Comment: Ignore the right-wing press – refugees are fleeing for their lives
By Tim Farron
The island of Lesvos, tucked away in a corner of the Aegean Sea, has become the epicentre of the European refugee crisis.
You don't even need to land on the island to see the evidence of the 300,000 refugees who have come to shore since January. Looking down as you land at the airport, the entire coastline is fringed with an orange and black lip of deflated dinghies and low quality life jackets.
When I arrived I met with Alessandra Morelli, UNHCR Senior Operations Coordinator for Greece. She spoke frankly about the challenges the refugees are facing, and we discussed what the UK could do to help. Because, let’s face it, we aren't doing enough.
It was the first conversation of many with NGOs and volunteers in which I felt ashamed over our government’s deliberate inaction.
I headed straight for the north coast of Lesvos, the closest point of the island to Turkey, where the majority of boats land. During the drive we passed hundreds of families making the 70km walk from the landing points to the main port.
Pregnant women, tiny babies and children, groups of unaccompanied minors, all of whom had just survived the trauma of the crossing and due to a lack of available transport were now walking for many hours along a winding highway.
Turkey does seem close when you stand at the North shore, but even on a relatively calm day the sea is churning and choppy. I spoke with Safan and his wife Nadya who had fled ISIS in Iraq and came to Europe so their children could know there are countries in the world where peace exists. A place they can be safe. They were one family amongst thousands who arrived on the island that day with the same purpose.
Soon after, I was on the beach as a boat arrived carrying fifty or so refugees. Along with humanitarian workers I helped people off the boats. I met Nasser, a doctor from Syria who was forced to flee the war in Syria, where he and his wife faced constant bombardment by the barrel bombs of the Assad regime. He was thinking of moving onwards to Germany, where he believed he could practice as a doctor and live in safety.
That afternoon we made our way inland to two reception centres where refugees must be registered before they can get on the ferry to Athens. It was apparent that this is where the initial sense of relief wears off. People are made to stand in lines, frequently without being clear what they are waiting for, only to be told that they need to move elsewhere.
UNHCR and other charities are doing what they can to control the situation and process people quickly, but lack of funding, trained personnel and the proper registration equipment mean that most of the time people are waiting for days before they get the proper forms.
At one centre I spoke to Armet from Iraq, who was staying in a UNHCR provided metal shelter for the night with his family. Armet told me that as he got off the boat in Lesvos his seven-year-old son asked him “Is ISIS here too?”
That little boy demonstrates the reality of this crisis. The right-wing press and lazy politicians would like us to believe these are people either coming to Europe for "the good life" or because they're too impatient to wait for the chance of being selected as a refugee in a Middle Eastern camp.
Being on the ground, you are face to face with the reality. And the reality I witnessed is family after family escaping war, violence, extremism, constant fear, conscription, poverty with no hope of that situation changing any time soon.
Our government continues to turn its back on this situation, hoping that it will eventually go away. It won't. In fact, it will get worse.
Since I left Greece more children have died in the waters between Turkey and Lesvos, more people have been injured, yet still they come. Winter is fast approaching, but rough seas are not enough to deter people fleeing for their lives.
This is Europe's crisis and as a leading country in Europe it deserves the UK's attention. We must act, and quickly.
That means accepting Save the Children’s plan to bring 3,000 unaccompanied refugee children in Europe to the UK, and opting in to the wider EU relocation scheme.
It means funding the reception centres and sending our world class civil servants to help them where we can. And above all it means acknowledging the value of every human life.
Tim Farron is the leader of the Liberal Democrats
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