Lliana’s piece on the refugee crisis in Lesbos appeared on the front page of the Huffington Post. You can view the original on the Huffington Post here.
Life in Lesbos: “The Children’s Feet Are Rotting – You Guys Have One Month and Then All These People Will Be Dead”
“There are thousands of children here and their feet are literally rotting, they can’t keep dry, they have high fevers and they’re standing in the pouring rain for days on end. You have one month guys, and then all these people will be dead”.
Those were the final words of Dr Linda on the phone, a doctor that our volunteer organisations (Help Refugees and CalAid) had asked to fly out to Lesbos in response to an emergency cry for help from an overwhelmed volunteer on the ground.
The weight of those words and the responsibility that comes with them felt crippling. But why are we, a film maker, a radio presenter, and a music assistant being tasked with this responsibility? Shouldn’t, as we had presumed, the large charities and governments be taking the charge of care for the precious lives arriving on Europe shores?
Another call came in – this time from volunteers in Serbia – the refugees are burning plastic bags to keep warm, they have nothing else, they are freezing to death, and the fumes from the bags are slowly poisoning them, please send help.
Then another – this time from volunteers on Lesbos trying to find out how to order body bags en masse… will they have to resort this? Time will tell, but certainly people there have already started to die.
We wished we could pick up the phone and call someone… who? A charity? An emergency team? The government? The army? How could we sit by and watch whilst these people die, and the handfuls of volunteers struggle and suffer too. But who is there to call? The charities are acting slowly, they have protocols to follow, political considerations, red tape, hierarchy and procedures. Our government’s policy is not to help in Europe, and only to send aid to places like Syria, Lebanon in Jordan. So… it’s left to everyday people, untrained, unprepared, and overwhelmed, to deal with this crisis.
Everyday people like us… a small group of friends who nine weeks ago decided to raise a little bit of cash, get a car load of goods and drive it to Calais. We’d heard from friends who’d been there some of the terrible stories of war and persecution, we knew that numbers were growing, that more children were coming everyday, and that conditions were dire. Our plan was to do our bit, pat ourselves on the back, and then go back to our lives feeling that we’d done something good for our fellow mankind.
Here we are, nine weeks later, registered as a small charity (Help Refugees), more deeply involved than ever in this refugee crisis, and with no signs of returning any time soon.
The reason is simple, because trust me, none of us set out to do this (our group are a bunch of TV producers, music managers, radio broadcasters and documentary film makers)… but we couldn’t walk away, because in so many instances there simply aren’t enough people helping. We expected to meet the large charities in huge numbers on the ground taking charge of things, or for government presence to be strong, or for the UN to be there in force. It’s just not happening. So our team, and ordinary volunteers like us, have been forced to step in. Unconstrained by red tape, political considerations and bureaucracy and the slow decision making processes of large corporations, we can act fast. And we have had to. So far our teams have visited and delivered aid and other assistance to Kos, Lesbos, Calais, Serbia, Greece, Macedonia. But it isn’t even close to enough. We are just a few, we are untrained, and whilst there are handfuls of incredible volunteers and small groups doing what they can (and struggling and becoming traumatised in the process), people (children, women and men) are literally dying.
We can’t ignore their cries for help. The volunteer I mentioned earlier in Lesbos called Merel Greaves, (now ill herself with a high fever) shared some incredibly disturbing reports on the situation in Moria (a refugee camp in Lesbos), with thousands arriving every day, and very little visible support or help from large charities or governments.
“The situation in Moria is utterly catastrophic. We need organisations to come. There is just a handful of us volunteers in Moria, there are no organisations except for a once a day food distribution which is nowhere near enough. I’ve had people holding half dead babies up to me the whole day and we have nowhere to send them. All the NGOs are inside and doctors only rarely come out. Tomorrow will be a disaster, there are no dry clothes for anyone, no shelter, there are children sleeping in bin bags, no food, no blankets, no diapers for babies. No access to drinking water for the people at the back of the line, people will sleep in the wet and cold tonight in the open air, half the people will wake up sick, some will die, I’m sure of it. We urgently need medics on the ground, some sort of sheltering and dry clothes. Please please please help. We are just a few volunteers by ourselves without resources but people are looking at us to help and we can do nothing… we are a handful of volunteers who do not even belong to an organisation with no resources to give the thousands of ill and dying and drenched people waiting out there. The rain has not stopped, it has been relentless and never ending, draining every single and last person to the bone. There are no shelters for people to hide, there is not enough food for everybody: No water. No clean clothes for the babies. No doctors. The rain, the rain.
We, the volunteers in Moria, are completely desperate. I am completely desperate. The situation is inhuman, it is not possible that this is happening to people in Europe. Yet it is happening, my god it’s happening and people are dying out there, people are collapsing in my arms and dozens of babies will die of hypothermia over the next few days.
Staff from UNHCR come to ask us for help (I’ve only ever seen two staff on the ground from UNHCR – those two are amazing and do what they can as individuals) but where the hell is the money? They ask us to help them clean the trash of a few shelters down the road… we went in by the gate but we get side tracked, sucked in by the horrors around and the people asking for help… For hours we plead with police to let through sick babies, the passed out woman, the leg injuries. Sometimes they let us go in, sometimes not. So many people want my help… a girl no older than eight falls on her knees in front of me and folds her hands together and in hysterics says ‘please help, please help’. A passed out woman in dragged in, babies drenched in their blankets. These are the scenes I can see before my eyes like a horror film I can’t switch off.
Every single person is drenched to the bone, all their clothes, their shoes stuck in the knee-high river of mud. Inside the gates we help the families who are about to register, every single person is shivering and pretty much every single person is in need of medical attention. The woman from UNHCR grabs me, ‘they are about to open the gates for the next group’ I take one look at the gate and see the squashed people pushed up against it, sounds of crying and screaming: I know already exactly what will happen when we open the gate. The riot police remove the bolts and open it. Hordes of people run in, we make gestures to walk slowly but it’s no use, she pulls me aside to step away from the crowd. But what unfolds in the next few seconds we knew already: people are getting trampled on, piled on top of each other when they all try to push in. She grabs my arm, ‘we have to pull out the babies!’, we run in and with all my might I tug at the people stuck at the bottom, it’s no use, I see a child and pull her arms. Then, a strange smell and a quick sensation: teargas. It burns my eyes, my throat, my face, people scream and run away from the gas. I have to let go of the child and run also, it is unbearable. We run behind the bus, a little boy with a red coat is waiting for me. ‘Sister!’ He shouts, he takes my hand and we run together, away from the gas. We stop, I bend over and spit. A little girl comes over to me and cries, I pick her up and we sit on a roll of fencing wire in the corner. Her family gathers around us, I hug the girl tight, stroke her face and all together we weep for the deep misery that is so unnecessary. After 15 minutes I know I have to go back in to help. I leave them behind.
For the rest of the night we try to dress the drenched babies that are coming in with the clothes from the van. I’ve never seen such feet and hands, completely white and shrivelled up. Again nothing fits and there are no jackets or shoes. But we try our best. I’ve come to realise you cannot do anything but make the situation for one individual a little better for a very short period. God knows what more they’ll have to endure. I feel such anger also, how out of control is the situation when you have volunteers who have no experience or training working with the UNHCR to try and fight the shitstorm?”
Merel is angry, she is also very sick herself now, but she can’t walk away. How can we? How can anyone of us sit by and allow all this to happen? On European shores? To human beings escaping war? No matter what your political views, no matter the eventual fate of these people, surely our duty now is to keep them alive? To use the huge resources and experience we have here in Europe to care for these people, these children. Volunteers like Merel can’t do this alone, it needs much larger presence from the huge, experienced organisations. It needs immediate government action. Lesbos is just one of so many examples, and the longer we leave things the worse things will be.
Please write to your MPs, call your local news teams, and use your voices. Together we can make them listen.
Image: p-GRC0161 by International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies and Stephen Ryan on Flickr
Greece: Lesbos, 21 August 2015. These girls are from Afghanistan. Together with their parents, they are awaiting registration outside the First Reception Centre on Lesbos. They pass the time by playing music, using their hands and anything that can make a sound. Each day, thousands arrive on Greek shores seeking safety, security and a future. Hundreds of people have been arriving on the island of Lesbos. The Red Cross is providing assistance to those passing through Lesbos before they carry on with their journey.