Save the Children’s Kate O’Sullivan reports from Lesvos, Greece
Here on the Greek island of Lesvos we’ve been hit by winter. A three day storm has brought chaos and desperation during a week that saw the highest numbers of arrivals onto the island for the whole year.
48,000 people arrived by dinghy across the Greek islands over just 5 days – that’s more than all of last year combined. The island of Lesvos saw over 27,000 alone, and all at the worst possible time.
In normal circumstances, a storm wouldn’t be a problem. But on Lesvos – and across all the travel routes from here to north Europe – the lack of shelter and basic services means people fleeing war and extreme poverty are facing unthinkable conditions.
Camps in disarray
There have been two transits camps for refugees on Lesvos. Moria was for non-Syrians – predominantly those from Afghanistan – and Syrians stayed in Kara Tepe, a larger camp with better services and a quicker registration process.
We work in both camps, along with other agencies. We’re providing hot meals, providing safe spaces for children to play and for mothers to feed children and protect children – especially those who have arrived here alone.
But recently the camps have been thrown into disarray when registration processes were changed and Syrians started registering in both Moria and Kara Tepe. People were moved back and forth between the camps, causing delays and backlogs.
A direct consequence of this was the chaos that we saw during the three-day storm, which caused so much unnecessary suffering.
In the Moria camp, I was stopped in my tracks by a child shivering uncontrollably. She was unable to walk or make eye contact – her hands and lips were literally blue. Her mother was nearby, also unable to walk.
One of our team members picked up the little girl and the rest of us carried the mother to Médecins Sans Frontières, a medical aid agency. A crowd was gathered outside as there are just too many people in need of doctors.
Minutes later, we found three young men unconscious with hypothermia. Working with UN staff and volunteers, we did everything we could for them while we waited for one of the two ambulances on the island to arrive.
One of the men regained consciousness and started crying from the pain. We desperately rubbed his hands and feet to try and get any warmth into them.
Sleeping in fields
Like thousands of others, including children, the men had been forced to sleep for three days in a field next to the transit camps. This is because the queue for non-Syrians to be registered at Moria had been moved outside the camp to make way for a new system. Right now there are not toilets for those waiting in those queues – so faeces is mixing into the flowing streams of water.
Only families who had already been registered were allowed to sleep inside the transit camp. But this is not much better – Moria is on a hill and most of it isn’t gravelled, so the rainwater turned the area into a mud bath.
The skin on every last child’s hands and feet was completely shrivelled from being in water and mud for three days. People had resorted to lighting fires in the tents to try and get warm and smoke billowed throughout the camp.
People who’ve fled Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan, who’ve faced unbelievable violence and poverty, were breaking down in tears at what was happening.
Reaching breaking point
A woman from Afghanistan, who was queuing in our food distribution line with her children, reached out and clung to me. She sobbed into my shoulder, clearly having reached her limit and needing some kind of comfort, even from a complete stranger.
All day long, people were pleading for help from anybody. Mothers wrapped their babies in rubbish bags trying to keep them dry, and fathers held plastic bags over the heads of their children. We gave out all of our blankets and dry clothes but there just wasn’t enough.
The lack of dignity these people were facing was shocking – even for aid workers who’ve worked in camps, conflict areas and natural disasters for many years.
Helping families this winter
Every day, Save the Children provides a hot meal to between 2,000 and 8,000 people at the two camps in Lesvos. We’re also running safe spaces for both children and mothers, as well as trying to improve systems to protect children.
Across the journey refugees and migrants take, Save the Children, UN agencies and other international agencies, along with tireless volunteer groups, are doing everything they can. But it just isn’t enough.
Snow is expected within the next month on the part of the journey that follows Greece – when people cross the border they will have nothing but the clothes they wear to protect them from the elements.
So far, we’ve had children dying when their boat capsizes – 70 children have drowned trying to reach Greece since Alan Kurdi’s death two months ago. But now we are potentially faced with deaths inside the camps.
The past week has been just a glimpse of what lies ahead. Europe needs to wake up to what winter means for the thousands of child refugees and migrants. It’s terrifying to think that a child could die after they have arrived in Greece.
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