Scots volunteers on a Greek island have told of their helplessness as scores of refugees continue to arrive in boats every week at overcrowded camps, forcing some to sleep on the beach in cold, wet conditions.
Andy Nixseaman and his wife, Fran, arrived in Chios a year ago after hearing about refugees trapped on the island after international border closures meant those fleeing persecution and civil war in countries such as Syria and Afghanistan were unable to move on to elsewhere in Europe.
Andy, from the Black Isle, is the longest serving volunteer on the island, where independent helpers work with locals as part of the Chios Eastern Shore Response Team to provide basic clothing, food and education for the 2,500 refugees living in tents.
“It is totally soul destroying and exhausting, but it is nothing compared with what the refugee population is experiencing,” said Nixseaman, who has rented out his home in the Highlands to fund his time on Chios.
“It is cold and wet and we have been working with the UN’s refugee agency UNHCR to put plywood on the floor of some of the tents just to raise people up off the ground. Around 50 people are sleeping on the beach in summer tents that were meant for no more than a couple of nights at Glastonbury.”
When boats arrive on the island, usually during the night, Nixseaman and his team of around 25 volunteers are raised from their beds to meet the newcomers, who have travelled across the sea from Turkey, often as many as 50 people packed into a rubber dinghy. A total of 45 people arrived on the island on Friday night alone – one of them a disabled child.
“They are usually soaked and freezing,” said Nixseaman, who is planning to spend Christmas in Scotland before returning to Chios for at least another three months. “Last week, there were 24 boats in one week. We give them dry jogging bottoms and socks and hypothermia blankets. It is a real risk. Last week, there was a baby with a congenital heart condition who had become very ill on the journey. We eventually managed to get the baby airlifted to hospital in Athens, but it is touch and go.”
Since borders with countries such as Macedonia were closed in March last year, refugees have been unable to move on, creating a bottleneck in places such as Chios and other Greek islands, which are still popular holiday destinations in the summer months, while they apply for asylum.
Environmental consultant Jenny Massey, from Edinburgh, has just arrived in Chios for another volunteering stint – a month after she returned to Scotland to travel on her honeymoon.
“People have forgotten that it is still happening,” she said. “But having been there, I just can’t stop thinking about it.
“Who knows what the future will bring for them? At the moment all we can do is try to keep them warm and dry.”
Donations can be made at: https://www.youcaring.com /chios-east-shore-rescue-team-517584