Belladrum festival-goers’ discarded tents and sweaters knitted in Shetland a lifeline for refugees

Scottish volunteers Andy Nixseaman and Owen Grainger
Scottish volunteers Andy Nixseaman and Owen Grainger
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Refugees are often spotted in the camp wearing Scotland rugby tops, while many families shelter from the harsh Greek winters in tents left behind by revellers at the Belladrum music festival in the Highlands.

This is Chios, an island which is home to more than 6,500 refugees from the Middle East, living in atrocious conditions in a camp built for just 900, where the aid system is propped up by volunteers and donations from Scotland – more specifically, the Highlands and islands.

Tonnes of aid in the form of clothing and other supplies has been donated specifically to the island from Scottish grassroots charities for the past three years, while groups of women on Shetland knit clothes for children living in the camp.

Andy Nixseaman, from the Black Isle, this week returned for a month to the Greek island to work with the Chios Eastern Shore Response Team, where he says the situation has got “much worse”.

Last year 74,613 refugees arrived in Greece, 48 per cent more than in 2018, when there were 50,508, according to figures compiled by the UNHCR, the United Nations’ refugee arm. The vast majority arrived by boat, having faced treacherous conditions to cross the sea from Turkey.

Many are still fleeing conflict in their homeland of Syria, while some are from fleeing threats from groups such as the Taliban in countries including Afghanistan. Others are Kurds fleeing persecution in Iran.

Nixseaman, who spent two years living in Chios on 2016, when he helped set up a volunteer team after hearing about the plight of the refugees who arrive on the island in boats every day, says that Scottish aid is vital on Chios.

“There is a warehouse on the island and over half of the aid is donated from Scotland,” he says. “You see refugees walking around in Scotland tops and other items of clothing from home. It is amazing.”

The Highlands Supports Refugees charity, has donated 200 tonnes of aid to refugees since its launch in 2015 – much of it to Chios.

Tents used once by festival-goers at the Belladrum Tartan Heart event near Inverness are collected by the group and sent to camps. Last year’s festival saw over 70 volunteers collect 332 abandoned small tents, 50 large ones and 400 sleeping bags as well as hundreds of camping chairs.

“They just leave them,” says Sarah MacRae, a committee member of The Highlands Supports Refugees, which works with sister organisations in Moray and Lochaber to send physical donations of clothing and toiletries, as well as helping to fund volunteers to work on the island with organisations like Nixseaman’s.

“It is one of the most depressing things you can see, but the young people buy them for £15 and think they’re just disposable.”

For refugees, however, the revellers’ cast-offs can be the difference between a night sleeping in the open air, or in relative luxury under canvas.

For the aid organisations, nothing is wasted. Boxes collected from an Inverness-based medical organisation are still being used to organise donations in the Chios warehouse. Meanwhile, the number of people arriving by boat has significantly increased.

“It is fantastic to see the pictures from the warehouse and see the Inverness name on the boxes they are using,” says MacRae. “Our volunteers in the Highlands group, as well as at Lochaber Supports Refugees and Moray Supports Refugees, work so hard. When we collected all of the festival donations, we put hundreds of sleeping bags in the warehouse and by the end of a week, they had all been washed and dried by different people at home.”

She adds: “It is very much a joint Highlands and Islands effort.”

“There are hundreds of tents from Belladrum,” says Nixseaman, who warns that people are beginning to forget the plight of refugee families fleeing war and persecution in the Middle East. “Of course, a lot of these are festival tents and not meant to withstand cold winters, but they are better than nothing.

“The worry is that people are beginning to forget that this is all still happening. I think when we all came out here first to volunteer, there was no way we thought that we would still be here now. But it is going on and is getting worse.”

In Chios, the pressure on the Vial camp has left many refugees living in what locals know as the “jungle”, which spreads beyond the official camp borders. Here, there is no sanitation, something which Nixseaman hopes to help rectify during his visit.

“It is really horrible,” he says. “The main camp was only built for 900 people and there are 6,500 there. As well as meeting the boats, we are also going to hire diggers to dig ditches and try to sort this problem at the same time.”

Owen Grainger, from Beauly, is also volunteering on the island, where he has been for the past six weeks.

He says: “It has quadrupled in size from when I was last here in the spring. There are a lot of children here, which is one of the most difficult things to see: their living conditions and the effect it has on them. There were 40 unaccompanied minors last week with scabies. It is just horrible, seeing these old Victorian diseases come back.

“With the sanitation the way it is, it is only a matter of time before there are more serious medical problems. When the camp got so much bigger last year, it was just as the warm weather was ending and the colder weather came in. Now, when it starts to get hot again, there are going to be a lot of problems.”

Three camps on the island have, in recent years, been consolidated into one, with two based in the capital, Chios Town, closed following opposition from locals.

“It is understandable in a lot of ways,” says Nixseaman. “Chios is about the size of Mull and if there were two large refugee camps suddenly sprung up in Tobermoray, people would probably be asking for them to be moved.”

For Nixseaman, one of the most difficult aspects of volunteering has been managing the expectations of refugees who have fled conflict in the hope of a better life in Europe.

For many refugees, the utopia promised by people traffickers – to whom they have often paid out thousands of pounds to help transport them to Europe – does not become a reality as they find themselves trapped in camps for months, if not years.

He says: “Last time I was there, I was sitting with an old man from Afghanistan who had just arrived on a boat. He was showing me pictures of his farm with children running around in the sunshine – then pictures after the Taliban burned it.

“He turned to me and smiled and said, ‘But everything is going to be all right now, isn’t it?’ and I didn’t know what to say.”