Babies with bronchitis and thousands struggling in northern Greece

The medical team in Greece is treating between 500–600 people every week. They’re also subject to many of the same stresses and illnesses as those living in camps.

By Dr Michael Kuhnel-Rouchouze, Austrian Red Cross

Idomeni is a small village on Greece’s northern border with the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia and in recent weeks has become the symbol of the European migration crisis.

Several thousand people from countries including Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan have been waiting here to cross the border for weeks, hoping to seek asylum in Austria, Germany, and Sweden. They live in tents; some large housing up to 200 people; but many are smaller for two to three people.

There are some temporary toilets but not nearly enough for everyone and hardly any showers.

It is night, and people use rain-soaked wood to build fires, giving the camp a spooky, smokey appearance. The fires don’t give out enough warmth. People live in their drenched clothes and sleep in damp tents trying to stay above the swamped ground.

The recently established Hungarian Red Cross mobile health unit deployed its first team to Idomeni, Greece on 19 February. During their ten days mission the six-member team provided urgent health support to more than 1,000 people. (Neményi Márton / Hungarian Red Cross)

For eight days, our team from the Hungarian Red Cross and Austrian Red Cross is here to provide medical help. Two doctors, a nurse, a team leader and paramedics, we see up to 600 patients each week.

Other partners are here too. There is Praksis, a Greek organization, Médecins Sans Frontieres (MSF), Doctors of the World (MDM), and us, the Red Cross. Together we provide 24/7 medical treatment.

More than a week of heavy rain and cold weather is making the situation even more dire with children having to spend their days in soaking clothes and shoes. (Mirva Helenius / Finnish Red Cross)

Almost 50 per cent of our patients are children. The youngest was just 14 days old, and she already had bronchitis. Between 80 and 90 per cent of all those we see have bronchitis or pneumonia caused by the squalid conditions.

We treat people with Ibuprofen. For those who need stronger treatment, we can give antibiotics.

We are not immune; one by one we fall ill. But we are lucky — at the end of our shift we get into our heated car, drive a to warm hotel room, have a hot shower and put on fresh clothes.

There are many challenges over a shift. There is one Nepalese patient who has diabetes. He has an insulin pen but shows every day with a blood sugar almost three times higher than it should be. Nobody has shown him how to use the pen or how much to inject; it is a matter of language. One night, we solved the problem by ringing up a friend of my wife’s in France who has a Nepalese spouse.

There is a mother-of-four who broke her leg but didn’t want to stay in hospital. She had medication to prevent blood clotting, but this is not something we have, so now she takes an aspirin each day.

We have people who have collapsed, people who are soaked to their skin and cold to their bones. They try to warm up in our tent but with more than 100 people per shift, they can only shelter for a few minutes before they’re back out in the rain.

Last night, a man of about 55 came to our tent crying. He believed his daughter had been poisoned. We followed him to one of the big tents. We found hundreds of people lying almost in two layers, seeking shelter from the rain. Treading gently through the mass of people, we still ended up stepping on some legs or arms. Eventually we were able to bring the girl to our tent, where we diagnosed diarrhoea and the flu.

Many people are traumatized here; about 80 per cent are from Syria. They need psychosocial support, someone to listen to their histories and their problems.

In case of an emergency, we have doctor David, the man in a bandana. He could be in a rock band.

He’s my hero — stitching wounds, opening abscesses, giving a hand to a baby or a grandpa who needs help. He talks to the patients without knowing their language, being polite and having patience and humour in abundance. And keeping people calm when they become agitated.

And there are the others; Adam our team leader who gives his all, Zsofia our paediatrician and the only woman. We have Zoltan who spent his birthday sick in bed in Thessaloniki and Istvan, the man with an infectious good mood.

I can’t speak Hungarian and we communicate in English, but talking the language of humanity unites us here in Idomeni. We share our tent with MDM and when we arrive they do the handover, take their things and disappear. We do it the same way. We work well together.

The Hellenic Red Cross does a great job here too. Volunteers are pushed to the limit every day, and I’m constantly in awe of their work and their results.

At first I thought I would get used to the situation, but you don’t. You can get used to the work, but not to this situation. In Haiti, I saw several camps after the earthquake but none looked like Idomeni.

Many people have been trapped in the camp at the border for weeks, with no easy prospect of moving on. (Mirva Helenius / Finnish Red Cross)

Journalists ask if I am ashamed to be Austrian, knowing Austria played a part in the closure of the Balkan Route. I reply that I’m ashamed of all nationalities who are fostering hatred and fear around this crisis. I say I was lucky to be born in a wealthy and safe country where I could become a doctor. I say I am proud to be part of the Red Cross Red Crescent Movement, helping people in need.

I don’t care where they are from and our patients don’t care where I am from. That is what this Movement is all about.

I don’t have a solution for the migration crisis but I have one wish — that nobody is forced to live like this.