As More Children Drown, Volunteers on Lesbos Say Rescues Are Left Largely to Them


OCTOBER 29, 2015

Volunteers on the Greek island of Lesbos, shocked by the drowning deaths of at least 15 migrants, including 10 children, since Wednesday, lashed out at European governments and international aid organizations for failing to rescue the victims and largely ceding to civilians the task of caring for survivors of the perilous crossing from Turkey.

[Video: Rescuers and volunteers on the Greek island of Lesbos tried to save migrants pulled from the sea on Wednesday. Watch on YouTube.]

Rescuers and volunteers on the Greek island of Lesbos tried to save migrants pulled from the sea on Wednesday.

Harrowing images broadcast on Greek television and shared on social networks showed the desperate effort to save those plucked from the Aegean Sea in the port of Molyvos, where residents, fishermen, journalists and international volunteers scrambled to pump water from the lungs of young children and warm those with hypothermia.

[Video: A local television channel in Lesbos captured some of the rescue effort on video. Watch on YouTube.]

A local television channel in Lesbos captured some of the rescue effort on video.
“We have lines of children half dead waiting to be hung upside down so we can pound the water out of their tiny lungs — boat after boat,’’ Trace Myers, a volunteer from England, wrote on her Facebook page. “We have ambulances, wailing, soaked, terrified people.”

“The whole thing is an abomination against humanity,” she added.

MANY rescued kids in desperate resuscitation attempts on pavement-turned-clinics – Ongoing TRAGEDY in Lesbos

— Daphne Tolis (@daphnetoli) October 28, 2015

“Today is a day of death,” Ms. Myers wrote in an update. “Members of this team have worked relentlessly to give CPR, support grieving people and have watched life pass from children’s eyes. A woman lost her baby and her husband, another woman saw her 3/4-year-old child die and her other child rushed to hospital.”

Volunteers & local women rubbing & warming up nearly drowned child & women as coast/rd keeps rescuing more. #Lesbos

— Daphne Tolis (@daphnetoli) October 28, 2015

“These people need help,” added Ms. Myers, who works with the British aid group Refugees Start. “Greece needs help and we need volunteers now. Individuals managing this without any support from our governments is an outrage, our governments permitting this suffering is beyond comprehension.”

More than 300,000 migrants, many fleeing wars in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan, have arrived in Lesbos this year. According to The International Rescue Committee, “despite high seas and cooler temperatures, refugee arrivals in Lesbos surged during October to approximately 125,000 – double that of August.” Residents and even tourists have stepped in to offer help in the absence of an organized response from the government or international aid agencies.

“Can’t the United Nations do something?” a fisherman, Panayotis Koutsos, asked Malcolm Brabant, reporting from Lesbos for “PBS NewsHour.”

[Video: Footage of the rescue effort in a report from Lesbos by Malcolm Brabant. Watch on YouTube.]

Footage of the rescue effort in a report from Lesbos by Malcolm Brabant.
“It’s a disgrace,” Mr. Koutsos said. “I’m in the water day and night and I just can’t watch these children drowning anymore. We’re all trying to help here; we’re not bad people on this island, Lesbos, we’re trying to do what we can and do our duty — it’s a question of humanity. But the powers that be have got to take a serious look at this crisis and solve it.”

Peter Bouckaert, the emergencies director for Human Rights Watch, reported that the day had taken a toll on a team of volunteer lifeguards from Barcelona, ProActiva Open Arms, who pulled some of the survivors from the rough seas.

Many drowned off Lesbos today, Spanish @PROACTIVA_SERV life guards just returned from 4 hrs at sea, in shock.

— Peter Bouckaert (@bouckap) October 28, 2015

Spanish @PROACTIVA_SERV lifeguards told me as left scene of Lesbos shipwreck at nightfall on jetskis, saw many bodies floating inc babies.

— Peter Bouckaert (@bouckap) October 29, 2015

Oscar Camps, one of the Spanish lifeguards, told Alberto Rojas of El Mundo, the Madrid daily, that his team of four, on motorized water scooters and in a small boat, found “300 people screaming in the middle of the sea, clinging to each other to avoid drowning.”

Spanish lifeguards in heavy seas. Many rescues #Lesvos #refugees. High seas, many arrivals=danger.

— Jeanne Carstensen (@jcarstensen) October 28, 2015

He was deeply critical of the official rescuers from the Greek coast guard and a Norwegian boat with Frontex, the European Union’s border-monitoring agency. The Norwegians, Mr. Camps said, were “just cops of the sea, they don’t know how to save people.”

“We realized that they do not even know resuscitation maneuvers,’’ he added. “That cost lives yesterday.”

Norwegian vessel 1st to arrive where more than 200 people floated near sinking wooden boat

— Frontex (@FrontexEU) October 29, 2015

To make matters worse, the Spanish lifeguard added, a Romanian helicopter working with Frontex circled the area, creating waves that obstructed the rescue. Mr. Camps, whose crowdfunded team was moved to go to Lesbos by social media images of migrant children who had drowned, was much more impressed with the efforts of Greek and Turkish fishermen, who he said “saved many people.”

Video of the migrants bobbing in the sea was posted online by the Norwegian police force whose ship, the Peter Henry Von Koss, later transported 120 rescued migrants to shore.

Fra gårsdagens redningsaksjon: De klarte å redde 122. Flere barn var kritisk nedkjølt. I dag skal de ut igjen.@NSSR

— Kripos (@Kripos_NCIS) October 29, 2015

While Frontex took credit on its website for saving half of the 242 rescued migrants, Mr. Camps said the Norwegian crew mainly watched as his team and the fishermen pulled the migrants from the water and hauled them onto their ship. “All they did is to throw ropes to the drowning, like in the movies,” Mr. Camps said bitterly.

He said that some of those who had been resuscitated by his team at sea later died after they reached land, because, he said, the Greek ambulances were not properly equipped with oxygen.

“We are shattered physically and psychologically,” he told El Mundo. “And I am ashamed of Europe.”

[Video: Spanish lifeguards rescuing migrants off the coast of Greece, in a promotional video for their efforts. Watch on YouTube.]

Spanish lifeguards rescuing migrants off the coast of Greece, in a promotional video for their efforts.
A Frontex spokeswoman took issue with the claim that the Norwegians who took part in the rescue were not trained in the necessary rescue techniques. “The complete opposite is true,” Paulina Bakula wrote in an email. “Peter Henry Von Koss, which was first on the scene, specializes in search and rescue operations with a crew trained to take part in such maritime missions.”

Since the ship was deployed as part of the Frontex mission in July, she added, “the Norwegian vessel rescued more than 2,000 people.”

Laura Lanuza, a spokeswoman for the Spanish lifeguard team, said in a telephone interview that her group did not mean to imply the Norwegians were unwilling to help in the rescue — and had obviously transported half of those pulled from the water back to shore. But the problem, she said, was that the Norwegian vessel was not designed for rescuing people from the water, and the crew was not trained in C.P.R. “It is not that they didn’t want to” pull people from the water or resuscitate those on the verge of drowning, she said, “but the Frontex boats are not prepared to do any rescue task in the water.”

Until recently, she added, most of the migrants rescued by the Frontex mission were taken aboard large ships from small crafts used by smugglers that stalled in the water.

Ms. Lanuza said that the Spanish volunteers were first motivated by the wrenching images of Aylan Kurdi and other young children who drowned this summer. “We knew that these deaths were so near the shore, that any lifeguard could do that work of saving them,” she said.
A Spanish lifeguard rescued a boy on Friday off the coast of Lesbos, after another migrant boat sank en route from Turkey.
The group’s focus, she said, was not to criticize others who are trying to help, but to make it clear that the governments have sent the wrong kinds of assistance, and need to correct that error quickly, given the onset of bad weather which has made rescues from the water a daily task for the volunteer lifeguards.

“It is going to get worse,” she said, as smugglers continued to press migrants into large wooden boats that were either not seaworthy or too difficult for the passengers themselves to operate. On Friday, she said, her team was forced to rescue a large group from a grounded wooden ship that nearly collapsed on top of them.

Volunteers help a partially-flooded boat of 150 refugees to shore. #LifeStyleTV #AdventistHelp #Greece #Lesbos

— Amber’s Camera (@camconbrio) October 30, 2015

Ms. Lanuza also described how harrowing the experience of Wednesday’s rescue operation was for the team. After two of the four Spanish lifeguards had to go aboard the Norwegian vessel to provide C.P.R. she said that the jet ski operators, including Mr. Camps, nearly drowned themselves as desperate people in the water were pulling at their legs and trying to pull themselves up onto the small crafts. Overwhelmed by the scale of the catastrophe, Ms. Lanuza said, the two lifeguards “had to choose who to save and who not” as people in the water nearly capsized their crafts.

Eric Kempson, a British sculptor who has lived on Lesbos with his family for 16 years, has dedicated much of the last few months to helping migrants, who continue to arrive by the thousands day after day, even as the weather worsens and the seas grow more treacherous.

Turk traffickers charged 2x normal for ’safe boat.’ Force7. Coastguard in port. Brave Kempsons/locals to the rescue

— Malcolm Brabant (@MalcolmBrabant) October 28, 2015

In an angry YouTube video posted online Wednesday, Mr. Kempson showed how long the line was for migrants to register, and he berated “the disgusting aid agencies,” like the Red Cross and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, for failing to take charge of the situation.

Despite the presence of the agencies, Mr. Kempson said, most of the response was run by local people. “This is wrong, you know these companies, these aid agencies are making millions and millions and these people are being looked after by volunteers,” he said.

The Red Cross volunteers working alongside local people on the beaches of Lesbos, Mr. Kempson said, were so ill-supplied that they asked his family for emergency blankets and baby clothes.

“These aid agencies, they’ve got to step up their pace here,’’ he said. ”We’re in Europe. You know, you might get away with this in Africa, in Bangladesh, in Haiti and places like that, but you’re in Europe, the spotlight’s on you and we’re seeing what you’re all doing. And it’s disgusting.”

Ron Redmond, a spokesman for the United Nations refugee agency, said in a telephone interview from Athens that he understood the frustration and horror volunteers like Mr. Kempson feel. “What you see there is ugly,” he said. “What these volunteers are seeing is shocking and extremely distressing.”

What makes the crisis unusual, Mr. Redmond said, is that “we don’t normally have emergency operations in industrialized countries,” like Greece, where until recently the agency had just a small national office with fewer than 10 people.

To make matters more complicated, he added, his group was not in charge of the response, as it often is in war zones. “We are trying to get the support that Greece needs, but they run this, not us,” he said.

“These volunteers are doing a terrific job,” Mr. Redmond said. While he acknowledged that “conditions are not what they should be,” his agency is trying to help equip and train the Greek authorities to deal with new tasks, like setting up reception centers that can handle the influx of migrants.

At the same time, he said, money was not as plentiful as the volunteers on Lesbos might think. “We can’t even get funding for our operations in Syria,” he said.

Mr. Bouckaert, who has been trying to prick the conscience of the public by sharing distressing accounts of the crisis on his Twitter feed, said in a telephone interview that he was not convinced that Europe’s governments were doing all they could. Police forces across the continent deal with huge crowds of tens of thousands of people at rock concerts or football matches every day, he said, so why is it so difficult to secure a few thousand migrants a day here?

Doctor on Lesbos says in tears: ‘Found 2 drowned kids on Frontex boat thrown 2gether like fishes, asked why not give them bit of dignity?’

— Peter Bouckaert (@bouckap) October 29, 2015

“Europe has the resources to mount rescues at sea and minimize suffering,” Mr. Bouckaert said. “You are left with the impression that quite a few European politicians don’t mind imposing this suffering on these people to discourage others.”

Children still washing up drowned on beaches of Lesbos like this boy & his mother today. 13 missing. Time 4 action

— Peter Bouckaert (@bouckap) October 25, 2015


2 responses to “As More Children Drown, Volunteers on Lesbos Say Rescues Are Left Largely to Them

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