Sunday, March 13, 2016

Mercy mission: the expats, holidaymakers and actors fishing refugees from the sea

Distraught and bedraggled families are being fished from the Aegean Sea by holidaymakers, retired expats and star actors - while officials look on.
Men Behaving Badly’s Neil Morrissey and The Full Monty’s Hugo Speer have told Metro of their experiences helping desperate refugees arriving off the Greek island of Lesbos.
They found despair among the hundreds fleeing civil war, poverty and persecution back home, defiance from local volunteers - yet some impotence from authorities meant to help and protect.
Razor-wire-surrounded reception centres are often the refugees’ first official sights on European Union land - ‘more like prison camps’, Speer said.
And official agencies have to hang back unless a boat is actually sinking, for fear of being accused of people-smuggling themselves for helping people across international borders.
Other volunteers have felt less constrained, with Morrissey telling: ‘You feel you have to do whatever you can to help - you can’t just stand by and watch.’
The stage and screen pair are now urging Metro readers to do whatever they can to assist any of the thousands of individuals washing up on European shores in trafficker-organised flimsy dinghies.
An estimated 4,000 people drowned last year attempting to cross the Mediterranean and Aegean seas in search of refuge, with another 500 perishing so far in 2016.
The pair were invited to Lesbos by Charles Storer, founder of the Essex-based charity Hope And Aid Direct who had just returned from supplying four lorry-loads of supplies to the island.
Both have been involved in humanitarian efforts abroad for the past 15 years, helping out in countries including Ethiopia, Rwanda, Kosovo, Sudan and Afghanistan.
Speer said: ‘The aim was to see as much as we could and as much difference as possible in the time we were there.
‘Almost as soon as we arrived, we were helping people to shore - women and children, elderly and disabled. 
‘It wasn’t easy to see. All of them were profoundly traumatised.
‘There was obviously a language barrier but we just wanted to get them safe, give them blankets, clean dry socks and trackie bottoms before they’d be escorted by UNHCR to the holding camps.
‘It was horrific. You could see how choppy the waters could get, how freezing cold it could be.’

British warships sent to patrol the Aegean Sea and turn back migrant boats may only put more lives in danger, it was warned.
Travellers are typically charged €100 (£77.50), meaning people-smugglers can pocket as much as €6,000 (£4,650) per hazardous journey.
And the Nato military mission launched last week - involving three British naval warships - could end up endangering more lives than it saves, the pair fear.
Speer said: ‘They say this will crack down on the traffickers but it’s not going to work.
‘Now people won’t attempt these incredibly dangerous journeys during the day because they’ll be spotted, they’ll do it at night now - when it’s ten times more hazardous.
‘You could say Nato and the British would then be guilty of culpable homicide.’
The European Union and Turkey agreed a deal last week which would involve evacuating all migrants and refugees from the Greek islands, sending them back to Turkey.
The EU said they would accept one Syrian refugee for each individual taken by Turkey, but charities have claimed the scheme was not only dangerous but illegal.

An army of ‘voluntourists’, meanwhile, is proving as essential as any official authorities on the previously-idyllic, now-chaotic Greek island beaches.
And as well as donating, more people are being urged to travel to these shorelines, whether helping the rescue efforts, simply boosting the tourist trade - or both.
Morrissey said: ‘It’s cathartic to help out, it’s also crucial for so many lives in danger.
‘Yes, you can actually be helpfully involved at the very heart of the crisis - and there’s no better witness than an eyewitness.’
‘Even if you can’t face helping out like that, do make sure to keep going to Greece even as a holidaymaker.
‘But there are plenty of people there combining the two - doing one day on, then the next off: one day helping, the next day holiday.
‘This crisis has landed on the poorest country in the EU, which just isn’t getting the assistance it needs.
‘If nothing else, don’t feel ashamed to go over and spend your money in what’s also a beautiful country.’

Those volunteers or 'voluntourists' from far afield are not only uniting on Greece’s lethal shores to save lives but look after those who have been lost.
The actor pair were ‘moved and touched’ by a twentysomething Muslim duo doing unstinting duty: Asif, from Birmingham, and Jacob, from Denmark.
They would come every day to wash down the bodies of the dead, preparing them for decent burials.
The corpses would be piling up otherwise - but their devotion encapsulated humanity coming together.
Speer said: ‘These two volunteers have made a number of trips out there.
‘Everyone gets on because they’re all there to help - divides of language, culture, religion break down.
‘It was touching to see these two young Muslim boys hugging helpers from a charity called Israeli Aid.’
Other more menial duties being carried out by volunteers include clearing the beaches of discarded debris, ravaged boats and life-vests.
Seven tonnes’ worth of discarded life-vests were collected from one stretch of beach known locally as ‘the graveyard’.
The jackets are often as threadbare as the dinghies made to bear as many as 60 passengers at a time - bolstered only by floorboards of sponge or cardboard, more likely to sink than float.
Morrissey added: ‘These are death boats - they’re useless. You wouldn’t go out on a swimming pool in these things.’

Most striking, mind, might be a pair of expats who landed on still-picturesque Lesbos 16 years ago looking forward to a happy retirement running a beachside hotel.
Yet Eric and Philippa Kempson’s hopes for peaceful ease have been hugely disrupted by the refugee crisis on their shore.
And yet they have not only stood up to the challenges, stood up for those vulnerable families arriving but also faced persecution and even prosecution for doing their bit to help.
The couple, both 60, have turned their Hotel Elpis on Eftalou beach - bought in 1999 on moving from Newport - into a safe haven for newly-rescued refugees.
Mr Kempson, an artist who funds their efforts by carving and selling boutique wooden jewellery and sculptures, regularly scans the horizon with binoculars for incoming boats.
Now Speer and Morrissey hope to rally funds to buy beds - so-called 'Disc-o-Beds' - for the venue dubbed The Hope Centre, Elpis being the Greek goddess of hope.
Each bunk bed not only provides somewhere for two people to sleep but can also be easily cleaned and disinfected, important amid increasing reports of scabies and chicken pox among recent arrivals.
Speer said: ‘Here you have somewhere allowing people a safe haven, to close the doors behind them and be a family for the first in who knows how long - even if just for 12 hours or so after that horrendous ordeal they’ve been through.’
The Disc-O-Beds can be bought for 220 euros (£170) apiece.
Each one provides two berths, and the celebrity pair hope Metro readers will help raise the money for 100 - allowing 200 people to sleep in them.
Speer said: ‘I understand people sometimes feel they don’t know where their charity donations go.
‘I personally guarantee I will deliver these beds directly to The Hope Centre.’

The duo not only brought safety to those cast adrift, but also some diversion for the children and their appreciative adults - in the form not only of food and warm clothes, but balloons.
Morrissey fondly remembered: ‘The kids loved the balloons - they were a great distraction and their parents were very grateful too.
‘Whether toddlers or teenagers, they did help lift the mood a little.’
They may have only just survived a choppy struggle across the 8km of water separating Turkey and Lesbos, precariously crammed inside a rickety dinghy with dozens of others.
But families newly-arriving on the shore can come across as fussily eager as any other to maintain best standards of hygiene and appearance.
Speer recalls seeing mothers make sure to wipe their children’s faces almost as soon as being helped to dry land and safety.
He is keen to dispel some prejudiced assumptions others may have about refugees’ health or hygiene risks.
He said: ‘Some newspapers have suggested they bring cockroaches or rats with them, which is horrific.
‘I remember one mother of two children I helped pull to safety, put them in a blanket and gave them some chocolate and a balloon to play with.
‘She immediately produced baby-wipes from somewhere and made sure to wipe her children’s hands and faces.
‘Their cleanliness would put my own kids to shame, even after what these people have only just endured.
‘These are clean and well-brought-up and beautiful kids.
‘Then there was a man who had been staying in Germany, trying to get funds for his family to arrive - and now when his two young daughters were finally in his arms, this huge guy built like a warrior burst into floods tears.’
Those being saved also come from all walks of life, from poor labourers to lawyers and biochemists - united in desperation to escape places of unendurable violence.
Morrissey said: ‘Many of these people are incredibly highly-qualified, highly-skilled and assets to any country - but whether it’s because of the Taliban or Isis or Assad, they just can’t survive anymore back home.
‘The vast majority aren’t economic migrants - they’re simply fleeing the most horrific conditions where their homes, their schools and their hospitals are being destroyed.’
Speer added: ‘They’re not rats or cockroaches, they’re like Bob and Margaret from number 36 who you’d have round for dinner a couple of times with their beautiful children.’

* Go to Greece with food, clothes, blankets or simply the willingness to help rescue those arriving off-shore each day.
* Go to Greece on holiday still, if only to boost the tanking tourist trade in what is already the European Union’s most poverty-stricken nation.
* Donate to Hugo’s JustGiving appeal aiming to raise enough money for 100 cleanable, disinfectable beds - produced by the firm Disc-O-Beds - to provide some comfort to those temporarily staying at Eric and Philippa Kempson’s The Hope Centre hotel. 
Donate via or text ELPI55 plus an amount (eg £1) to 70070.
* Oh, and do declare Gift Aid on any contributions.

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