Notes on a Scandal: Europe’s Refugee Crisis

The situation in Lesvos gets bleaker. Thousands of refugees continue to arrive daily.

The UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) has been asked for months for warming tents on the beach to help children and babies in hypothermic states. Nothing has arrived. There is virtually no humanitarian response from European institutions, and those in need rely on the good will of volunteers for shelter, food, clothes and medical assistance. Groups such as UNHCR and the Red Cross do little to help thousands of immigrants arriving daily on the island of Lesvos. The rescues are done by locals, volunteers, the Hellenic coastguards and Greek fishermen. The waters around this Greek island have become a graveyard this year for hundreds of people, including children and infants, seeking safety in Europe.

Like many other villages on the island’s north eastern flank facing Turkey, Molyvos has found itself on the front line of the greatest migration crisis facing Europe since World War 2. Nearly 800,000 people have made the perilous journey across the Mediterranean this year so far and more than 3,400 people have died or gone missing trying to reach Europe, according to the International Organisation for Migration.

The xenophobic, anti-Muslim hypocrisy of the EU is laid bare. They claim that a population of 500 million can’t afford to absorb 2% of its own population yet they take it for granted that Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey will take in millions of refugees without question. But there is more and worse to come as Europe begins to feel the impact of its foreign policy of destabilising other people’s countries for its economic gain.

Eric Kempson, English sculptor and resident on the Greek island of Lesvos since 1999 recently addressed a conference organised by Positive Action in Housing. Below we publish an edited extract from his speech:

IN THE LAST THREE MONTHS, we have had 250,000 people. I’m going to take you back one week and tell you what’s happened. On Tuesday 27 October, an old metal ferry grounded about 30 metres out, and the sea was rough. But on this ferry were 250 people – women, children and babies. Every day we are making decisions as volunteers out there, so we got an old boat, put a rope on it, one of us went out, attached the rope to the ferry and we were passing people down off the ferry onto the boat, ten at a time, and getting them back to shore. We got everyone back and they took the ferry down into another harbour, and it promptly sank. If the ferry had sunk at sea we would have lost a lot more people. That day 120 boats came in, 6,000 people.

Wednesday morning (28 October) was one of the worst days we have had. A boat crashed into the rocks about 50 metres out, and the sea was very rough. One of us went out to the rock and put a rope on it and we got the volunteers in a line, 15 metres out and we brought everyone in, and halfway through bringing them in the boat caught fire. Lucky enough, it was just diesel, black smoke. It was bad enough but it panicked a lot of people, but we got everyone in. That morning one of the volunteers had a two year old die in his arms, and a five year old girl. We didn’t have enough oxygen.

lesvos2Later that evening at 6pm, there was a call for every medic to get themselves to Molyvos Harbour – we’ve got a lot of doctors from all round the world with big hearts helping us for nothing. They’re just volunteers. When I got there it was absolutely insanity – fishing boats were bringing people in, coastguards were bringing people in, and they were laid out on the harbour, and there were doctors pumping people. I was getting clothes off the wet men and I looked round and there were four lots of doctors around me, pumping small babies, and out of the four babies, only one made it.

Wednesday we had approximately 80 boats, 4,000 people. Thursday 29 October, we had eight boats sunk out at sea. We had approximately 60 boats – 3,000 people. Friday, 28 bodies washed up on Petra beach, women, children, men; 60 boats, 3,000 people came in on Friday. On Four boats sank, we rescued every one. Saturday morning, eight bodies washed up on my beach – four children, four adults. We ran the situation for five months, just me, my wife, and my daughter. Now, we have another 160 volunteers from Norway, England, Scotland, Denmark, Netherlands, from all over. I was out on the dirt tracks and two ambulances came across the top there. It said ‘Glasgow Cares’ across the side of them. They were a group of lads and they bought these ambulances to bring across to give to us.

In the North we feed everyone. The UNHCR and aid agencies don’t feed them, we feed them. The UNHCR came in about a month ago and stuck a tent on a bit of land we managed to get from a really nice guy. At one time we didn’t have any buses. Everyone had to walk 65km through the summer 40 degrees heat, thousands of women and children. It looked like something out of World War 2.

Unbelievable. And UNHCR was there all the time watching these people suffer, day in, day out, and doing nothing. At one stage there, I went to clean the toilets in Karatepe, 65 km from my house. Doctors Without Borders took over the site, said they’re going to run it, publicised it, asked for donations – but they can’t clean the toilets for two months.

UNHCRWhen I got back to Molyvos, I bumped into 220 Afghans. They hadn’t eaten for three or four days, they’re in soaking wet clothes, so I rang my wife and another guy, a volunteer, to get some clothes and pampers and stuff, biscuits, anything we can get, and a tourist came and helped us. Anyway, we were there for about three hours, we got everyone stabilised, got all the children into dry clothes. France 24’s reporter was there and I said to him I’ve been in Karatepe cleaning the toilets, there’s no one there, there’s no organisations there, there’s no manager in the camp, they’re just dropping the refugees outside, they’re living in filth. I said, where’s the UNHCR? This is the biggest aid agency in the world, they have an office here, why aren’t they doing something? And the reporter said to me, Eric, they’re over there in the restaurant eating fish and drinking wine and they’ve been there for three hours watching you.

We have NGOs coming in all the time. They take photographs of women and children and they promise me the earth and we never see them again and you go on the internet and they’re advertising, showing these photographs, and they’re just taking money. They’re con-artists.

The abuses going on: the Turkish coastguards go round and round the dinghies, trying to get up a wave of water and they sink the dinghies. One boat slices dinghies and when refugees go in the water, they pick them up and they go back to Turkey as heroes because they rescued these people. The latest one is sick. They are throwing out a cable on the boat, electric cable, and they put a current down it. I saw a burn on a baby’s arm from this cable. And they use water cannon to fill the boats with water and sink them.

The abuses from Turkey have got worse because the EU governments have given Turkey 3 billion euros to hold these people back. We are losing a lot more people now because of this decision, because they come overnight. They don’t want to come during the day because the Turkish coastguards will sink them. I had a boat come in last week and it was their fifth attempt and they’d been sunk three times by the Turkish coastguards. Paying the government to persecute is against the Geneva Convention, written to help people like this. And we have the EU going against it with complete impunity. It’s disgusting. The solution to this – I don’t know, I’m a wood carver. But I do know that bombing Syria is wrong, because a lot more people are going to die. There needs to be a political solution.

POSITIVE ACTION IN HOUSING is making Lesvos the focus of its campaigning in 2015- 16. We are appealing for 200 volunteers with medical skills over the age of 25, to travel to Lesvos for any length of time from now until March 2016 to help save lives. We have so far recruited 73. Winter is approaching. People on the ground are worried about greater loss of life as Syrian and Afghan refugees attempt the dangerous sea crossings under cover of darkness using ever more dangerous routes to avoid the Turkish coastguards. We especially need doctors to go out in November and December and January. We will link you up with professional teams and contacts on the ground.

Volunteers can sign up at:

To give a donation to the European Refugee Crisis Appeal – Lesvos, go to:

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