Yesterday morning was my last patrol with Mo Chara before heading home to the UK. The sea was abnormally flat, like glass and the moon was nearly full and was still in the sky unlike every other night when it had set before we launched. The water was so still that the stars were reflected in it. It was beautiful but slightly disorienting sitting on an exact reflection of the sky.
For our entire patrol we shared our patch of sea with a silhouette with her navigation lights on. She was moving very very slowly and it was only as the sun came up and caught her in its rays that we finally figured out that she was the UK Border Force patrol vessel Protector. She is not a naval vessel but has a contingent of Marines on board. She is crewed and manned by the same agency that deals with passport control at airports.
Other than that, our patrol was uneventful as ever and we thought we would head home having done nothing again, when we heard the NATO warship in the area call BF Protector to say that there was a boat in Turkish waters about to cross. There were no Turkish or Greek Coastguard around so we and BF Protector made our way to the point on the border where they would cross. We also alerted Proactiva and the shore team and made BF Protector aware that we were a friendly NGO rescue boat.
It was a dinghy absolutely stuffed with people and we made sure that there were no medical issues or issues with the boat then directed them towards Skala. At that point BF Protector told us that the coastguard had asked them to take them on board for their safety and asked us for assistance. We went up to the boat, got them to stop their engine and after explaining what was happening transferred all the children to us. There were eight in total. I was looking down checking we were holding on to them OK and when I looked up I realised that a six month old girl was being thrust into my arms. She was wearing a totally useless swimming pool float. Once she was in my arms she just sat there and we smiled at each other. Once we had the children and as many of their parents as were on the dinghy on board I remembered I couldn't drive and hold a baby so passed her back to her mother.
Coming alongside BF Protector reminded me happily of coming alongside all the naval ships in South Georgia. They had a bad reputation after (when they had just arrived) aiming guns at a vessel that wouldn't stop but after being told that was not on, they have done well to improve their reputation. The similarity of working with naval ships soon dissipated slightly when we realised they were patting everyone down and using a metal detector wand. I asked them what they were looking for and the chap said "IEDs, guns, weapons, drugs, anything". I very nearly asked him where he thought the baby would be hiding a knife but decided to maintain a working relationship. After that it all went smoothly and after giving them a bit of assistance with the dinghy we went home late for a well deserved breakfast and sleep.
I was struck yet again by the refugees' questions and nationalities. They were Iranian, Afghani, Palestinian, Pakistani and many others I didn't hear. They asked yet again how long they would be in the camps and were very surprised and shocked when they found out it would be longer than a week. They seem to expect to arrive and immediately be able to go on to other countries. I do wonder why the news that they will be stuck for months, before possibly being deported if their asylum claims fail, doesn't seem to be getting back to the camps in Turkey. There are reports that people in the camps lie to their families about where they are; either because they are embarrassed or because their families spent all their money to get them to Europe and they don't want to disappoint them.
When I began this experience I was very surprised by the differing nationalities that seem to make up their numbers. Apparently it used to be mainly Syrians, Libyans, Iraqis and Afghanis but now they are also comprised of people from the Congo, Senegal, Gambia, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh etc. In fact before I arrived Max talked to one from the Maldives who said he wanted to be in Australia! I feel that eventually this could create two tiers of refugees, those that people perceive as fleeing from war and persecution and those that people perceive as economic refugees. I reckon that there is a greater sympathy for those fleeing war than fleeing grinding poverty, whether that is correct or not I simply don't know. Those who can be proved to come from war torn countries usually have their asylum application accepted but those from countries perceived to be less dangerous such as Pakistan, Senegal, the Congo etc, will most likely be deported. To have battled up Africa, through such dangerous countries, then to arrive in Europe, their hope, and to be deported home.... I can't imagine how soul destroying that would be.
Of course we can't forget the effect all of this is having on the local population. This article describes it much better than I can
I have met the fishermen the article talks about and they are the quiet, unassuming fishermen you find in any small port in Greece and yet they did, and do, so much with no help at all, before the NGOs even thought about existing. They are struggling. The lack of tourism is hurting and sometimes, when feeling cynical, I think they allow refugees to be landed here (whereas in every other Northern port the local population have refused to allow it) because all the NGOs are important economically, but after meeting them I feel that actually they are happy for the help.
You may have read of Erdogan's ultimatum that if the EU doesn't give Turkey the benefits promised in the recent deal by October that he would open the gates of the camps in Turkey. If that happens it will be chaos pure and simple. People are taking this threat so seriously that all the NGOs and even the Greek government are meeting to discuss their plans/options if this happens.
Hopefully people on the beaches and on the water, like us, will be ready and less lives will be lost than before the deal was agreed, but if thousands cross every day then the bottleneck at the camps will turn them into a living hell. Governments cannot and must not ignore this. The refugee crisis seems to no longer be "sexy". Although there were journalists on Lesvos and in Skala, media interest has dwindled and (probably as a result of that) so have volunteer numbers. I read in the news yet again that the UK government seems to have forgotten its humanitarian duties, not taking in unaccompanied children in camps in Calais. I never meant this blog to be overtly political. I simply wanted to describe and explain to people the situation here and remind people that the issue hasn't gone away but I feel I can't stand by and say nothing.
After coming out here and observing everything and talking to people, I can see more clearly the issues present. However it hasn't actually changed my mind about the issues. In fact I am now more set in my views than ever: we/I with all the privilege that they are willing to die for a taste of, cannot stand at the edge of this tide of humanity and let them drown.
Out (for the moment)