As I caught the bus from the border this morning, a colleague got on and we were lucky enough to get two seats together. She has just come back from a week volunteering in Lesbos, Greece, where many of the refugee boats have been running aground. I knew she was going beforehand as she said she wanted to do something that would put her own situation into perspective. So through the magic of the internet she was able to google "Lesbos volunteers" and managed to hook up with a very well run group of volunteers working there.
She flew through Athens to Lesbos and had reserved a studio in an area which turned out not to be at all suitable for her work tasks so, after contacting one of the coordinators, she moved on to another area nearer to where she would be expected to work. The surreal thing is, during her week's stay there she never saw a single refugee, and only one boat arrived in all that time! The volunteers were of course on duty 24/7 just in case but she said that since 20 March when the EU began turning the boats around, only one boat had arrived on the island. From what she could understand, they were all massing at the land border with Macedonia.
She said volunteers were arriving and departing every day but that the group was well organized and very motivated. One of the tasks assigned to her was to help out in the "warehouse". Apparently, at the beginning, when refugees arrived they were taken to changing rooms (women/children and a separate area for men) and their wet and dirty clothing was simply dumped in landfill. Now the volunteers were getting the clothing washed and dried in order to pass it back on to new arrivals. The amazing thing was though that when clean clothes were offered to some of the refugees they said that they "didn't want that colour or that particular item"! She was amazed. It turns out that some had paid people smugglers around $1,500 to make the journey and had been assured that they would be met upon arrival and taken care of. Sadly, that sounds eerily familiar doesn't it. Of course they had been taken in by the scumball people smugglers, who I suspect are the only ones benefiting from the current crisis.
The refugees were told by the smugglers to puncture their boats when they got nearer to land because if it was sinking they would definitely be picked up, whereas a viable boat would be towed back in the direction it came from. She heard of one boat where two fathers had died because they were sitting in the middle of the boat, that, of course, being where the water pools the fastest once the boat is punctured.
She said many of the volunteers were very "idealistic" in their views so she preferred to keep her own counsel. My feeling is that I feel so sorry for the genuine refugees, whose plight has been made worse by the economic migrants trying to sneak into Europe. Interestingly, many of those being sent back are Bangladeshis and Pakistanis and while I understand people's wish to better their lot in life, it has to be done through legal channels. Her take on that was that Bangladeshis have always come to Greece for seasonal work and so their plight was also being made worse by the current situation.
She said that she had no idea what to expect but that it was an amazing experience and she hopes to go back to volunteer when she has more leave. When they weren't working at the warehouse they worked shifts cleaning up debris from the beaches and while it was hard physical work she would do it again in a heartbeat.
I'm not sure how she would have reacted had she been there with boats arriving and people drowning, but I have to say I admire what she did (and what others continue to do) and I take my hat off to her.