Rejoicing. High fives and selfies. This was the way that 52 migrants disembarking their vessel in the town of Kardamila on the Island of Chios celebrated the attainment of one basic human right: freedom. Next, they turned to secure another one: water. ‘Water, water, please’ in broken English was the phrase repeated by many. After being crammed, for eight hours, on a tiny nine metre boat floating in off the Mediterranean coastline awaiting rescue by the hopelessly understaffed Chian coastguard, it is no wonder that they are somewhat parched.
During a weekend break on the island of Chios for a family christening, the refugee or ‘immigration’ problem that many European governments have been trying to brush under the proverbial carpet hit home, and hit very hard.
When we arrived in the afternoon at our apartment 33km north of the island’s capital, Chios, we went down to the beach. This normally a pristine beach was littered with buoyancy aids, children’s armbands, deflated boats and rubber rings.
Waking up at 9 o’clock the next morning and looking out over the sea to the Turkish coast, visible on most days, we could see six inner tyre tubes floating by. Through further enquiry, we found that they came from a group of roughly 30 refugees who had landed an hour ago 2km further up the coast. Miraculously they had all arrived safely and were being taken to Kardamila, a town of 3,000 people, 27km north of Chios.
Intrigued, my mum and I hopped in the car and started towards the town. A couple of kilometres into our journey we hit a traffic jam, very uncommon for those of you not familiar with the more obscure Greek island roads. As we came to the front of this queue we saw that the cause was the group of refugees walking in single file, carrying, wheeling and pushing bags being escorted by a lone police officer in his jeep.
The walk is further 6km and the temperature that day hovered around 36°C. Additionally walking along a road in Greece, as many will be able to testify to, is one of the most dangerous things that can be done in the western world. It should also be mentioned that at this point they have had no access to water or sanitation, since leaving Turkey more than 10 hours earlier. Physically, this journey is an exhausting task for most fully-grown men, not to mention the elderly and the children who comprise around 40% of the refugees.
After seeing this, we raced to Karthamila to pick up some crates of bottled water. However, as we came into the town, we saw another boat come in at the end of the quay. As we got closer we noticed that it was packed with even more people. We stopped the car and got out. There were 3 other people on the quayside; the only bureaucratic –looking person was the harbourmaster. As the boat came ashore they scrambled to get off, giving each other high-fives and taking selfies once off it. After the final person had disembarked, fifty people stood on the quayside.
Immediately after rejoicing, they started asking for water and the toilet – neither of which was in available. The harbourmaster told them that they must remain on the quayside. Mum and I drove to the nearest shop, 500 meters away and bought twenty-four 1.5ltr bottles of water and, for the 10 or so children, some bread snacks. Whilst handing out the water some of the people initially rejected it, only accepting it after we insisted and left it for them.
By the time we returned to where we had left the other group, they had left the main road. Going back to where we left the larger group, we found that they too had moved. By chance, we saw them walking up an old, steep road and, like the smaller group, dragging their possessions behind them. We ended our brief journey with them in the grounds of a remote church where they were being accounted for by two very informally dressed ‘authorities’. From meeting them at the port to leaving them at the church hour hours had passed. Four hours and still no prospect of a drink of water or private toilets.
Not including the ones who made it all the way to Chios town, 75 refugees made the journey over. Taking 100 per day as a conservative estimate, before the year is out, around 15,000 refugees will have arrived on Chios alone. On an island of no more than 40,000 people, clearly help is needed from the EU and other countries.
In closing, let me say this: there is no chance of the tide of refugees abating. As the summer draws to an end, there will be more urgency for those remaining in Turkey to attempt the trip over. The problem will only be exacerbated now that the summer holidays have ended and the populations of islands such as Kos and Chios more than half as Greeks return to their mainland homes and the tourists return to their respective countries.
The only form of help so far has come in the form of volunteers spending their own money on buying basic supplies; predominantly water for the refugees so that when they arrive after their 8-hour-plus journey they have another fundamental human right to add to that of freedom. A 1.5ltr bottle of water costs just €0.50 on Chios, but this quickly adds up when 100 or more refugees arrive every day. This load could easily be shared between many to make it an insignificant amount.
I’m not normally an outwardly overly compassionate person, but this is something impossible to ignore. Of course, I cannot claim to understand even an iota of what these people have been through, but one thing I do know is that they would not have made their decisions easily. These were not were not people speculatively embarking on a hazardous expedition for mere economic gain- as some in the media will have you believe- but rather a proud people wearing expressions of pure relief and gratitude at having escaped the horrors of their home countries in the hope of living a life free from daily threats to their life.
To donate to help the refugees’ cause go to: https://crowdfunding.justgiving.com/or-radway