An American emergency physician practicing in Vienna provides ground-level observations about the medical – and social – impact of Europe’s latest asylum seekers.
A teenager pushes his grandfather across the desert in a wheelchair. A thin line of asylum seekers stretches ahead and behind him. A journalist asks the teenager where he is from, and his only response is, “It’s hot. It’s hot.”
Asylum seekers are a leading news story in Europe. In Sicily, the streets are inundated with asylum seekers who loiter, are unemployable, and steal food from the locals, even in the shops. The police are overwhelmed, and the Mafia don’t help (in fact, they encourage asylum as the human smugglers represent a new income stream). As of this writing, several million people are heading toward Europe from the Middle East and Africa. They are escaping war, rape, murder, and genocide motivated by greed, fundamentalist fervor, tribal dispute, and criminal zeal. It is a mass casualty event of epic proportions, and its effects will be felt for generations.
The health and welfare of the asylum seekers are embedded in the politics and social erosion of their homelands. They don’t want to leave their home country, but they must in order to survive. As of now, only the generally healthy are arriving; the exodus is killing off the weak or unfortunate. Their route is through Libya from Africa, or through Hungary via Serbia, and Macedonia from Lebanon. One quarter of the population of Lebanon are transient asylum seekers. Syrians, Kurds, and Afghanis are in the majority, but there are a great many more ethnicities and languages included in the mix.
When they finally come to rest, asylum seekers are not welcomed with open arms. Not only the Neo-Nazis but the average European fears that they will erode their way of life. And not without reason; certain changes will be inevitable. Asylum seekers are driving up taxes that are already extreme for the average worker. Governments are slow to respond, budgets are tight, and NGOs spend more time watching than assisting. Volunteers are few and easily thwarted by rigid restrictions. Physicians who are asylum seekers themselves are not allowed to practice in the refugee camps where they live owing to Medical Boards’ refusal to license them.
As a board certified physician from the United States, I have worked in Afghanistan, in the Middle East, and Africa, from where many of these folks are traveling. Wanting to assist them here in Austria where I currently practice, I decided to approach Doctors Without Borders. Their plan was to send me to South Sudan. Instead, I signed on with the Rotes Kreuz (The Red Cross), and began working with asylum seekers a mere ten-minute ride from my home. Here is what I witnessed.