Responding to Refugee Health Crisis in Europe

Bringing Humanitarian and Medical Relief to Disaster and Conflict Areas. Since it launch in 2016, SGR’ Greece has provided over 18,000 medical services to refugees and migrants living in camps in Greece.

In 2016, in response to the mass influx of refugees on the shores of Europe, SAMS launched its operations in Greece with the aim of providing medical relief to vulnerable individuals. Beginning on the mainland, SAMS program has evolved to meet the most pressing needs. 

Greece  – Aegean Islands:

Currently some 14,300 asylum seekers reside on five Aegean Sea islands – Lesbos, Chios, Samos, Leros, and Kos –  they are not allowed to travel on to the Greek mainland as part of the European Union’s “containment policy.” This is causing severe overcrowding at the islands’ camps’ said SAMS Medical Coordinator Eleni Nikolia.  The Greek government has faced legal challenges and protests against the measure.

The majority of the population on the Aegean islands are from Syria (31%), Iraq (27%) and Afghanistan (16%), with  women and children accounting  for 20%  and 31% percent of the population respectively.  Of those children,  nearly 7 out of 10 are younger than 12 years old.  Approximately 11% of the children are unaccompanied or separated, mainly Syrian and Afghan. 

The inadequate provision of medical services in first reception centers remains an issue of concern.  Medical needs are vast on the islands; primary health care and specialised services are still not being provided adequately by the Greek Ministry of Health.  Patients with chronic conditions or with special needs struggle to get the support, medications or supplies they need to help them heal, prevent or provide them with dignity. In addition to primary care needs, the overcrowded conditions at the first reception centers leads to a lack of privacy and compromises safe access to WASH facilities, thus heightening the risk of sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV).  Notwithstanding mental health and psychosocial needs are mounting, with those fleeing violence, losing loved ones along the perilous  journey  over the Mediterranean sea, only to be provided with sub optimal conditions, long processing times, and poor, unsanitary conditions.

In August 2017, the provision of medical services in first reception centers was transferred under the responsibility of the Ministry of Health, A vacancy notice was issued in November 2017 inter alia for 20 doctors, 9 psychiatrists, 45 nurses to be hired, many of these positions remain vacant, as the MoH struggle to find willing Greek medical personnel to work on the islands.  

Therefore, medical services have been provided by NGO foreign medical teams, in support of  the staff of the Hellenic Centre for Disease Control and Prevention (KEELPNO –  who provide medical screening for newly arrived refugees) with the occasional visit from clinicians working at the local public hospitals who visit facilities periodically.   

SAMS has been providing curative primary health care in the three islands of Chios, Leros and Kos.  Supported by SAMS member donations; SAMS provides medication, medical consumables and equipment and cultural mediators.  Treating approximately 150 patients on each island a week.  This is being achieved through our network of dedicated volunteer doctors and nurses from around the world.

“I’ve been working with SAMS for five weeks, split over Leros and Kos. It’s been a great opportunity and hugely rewarding, but obviously not without its challenges. Working with interpreters, and at times with a two person relay has taught me to be super focused with my questioning and it has often been hard work to keep the interaction with the patient alive. The intersecting purpose and prejudice of the many staff working at the camp – coming from as diverse a range of backgrounds as the patients – also creates a dynamic which has been fascinating to learn to navigate, especially where these forces cross. The camp’s residents’ agendas have been no less prominent in my interactions in clinic, and with the additional cultural perspective they bring, the consultation takes on a new level of complexity. This is of course superimposed on a medical problem about which advice has been sought. Where these agendas contain a significant element of secondary gain, finding a way through the consultation to universal satisfaction is clearly impossible. Occasions where a compassionate and meaningful way forward can be found in this context have been some of the most rewarding experiences I have had in medicine. I thank SAMS for the opportunity to have that.” – Dr. Lars, May 2018 – Kos Island, SAMS Clinic.  

Upcoming Medical Missions to Greece:

  • January 13, 2020- onward: Dental & Ophthalmology Mission. Apply here.

    To apply, please submit the following list of documents to [email protected] Applications are due by December 14, 2019.

    • Completed Volunteer Application
    • Current CV or resume
    • Medical school diploma (or equivalent for other medical professionals)
    • Medical license/registration state & ID number OR license card
    • Any board or specialist certifications as noted on CV/resume
    • Availability for January through March deployment 



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