Lesbos Update

29 February 2016 | Dr. Bill Dienst

I landed here on the Northern shore of the Greek Island of Lesvos on 26 February. Lesvos is the third largest of the Greek Islands, and is the closest to the Turkish coast, separated on its Northern Coast by only 6 miles (10 km). For this reason, it has been the main crossing point for refugees.

It has been very quiet since I came here 3 days ago in terms of refugee boat arrivals on the Northern Coast. The current political situation of the Turkish Government, the Greek Government, the European Union and NATO is an elaborate dance of Cat-and-Mouse with the human smugglers and refugees from Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and other locations.

The refugees are intermittently stranded on the Turkish Side. Their goal is to land in Greece, thereby entering the European Union, then making their way to the Greek mainland. From there, they try to travel overland through Macedonia, Serbia, Slovenia and Austria to Germany and other locations in Northern Europe.

There are bottlenecks and various hardships along the way, (e.g. Macedonia just started building a fence). There is a lot of uncertainty: hurry up, then wait, then hurry up again. For us rescuers, there is a need for flexibility and improvisation. During the past few months, there have been periods of working too hard, and then periods of hardly working. We are currently experiencing the latter, which gives me opportunity to write about this overall situation.

The goals of the Powers That Be are convoluted and confused: on the one hand they are trying their best to come to grips compassionately with the humanitarian catastrophe that endless wars have created in the host countries from whence the current refugees are fleeing. On the other hand, they must deal with the chaos and personal consequences experienced by their own citizens from their host countries, whose lives and economic well being are also being affected.

Here on Lesvos, the economy is based largely on agriculture, fishing and tourism. The tourist season usually starts in the late spring, and lasts through September. The effects of the current refugee crisis have been tumultuous on the local economy. There have been both winners and losers, but the current overall perception among the local Greeks is that the overall effect on the economy will be a loss. Bookings for this summer?s upcoming tourist season are down 80%. Tourists do not seem to want their restful summer escape from their hectic lives in the North of Europe to be interrupted by dead refugees washing ashore on the beach.

On the plus side, hotels and restaurants, usually moribund during the winter months, are currently fairly active, as they are being utilized by humanitarians and health care workers currently here to help the refugees. But these humanitarians do not spend their money as freely as the tourists. Some of the younger ones have been known to misbehave at times as well.

The refugees began arriving in large numbers this past October. Since then, various Non-Government-Organizations have arrived and infrastructures have evolved to provide services to refugees arriving from Turkey. They are based on the Northern and Eastern coasts of Lesvos. These have included the UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), the International Rescue Committee (IRC), Medecins San Frontieres (MSF) or Doctors Without Borders, and many others.

Here in the Northern shore of Lesvos, we are divided into 4 zones of responsibility. I will be working in Zone 1 with a Seattle based NGO called Salaam Cultural Museum (SCM). We are comprised of both health care workers and humanitarians. Our members arrive for a week or longer assignments. I have decided to stay here for 2 and a half months.

Our health care workers are aligned with a Norwegian group of Emergency Medical Technicians (EMT?s and Paramedics) known as Medics Bergen. Our mission is largely pre-hospital care, triage and acute/urgent care. We receive refugees at local docks, where they have usually been rescued at sea by the Greek Coast Guard or Frontex, the Border Control service of the European Union.

There is an Italian group called Group Mission, who are currently in negotiations with the Greek government, so that they can deploy a mobile Intensive Care Unit. This would be helpful, as there are currently no hospital services on this end of the Island. There is only a clinic staffed part time by one Greek general practitioner a few days a week about 10 kilometers away in the town called Petra. The nearest hospital is a one and a half hour drive away in Mytilene, the capital city of Lesvos. Medecin Sans Frontieres has 2 ambulance services in our area if we have unstable patients who need transport to the hospital.

In my next article, I will try to explain how the local system of receiving refugees on shore works.

Dr. Bill Dienst is a rural family and emergency room physician from North Central Washington. He has extensive experience in medical exchange programs in Veracruz, Mexico and in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. He is currently on assignment in Lesvos, Greece

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2 thoughts on “Lesbos Update

  1. Thank you, Bill, for this update. And thank you so much for doing what very few are willing or able to do, on the front lines assisting refugees. It is useful to me to hear your first hand reports, as I wonder daily how everyone there—locals, refugees and aid workers—can possibly manage such chaos and suffering…

  2. I also have good basic Arabic and understanding of the Muslim Culture Quran and Customs, which helps to avoid foolish mistakes in relations. And I’m an excellent Driver of Standard 4×4 Vehicles.

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