Doing more for refugees

Greek Statue of LibertyLast week, I was in Lesvos for a fieldclass. The module was ostensibly meant to focus on island economies, what issues does Lesvos’ economy face by virtue of being an island. On the second day of the class, it became clear that the real focus had to be about refugees not as statistics on a page. But as people.

We arrived in Lesvos on 19th March, the day the EU-Turkey deal came into effect. The next day, we went on a walk around Mitilini (the capital of Lesvos) when I took this photograph. It was meant to be a picture of the Greek Statue of Liberty, which celebrates their liberation from the Ottoman Empire. But in the bottom right hand corner of the picture, you will see a large ship, full of people waiting to leave.

That ship was full of refugees. They were leaving Lesvos for mainland Greece. It was extraordinarily surreal watching that ship leave. Hearing the cheers (from those who would wait for the next ship but were guaranteed to head to mainland Europe) as the ship began to move off is a memory that stay with me. I expected to see sadness and desperation and what I saw was hope and optimism. And whenever I look at the picture above, I remember that feeling. The statue which stands for liberty and freedom overlooking the bay where people who have fled war and desperation can leave for a better future than the one they’ve left behind.

Lifejacket mountainThat feeling stands in stark contrast to something which happened towards the end of the class. We went to what is known as ‘life jacket mountain’. The two pictures I took of this place cannot do justice to the scale. Thousands and thousands and thousands of life jackets stacked high. A bright orange spot atop a green hill.

And this vast hill of jackets was only since September. And only for a 15km stretch of coast around Molyvos. A number of other students had to walk away. Each and every one of these life jackets had been taken from beaches and brought here. Each and every one was a human being who had attempted the crossing. Most had made it. Some had not.

Some of these life jackets were tiny. Made for small children. It was raining heavily when we went and it was obvious that there were some life jackets which were fake. They were absorbing the water. The man who took us there said they had tested some by wrapping them around bricks and throwing them into the sea. Not many had floated.

This was one of the most harrowing things I have ever seen. And that’s why I’m writing about it here. Like me, you will probably believe that we have to help refugees. People fleeing from the most horrendous experiences on the planet. Whilst we cannot save everyone in the world who needs our help, we cannot turn our back on them. We cannot stand by, watch and do nothing.

The things I saw were just a small part of a refugee’s journey. And while I was staggered by what I saw, I still have no idea about the horrors they’ve fled. But this fieldclass has shown me how important it is that we continue to call on the government to do more.

As I watched the ship of refugees leave, a quote from the film Paddington came to mind and it stayed with me through the duration of the trip:

Long ago, people in England sent their children by train with labels around their necks, so they could be taken care of by complete strangers in the countryside where it was safe. They will not have forgotten how to treat strangers.

Having seen but the merest of glimpses into the largest humanitarian crisis since the Second World War, it’s imperative that we do not forget how to treat strangers.

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This entry was posted in Op-eds.


  • Richard Underhill 31st Mar '16 - 1:49pm

    The best thing we can do for refugees is BRING PEACE TO THE MIDDLE EAST!
    On 31/3/2016 The Times reports on page 1 column 5 “Turks shoot to kill as refugees cross border”, which means that Turkey is not a “safe country” to put it mildly. The EU deal with Turkey is under legal challenge anyway. Part of the problem is that the world has changed since the 1951 UN Convention came into force on 1/1/1953.

  • Lorenzo Cherin 31st Mar '16 - 5:23pm

    Both comments above make sense , but both are not what this article is really about .


    Very thoughtful and compassionate , a timely reminder of our humanitarian impulse !

  • suzanne fletcher 1st Apr '16 - 12:33pm

    thank you for writing this thoughtful article, and sharing it. It reminds us that the situation is still there.
    Of course peace in the middle east is the answer, but it isn’t there today, and won’t be tomorrow, or the day after. Compassion and action are needed now to support those that are fleeing, there must be an end to the EU/Turkey deal that is causing more problems, and most of all, we all must do what we can to create SAFE AND LEGAL routes for those fleeing. there must be an end to the perilous journeys. An end to a lucrative moneyspinner for wicked traffickers making money out of desparate people, and selling them fake life jackets. (you can see more about the lifejackets here )
    what can we do ?
    we can lobby our MPs and the Government to increase the number we take directly from the Syrian camps.
    We can work to get our Councils to accept Syrian Refugees
    We can continue to back Tim Farron’s call to accept 3,000 unaccompanied children into the UK. A lot of lobbying will be needed when the Immigration Bill returns to the Commons soon, if a decision not made before then.
    We can send money through known aid agencies for those in the Syrian Camps where there is not enough money for proper food and shelter – causing even more of a push factor for people to take their chances to make the unsafe journey to Europe.
    Or we could of course sit at home and have better ideas and do nothing.

  • Katerina Porter 4th Apr '16 - 5:26pm

    It is shaming that we are not taking in refugees in proportion to our population. Hungary and Poland should be reminded that we took them in when there were risings against the Soviets. We should be taking a lead, not seeing what we can get away with. At present the economy worries people about their own situation. It took a great effort by very many to get in Jews before the War at the time of that Depression, and now there are votes to be lost to UKIP. But after the War farmers in Austria took in families, one family per bedroom, the French 150,000 Vietnamese after the Vietnam war, our then Conservative government took in the Ugandan Asians as a bloc when they were threatened. There have been many other examples in the past.

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