a political minefield we don’t want to step too far into. It was out of our hands… We don’t know what happened to the boy.’
Stian, 27, came to the UK to work for the NHS two years ago due to the lack of opportunities to progress as a paramedic in Norway, feeling that he had ‘stagnated as a paramedic without much challenge’.
Now he also helps train new paramedics and the pair hope to return to Lesbos in the New Year to join the international relief effort once more. The refugee crisis has now gone on for so long in Greece that the majority of locals on Lesbos have begun blaming the volunteers for the situation, some of whom have even been attacked. ‘Where the interim camp was, people were ok but on the other side [of the island] if you didn’t look like a tourist people wouldn’t serve you in shops, you’d get looked at, gestures,’ says Stian.
Nikki says: ‘We had a lady stand in front of our car, blocking our path on the road and we had to drive around her, because she could tell we were volunteers.
‘They resent us because they see us as part of the problem. It’s a really worrying tone that’s being set across not just Lesbos, but other islands too. It’s all becoming very right wing and rather scary. We had to be very careful about where we ate at night.’
Tourism to Lesbos plummeted in 2015, when the refugees began arriving, and locals have blamed them for the loss of business ever since. ‘You can understand where they are coming from but [the anger is] misdirected,’ says Stian.
Close to 6,000 people are now being held at the island’s main camp in Moria, which was initially established as a temporary measure to house no more than 2,000. In November, the Mayor of Lesbos criticised the Greek government for allowing the island to become ‘a giant prison camp’, a description both Stian and Nikki agree is apt. The weather is bearable in day time but come night the pair were fully kitted out in thermal clothing.
‘I’m Norwegian and I thought it was cold,’ Stian adds. Containers are stacked one on top of the other housing families, big groups of people.
‘Some refugees say they would rather be outside the camp in the elements, just in tents – not surprising when you hear the Portsmouth pair describe the appalling conditions inside. The sanitation is disgusting because the camp is so overcrowded,’ says Nikki.
‘There’s videos on YouTube documenting rivers of raw sewage running through the camp.
In September 2015, the shocking images of three-year-old Alan Kurdi lying dead on the beach prompted international responses to the refugee crisis.
On one day last month, the bodies of at least three children washed ashore on Lesbos in less than 24 hours, but there was no global outrage this time.
The world’s media may have moved on, but the refugees have not – and they are still desperately trying to get to European shores in their thousands.
‘People can raise awareness, send warm clothes – we heard feedback that people are just sending out their dirty old clothes they didn’t want and that the refugees should be grateful for these. But clothes that are appropriate are what’s needed.’
Stian says: ‘They have their own dirty clothes, they don’t need any more. Proper winter clothing is something we just didn’t see. The children seem to have what they need. It’s the adults who are struggling to keep warm and alive now. ‘Donate money, that’s what’s needed. And medical supplies, syringes and bandages, things like that. In the coming months I think we’re going to see a lot of deaths from hypothermia and infections… there already have been because people aren’t getting appropriate medical help in the camps. We need to put this back on the agenda. It’s not over. At all.’