Friday, 19 August 2016

Last Comms from Skala

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)

Wednesday, 17 August 2016

The Boats That Cross the Water

This morning at 0600 we were woken for a call to a boat off the coast. As usual we went out to give any assistance required. The Frontex boat had got them all on board and were towing their boat. In all there were 19 men on board. All Pakistanis. When we came back into dock the coordinator of Lighthouse Relief asked me if I could offer my assistance to the doctor with a rather ill gentleman. The doctor is a UNHCR supplied doctor working with WAHA (Women And Health Alliance). We determined that he was very dehydrated and had a significant chest infection that meant that we could not hear breath sounds in one of his lungs. Not the best condition to cross the sea in. Once we had him stabilised, and awaiting an ambulance, a nurse arrived and took over from me. 

The Greek Coastguard on board the Portuguese Frontex boat (all Frontex teams whether on land or sea have a Greek Coastguard or policeman with them) asked us to tow the boat to the "graveyard of fiberglass boats". The smugglers use two types of boat, an inflatable dinghy or a fiberglass shell of a boat. So far I have only seen inflatable dinghies which often deflate and fill with water from the waves. They are often about 7/8 m long with a small engine and enough fuel to cross. They are then crammed with up to 70 people and their belongings, someone is shown how to operate the engine, they are pointed in the right direction and sent off. 

The fibreglass boats are not much better. In fact they may be worse. From what we can see from the ruined ones we think that once the smugglers had used all the seaworthy boats they started to use a mould, put a couple of sheets of fiberglass in it then use that. On a boat that arrived the day before I came, the fibreglass apparently still hadn't dried/set properly. The top of the boat is then attached badly to the hull and the same routine with the engine is gone through and that is their 'vessel to a better life'. 

We could see sunlight through the hull of the boat this morning as we were towing it and on one of them on the beach a couple of cracks have been patched with packing tape. I think it must take more courage to get into one of those than one of the dinghies. 

Wisely the refugees usually won't get into the boats without a buoyancy aid, however, again from what we've seen, I think these are more dangerous than not having one. While pulling people in the other night I grabbed a strap which is normally a good solid handhold and when I pulled (not that hard) it ripped right off along with a strip of material. The foam inside actually seems to soak up water which would make it a sinking device rather than a flotation device. Some are given the inflated inner tubes of tyres and we have seen children in swimming pool arm bands! For some reason the refugees seem to take them off and throw them and the inner tubes overboard when they get near to the coast, just at the time that they will probably need them the most. I don't know if the smugglers tell them to do that so that they seem more vulnerable and are more likely to be helped or maybe they are very bulky and they know they'll need to move soon. No idea why they do this but it's dangerous.
Even in the boats it's still not safe; in the winter when lots of water would get into the boats through wave action there were reports of rescuers emptying the boats to find that people had drowned in the water in the bottom of them.

Boats are only one option. There is a Syrian volunteering at Lighthouse Relief who was a lifeguard back home. He swam across from Turkey. That is 4.9Nmi (9km/5.6M) at its absolute shortest distance. We swim about 1km for fitness every day in the same sea and I can tell you I would NOT want to swim 9km across a border and shipping lane. Desperation can lead to great feats.

Tuesday, 16 August 2016

It Never Rains But it Pours

We again had a very quiet patrol this morning with nothing more exciting than a few stray meteors blazing across the sky. This seems to be the norm. Maybe one of us is a "Jonah". 

After a short sleep Max and Bill went to a coordination meeting in a nearby town called Molyvos with representatives from all the local NGOs and others who are dealing with the refugees. Adam and I stayed in case we were needed to move the boat. We were woken a short time after getting to sleep by the radio. It was the Greek Coastguard telling the Turkish Coastguard that there was a boat of migrants arriving. This was bizarre. It was daylight and very very late for a boat but Adam and I decided that even though we were only two we would go if it was close enough. At that moment my phone rang and it was Bill calling from the meeting to say that the coordinator of Lighthouse Relief had just been informed that two of their people had been involved in a motorbike accident near Korakas and since there was no medical personnel on call would I go. Of course I said yes and asked them if they were aware of the boat. They weren't and apparently as soon as they repeated the information that one had arrived the room of NGOs emptied. 

I was picked up by the Lighthouse Relief camp manager and we made our way with a tiny tiny first aid kit and my heart slightly in my mouth as to what I would find and what I could do. When we arrived it quickly became  apparent that nothing terrible had happened, there was only one injured and he not too badly. I assessed him and thought that his foot was broken so we brought him to the clinic in Skala where there was now a nurse on duty who agreed with me and he went to hospital. 

The others meantime had gone to assist with the boat. We learned afterward that there had been 44 people including two quadriplegic children. I just want to pause at this point.  Max said he'd seen a wheelchair in a boat once and crutches a number of times. Bill, who has worked in camps in Athens, said that it was actually not an uncommon sight. Dealing with disability in a war zone is an impossibility. Dealing with it in conditions of abject poverty is also impossible. They risked everything to arrive in the land of plenty and proper healthcare. Juxtaposed to that was the gentleman this morning who rode a moped down a bad gravel track in flip flops and knew that his E111 card would guarantee him (cheap) healthcare anywhere in Europe!! The privilege of place of birth becomes more apparent every day here

Sunday, 14 August 2016


Our patrol last night was quiet, no boats ever seem to come on our days on, only on our days off when we're meant to be catching up on sleep, hence the slight sleep deprivation starting to occur. The wind was still strong so we took greater care but still patrolled and watched. While we had nothing, we had a report of a boat landing in the south. The Search and Rescue (SAR) teams also had to conduct a search for two people reported as falling overboard from that boat. Luckily they found them. 

Yesterday we were approached by a local man who spoke a rather old-fashioned French. He told us that  the Greek minister for migrants has just decreed that everyone arriving on the island must stay on the island. We assume that means while their asylum application is processed and they are either given asylum or deported. That is going to be VERY unpopular here in this small town with only 60 permanent residents. Apparently the mayor of Mytilini (under whose jurisdiction Skala falls) has stated that the local schools which are currently closed for the holidays will have to be reopened to house the 10-15 who will be assigned to the village when they come. One of the camps on the island, the one that used to house unaccompanied minors, has recently closed and the other two are becoming overcrowded with people still arriving, but the very slow asylum procedure means that people aren't leaving. 

In addition he informed us that it is illegal (and has been for a year) to help transport or otherwise provide aid to refugees/migrants/people of concern (POCs) (as they are now called) to "install" themselves. Proactiva (the other team) were prosecuted in October (we are not sure of the full details) All in all we were told that it's going to cause bad feeling towards us if we help them ashore. My feeling is that no matter how strong people's feelings, a community of fishermen would be fairly sympathetic to those plucking people from the sea. However I could be wrong. The man did say that we may be seen with a slightly less welcoming eye from now on. 

This article explains a bit of what is happening and the possibility that Erdogan may open the gates if he isn't given what was promised by the EU. I recommend reading it. It is far more articulate than I can be:
The fact that Syrians in the camps are considering returning to Syria rather than stay in the camps is fairly horrifying. While transferring migrants the other day to the coastguard boat one of them asked us how many hours they would be in the camp. Neither Adam nor I had the heart to destroy his jubilation at being in Europe, by telling him the truth.

Saturday, 13 August 2016


The weather picked up to a Force 7 on the Beaufort scale over night, dropping to a 6 by about 0700. A force 7 is the operational limit of an Atlantic 75 lifeboat when completely rigged up by the RNLI with a capsize self righting bag, 3 crew all in dry suits, and engines that will stop and protect themselves if upside down. We don't have drysuits and are four (so one always sits on the side), we don't have a self righting bag or self stopping engines. For these reasons we have decided that a Force 6 should be our operational limit, possibly 5 at night. 

For this reason, and the fact that we're tired, we hoped that the boats wouldn't come last night. Amazingly, considering the rough seas, at 0710 we got a call that one had reached the lighthouse at Korakas. We proceeded there and together with Frontex Adare (the Portuguese boat) and Proactiva we escorted/guided the dinghy in to Skala. We decided to escort them because trying to transfer them in those waves could have ended in disaster. At the beach at Skala they were met by Lighthouse Relief and given blankets, hot tea, food and changes of clothes if they were wet. 

There were 22 in a 15 foot rubber dinghy, including 3 children. The dinghy was driven by a tiny engine that must have struggled to move the boat with that weight when the sea was flat, let alone when it was rough. They were wet and cold but relieved to be in Greece. 

Watching them sit and smile and chat to the volunteers from Lighthouse Relief and the Frontex officers and seeing the slight flash of fear when they looked at the sea, I can only hope that they were the only boat to try last night. No others have been heard of. 

Escorting the dinghy with Frontex Adare   

Providing "overwatch" for the landing

Friday, 12 August 2016

Slightly Relentless Activity ...

In the 28 hours before the end of our patrol at 0800 this morning, starting at 0430 the morning before, we calculated that we had launched 6 times, including for a 4 hour training session (our first as a team) and a 4 hour patrol. We had been on the water for 14 hours and "on service" for ten of those. During that time we assisted 88 people. 

After escorting the 44 in on the Frontex boat described in the last blog, we were walking away when we heard a report of a boat on the radio. We went out with Proactiva but in the end it was a false alarm so we returned for breakfast. 

After that we went out on exercise, our first as a full team. We were out for four hours training for every eventuality we could think of: towing dinghies, man over board, recovering casualties, beach landings etc etc. I felt that we became more cohesive as a team and I learned our strengths and weaknesses. I think the shared experience of all volunteering for the lifeboat at Atlantic College also helps. 

After a two hour nap, a fitness session (rescues can be quite physical) and a large dinner we headed to bed to sleep till our patrol. Half an hour later we were woken by a call to say that there was a boat near the shore. After some confusion as to their location we found that they had already landed and were on the shore below steep cliffs. There were people climbing the cliffs and others in the water. 

There was great consternation as we approached and called to them, until we realised they thought they were still in Turkey. Once we made them understand they were in Greece and we weren't police, they calmed down and came back to the shore. We found a channel through the rocks to get closer to them. 

At that point it became a little confused. We came in to check if there were any injured and discovered that they spoke a mixture of English, French, Pashtu and other unidentifiable languages. Because I can speak French,  Max and I swapped so I could concentrate on communication rather than skippering the boat. On discussion with Proactiva, who were also in the bay, we decided to ferry people to them for them to take to Skala in batches. As soon as I explained in French and English what was going on they ALL tried to board us at  once. Adam and I had a slightly hot five minutes dissuading them and preventing them from swamping us while Max and Bill kept the engines clear of the rocks. 

Once we had gained a semblance of order we started ferrying them out to Proactiva. Every time we left with four or five aboard we had to reassure the others that we would come back to them. I found that only a personal promise to come back for them calmed them down. They always wanted to know my name when I promised, as if that were a contract. Half way through the transfers the Greek Coastguard ship 061 arrived and requested that we transfer the casualties to them. At this point Lighthouse relief arrived on the shore and helped maintain order there. During our return trips to shore we discovered how thirsty and tired we were. It always surprises me during pauses in rescues to discover the toll they are taking. It took us an hour and a half to transfer everyone then we returned for a debrief and to try and catch a couple of hours sleep before our patrol. 

We hadn't even lain down before there was another call. Communications (comms) were heard on the radio between a NATO warship and Turkish coastguard. I managed to plot the coordinates and we proceeded with Proactiva following. En route I noticed a black silhouette between us and the shore. We slowed to investigate and suddenly a strong searchlight lit up a tiny dinghy. The ship from which the searchlight came then put its lights back on. It was a Turkish coastguard boat running "dark" because she was in Greek waters. We confirmed with Proactiva that they were in Greek waters and because they started to apprehend the refugees, which was illegal for them to do (they have no jurisdiction in Greek waters), we and Proactiva started to film. We didn't manage to capture the fact they had been running dark which possibly means they were aware of their wrongdoing. The dinghy was tiny, maybe 10 feet long and packed with about 10 people. They started to bring them aboard their ship and we saw three very young children, including one baby who can't have been more than a couple of months old. Seeing that baby really brought home to me the desperation of these people. Any parent willing to risk crossing the sea with a literal babe in arms must feel a desperation akin to panic. The fear that means that you are willing to place your child in that much danger is incomprehensible to me. Probably to everyone who has not been in that situation. Again I am reminded of the line in the poem :
“No-one leaves home unless home is the mouth of a shark…. No-one puts their child in a boat unless the water is safer than the land.”  (Warsan Shire, Somalian poet and refugee). 
These waters are not safe! 

They were all safely brought abroad the Turkish coastguard boat and she turned and steamed for  their base. We had been concerned by the legality of the situation and had made the NATO warship in the area aware of events. They asked the Turks' intent but could do nothing more. Those refugees in the boat are now probably incarcerated in Turkey for trying to leave. The whole thing left a slightly bitter taste in my mouth. However it could have been much worse. They were safe and alive and that is the most important thing. 

After the drama of the night our patrol was very uneventful. Between scans on the horizon we could watch the Perseid meteor shower flashing across the Milky Way and I for one found myself literally counting my lucky stars for my privileged and safe life. 

Our crew: L-R Adam, Bill, Max and me

Thursday, 11 August 2016

Refugees and Migrants

I was going to write about the boats the refugees come across the water in, and I will, but today I should describe my first contact with refugees. 

On the nights when we don't patrol we are still on call to help the other NGO (Proactiva) with whom we share patrol duties. This morning at about 0430 we got a call on the alarm phone saying that they were with a refugee boat along with Frontex and the coastguard. We immediately went out. As we were en route we heard that they were bringing in a medical case fast while the others were being brought in more leisurely by Frontex. Since I am a nearly registered paramedic I offered my assistance. 

Proactiva is a boat crewed by lifeguards which has been in the area since October so they are much more organised than us. Once I went aboard it was soon clear that they have a very well stocked medical kit and a nurse on board. The woman was (I think) Iraqi who was having an anxiety attack which she could not control. This can lead to unconsciousness which is why they brought her in fast. She was met by a UNHCR (UN refugee agency) on call doctor and I made my way back on board Mo Chara 

We continued on and escorted the heavily laden Frontex boat back to Skala. I found it slightly surreal. Today and tomorrow are the peak days for the Perseid meteor shower. So above us was a very clear Milky way with occasional shooting stars blasting across the heavens and as our hull slapped the wavelets little bursts of phosphorescence exploded in our wash. It felt like we were driving through a sea of light, escorting people who were probably wishing on every single one of those shooting stars for a better life. 

Once Frontex came alongside the refugees were brought onto the dock and made to sit down. The NGO Lighthouse Relief were there to meet them. They gave them food and water and dry clothes. As one man got off the boat he fell to his knees and prayed. It was very affecting to see. There were a couple of children and women among the men. All 44 people were brought safely ashore from their boat. They were from Iraq, Eritrea, Senegal, Cameroon, Congo, and Bangladesh. There was a mixture of Arabic and French in the air. 

They were well and respectfully treated but I was a little surprised to see a journalist shine his torch in people's faces and ask them questions without much in the way of gaining consent. Seeing the curiosity of a boy who must have been about 10 who came to have a look at us and our boat made me feel both extremely sad and hopeful that his journey hasn't broken his spirit. 

Back out on patrol again tonight. We shall see if any more come across. I hope to catch sight of a few more meteors as well.