Human beings seeking refuge do not deserve this hell

This article was published in The Telegraph, UK on 24/12/19

Jessica Hanlon is a British doctor who is working over Christmas in the notorious, overcrowded Moria camp on the Greek island of Lesbos, off the coast of Turkey.

Dr Hanlon, 30, from Saffron Walden in Essex, says that healthcare professionals who have worked in refugee camps around the world tell her the situation in Moria is by far the worst they have ever seen.

In this place you are continually confronted with evidence of past traumas and suffering. What makes it even more distressing is that people in Moria are being subjected to a new layer of trauma and we feel powerless to protect them.

Working via refugee interpreters, taking time to listen and hold a hand is often the most valuable, or sometimes the only, thing we can offer.

“She says that she was beaten by smugglers in Turkey and she lost her baby, so she’s had an operation to take it out. She’s staying in a tent and it’s leaking. They are asking whether you can help them,” an interpreter tells me of one woman.

I gave her the medications she needed, some blood thinning injections, pain relief and antibiotics, and desperately wished that I was able to do more.

There are babies and children everywhere in Moria, far too many for the designated safe areas.

My next patient, Amina, is two and she’s pale, floppy and feverish. Children get much sicker and take much longer to get better in cold, overcrowded environments where nutrition is poor.

Overloaded hospitals on the island cannot cope with demand and it is imperative we send only the extremely ill.

But how can I send this sick baby back to her cold tent? I ask Victoria, a GP from Ireland, to share this decision with me.

Without a moment to reflect, Abdul Hadi, our Syrian co-ordinator, keeps patients moving: “Next!”

It’s a four-year-old boy with his mother – they have managed to get in from the crowd outside. We only have capacity to see a fraction of those who attend. After coughs, fevers and diarrhoea, he has the other most common complaint: severe itching.

As suspected, there is a widespread rash over his whole body with scratch marks and sores, pus-filled spots on his buttocks.

Bribed with some stickers, he gingerly lifts his layers to show me his tummy. And there it is: the pathognomonic burrow mark of a scabies louse – another clear indicator of overcrowding and poor sanitation.

With almost no hot water, far too few showers and few clothes, effective treatment is almost impossible. We seem to see more cases each day.

I don’t really know what to say to my next patient: a 14-year-old boy who has cut his neck with a knife. He is here alone and says he has no family left.

“You are OK – you have family, you are free,” he says. “I am here alone and I don’t know what will happen. Sometimes I cannot deal with the sadness.”

A huge proportion of our patients have mental health problems and we have volunteers practicing a "Trauma Tapping Technique" in the clinic.

This seeks to alleviate symptoms by vigorously tapping certain pressure points on the body, without opening memories which nobody could begin to confront whilst stranded in this overcrowded limbo.

Due to Greek regulations, we’re unable to prescribe medicines to help alleviate mental suffering as we might in the UK and there is almost no capacity to refer to mental health specialists.

Many of our volunteer team have gone home but a small group of us will cover the Christmas period. The weather is turning stormy and the camp to mud. There are no easy answers here, but surely no humans seeking refuge deserve to live like this.

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