Volunteers 'helpless' on Greek island

volunteers on a Greek island have told of their helplessness as scores of refugees continue to arrive in boats every week to overcrowded camps, forcing some to sleep on the beach in cold, wet conditions.

Monday, 12th December 2016, 10:26 am
Updated Wednesday, 14th December 2016, 12:58 pm
Boatloads of refugees are arriving on a weekly basis on Greek island Chios.

Environmental consultant Jenny Massey, from Edinburgh, has just arrived in Chios for another volunteering stint - her second in six months - after hearing about refugees trapped on the island after international border closures meant those fleeing persecution and civil war in countries such as Syria and Afghanistan were unable to move on to elsewhere in Europe.

Ms Massey, who returned to Scotland to travel on her honeymoon after her first visit to the island, is working in a team coordinated by two other Scots volunteers, Andy and Fran Nixseaman, who arrived in Chios a year ago.

“People have forgotten that it is still happening,” said Ms Massey. “But having been there, I just can’t stop thinking about it.”

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When boats arrive on the island, usually during the night, Ms Massey and a team of around 25 volunteers are raised from their beds to meet the newcomers, who have travelled across the sea from Turkey, often as many as 50 people packed into a rubber dinghy.

A total of 45 people arrived on the island on Friday night alone - one of them a disabled child, while 24 boats arrived last week.

“There are nights when you can’t sleep because you just keep looking at your phone, wondering if anything has happened, if more people have come and need help,” she said.

Since borders with countries such as Macedonia were closed in March last year, refugees have been unable to move on, creating a bottleneck in places such as Chios and other Greek islands, which are still popular holiday destinations in the summer months, while they apply for asylum. During the winter, aid organisations have attempted to rent hotel rooms to house the most vulnerable refugees such as children or those with health problems, but the volunteers do not know what will happen once the warm weather comes and tourists begun to return to the area.

Ms Massey said the refugees are left in limbo, with some having been on the island since last February, before the borders closed into Europe, trapping hundreds of people on Chios.

She added: “Who knows what the future will bring for them? At the moment all we can do is try to keep them warm and dry.

She said that many youngsters, including the 180 unaccompanied or “unsupported” children - those who have relatives elsewhere in Greece but have become separated from their families - living on the island, were beginning to struggle with health problems.

The refugees are housed in large tents, with volunteers working with the United Nations's refugee arm UNHCR to create makeshift floors for the tents, to stop people from having to sleep on the ground.

“Children are coughing and they are starting to have real problems because of the cold,” she said, adding that as many as 50 people are forced to sleep on the beach in summer tents due to lack of space.