Steven van de Vijver: Europe is ducking its responsibilities to the refugees on Lesbos

You might think that the covid-19 pandemic racing across the world underlines the vulnerability of our shared existence. We can all see and feel how nerve-wracking and threatening is the lack of care and facilities as sickness and death knock on the door. Precisely because the sickness can infect any of us covid-19 should evoke solidarity and a sense of community.   

I am working as a volunteer for the Boat Refugee Foundation on Lesbos, and there are few aid workers still on the island. Europe, I fear, is turning its back on these refugees, and an urgent response is needed.

Trendwatchers like Lidewij Edelkoort express the hope that the present “consumption quarantine” could lead to a “reset of our society”. Two months of house arrest led to the settlement of family quarrels in China, and parents who usually work in factories became reacquainted with their children. As the great Dutch philosopher Johan Cruijff has already stated, “every disadvantage has its advantage.” But in the present phase it seems that the pandemic is only amplifying differences. I was shocked to read news reports about adults fighting in the supermarket over pasta and soap and traders raking in millions on the stock market now that share prices are volatile. 

Meanwhile, on the fringes of our beautiful Europe, 22 000 people are hidden away in a refugee camp on a couple of square kilometres where there isn’t a single mask and toilet paper is non-existent. At Camp Moria on the Greek island of Lesbos you have to wait for an hour to use one of the few toilets. If a woman dares make the journey in the dark she risks being raped.   

Our political leaders have spent three years looking away from this stinking wound on the European continent, a wound that we created ourselves by ignoring it for years. I wish that Camp Moria was only a nightmare, certainly now that covid-19 is at the gates. 

We can scorn the United States, where the underclass of the uninsured will fan the flames of the pandemic through the lack of care and possibly make the position of President Trump untenable. But Europe is no better if we duck our medical and ethical obligations in Camp Moria. 

Ironically, Hippocrates, founder of today’s medical ethics, lived on the island of Kos only a few kilometres away in the Aegean Sea. That island is also full of refugees in urgent need of help. But the geographic, cultural, and moral unity of Europe seems to have been forgotten. The basic principle of the Hippocratic oath taken by every doctor is “do no harm,” but that principle has been neglected in recent years. Most of the medical problems I see here every day as a doctor are caused by the overcrowded camp itself:  scabies, stab wounds, recurrent intestinal and lung infections, and post-traumatic stress disorder caused by fights and violence in Moria itself. Many NGOs have left since tensions rose on the islands in early March when Turkey opened its borders with Greece for migrants and Greeks reacted with violence against refugees and aid workers. Only a couple of doctors and nurses are left to offer help to the thousands of vulnerable people in the camp, and the care is failing. 

And now the first patient with covid-19 has been identified on Lesbos, and it’s only a matter of time before the virus takes hold here. 

Given the abominable living conditions—for instance, several families in a tent built for two, and long queues for food and sanitary facilities—everyone will be infected within a few weeks. Not a child, mother or elderly person will be left out: on Moria “isolation” or “containment” is impossible. And providing care without ventilation, aprons, and masks is very dangerous. 

We have one last chance to put right our years of failure by taking adequate action now and giving the Moria refugee camp a helping hand in the face of a lethal epidemic—however difficult that may be due to travel restrictions and quarantine obligations for foreign aid workers in Greece. 

Otherwise, we shall put an end to our European tradition and unity.

Sign the petition demanding that the refugees on the Greek islands be brought to safety. 


Steven van de Vijver is a Dutch GP who has worked across the world.

Competing interests: None declared.