16 Sep 2015

New Zealander on front line of refugee crisis in Greece

From Nine To Noon, 9:05 am on 16 September 2015

A New Zealander on the tiny Greek island of Leros is witnessing the suffering of refugees first-hand.

A Syrian child looks on after disembarking from a Greek government-chartered ferry taking refugees from smaller islands, including Leros, to Athens.

A Syrian child looks on after disembarking from a Greek government-chartered ferry taking refugees from smaller islands, including Leros, to Athens Photo: AFP

Christchurch woman Anne Tee, who has lived on Leros for 25 years, has been co-ordinating volunteer aid as hundreds of people come ashore - mostly from Syria.

She told Nine to Noon the number of refugees arriving had risen dramatically since March.

"There were fewer numbers so - 80 people coming through, or 100, or something like that a day. It just grew and grew and grew and now, when there are hundreds and hundreds of people here.

"Really, we need as much help as we can get."

Anne Tee and her daughter and a refugee baby sleeps on the Greek Island of Leros

Left: Anne Tee and her daughter, Christina. Right: A refugee baby sleeps on the Greek Island of Leros. Photo: Supplied.

Earlier this week, a boat from Turkey sank off the nearby island of Farmakonisi. The BBC has reported that at least 35 people drowned, amongst them four babies and 11 children.

Ms Tee was on the shore when the survivors - about 95 people - were brought to Leros.

"We were here when these people arrived - all of these bereaved people who had lost their children, their mothers, their fathers. It was just horrendous...

"The first family that I was in contact with was a mum and a father from Syria and they had a little six-year-old daughter with them and they'd lost two sons - the nine-month-old baby and a nine-year-old boy. And just inconsolable, of course."

Leros, Greece

Leros, Greece Photo: Google Maps

Ms Tee said there was a UN representative on the island and Doctors Without Borders had set up a tent site with camp beds and a couple of toilets.

Apart from that, she said, it was largely up to volunteers to look after the new arrivals, some of whom had been sleeping on cardboard in the local port police yard.

"There's not much room, and they pack as many as they can into the boats. Mostly, the traffickers throw their bags overboard. So even if a family with a baby for example have packed stuff for their child, by the time they get here, they usually don't have anything.

"They need nappies, they need milk, they need clothes, they need everything, basically."

Ms Tee said it was unacceptable that refugees fleeing horrible conditions were forced to go through these kinds of experiences to reach safety.

She said for many people further dangerous journeys would follow as they made their way from Leros to Athens to wherever they hoped to settle in Europe.

"It's a horrible journey for them. Even if they get this far, it's only the beginning."

Give a Little: Help a Kiwi care for Syrian refugees in Leros, Greece

Kathryn Ryan also spoke today with migration expert Yves Pascouau from the European Policy Centre, a think tank based in Brussels, who described the crisis as unprecedented for the European Union.