EU governments are still failing refugees – but we shouldn’t lose hope

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Skala Sykamias is a scenic village on the Greek island of Lesvos with about 150 permanent inhabitants. Its beauty has always made it a popular tourist destination, but in recent years an unprecedented number of boats have landed in the tiny harbour.

Many of the latest arrivals are fleeing war and persecution in places like Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan, and have been forced to take the perilous sea journey across the Aegean in search of safety. Skala Sykamias is just 8 km from the Turkish coast, making it one of the first European ports they reach.

According to the International Organization for Migration, so far in 2017 46 people have died or gone missing while trying to reach Greece by sea. The combined death toll for 2016 and 2017 was 480. Those who survive the rubber boats and rocky waters meet dire conditions on the islands, and yet people keep making the journey. With European governments refusing to or shoulder their fair share of responsibility by opening safer alternative routes, many refugees see few other options.

But amid the suffering and the government failures, all painfully apparent on Lesvos, there are incredible stories of the kindness of ordinary people.

Watch Stratis Valamios' story

Stratis Valamios is a 42-year-old fisherman who lives with his family in Skala Sykamias. He remembers Kurdish refugees coming ashore here as long ago as 1996, and says that the community came together instantly to help the new arrivals.

“Nobody came here and said, ‘We’re happy to be in Europe’”, Stratis says. “They didn’t want to leave [their homes].”

When refugee numbers began to increase dramatically in 2015, the community rallied to help. At one point, Stratis says, 40 or 50 boats would arrive here every day. These were fragile vessels filled with exhausted people who couldn’t swim, freezing children and babies. But amid the confusion and despair, villagers formed a coordinated response to save lives.

Fishermen including Stratis would form a queue and tow the boats, one by one, back to safety. In the last 20 years local fishermen have participated in countless search and rescue operations, saving thousands of lives.

“It’s not something special that makes you help,” Stratis says.  There’s nothing else you can do. I think it’s a human thing.”

This humanity has been sorely lacking at government level. Politicians with much more power than Stratis has to stop these tragedies are routinely turning their backs. Instead of opening safe and legal routes so that people don’t need to take this perilous journey in search of safety, they have closed their borders to refugees and tried to return those arriving on the Greek islands to Turkey.

In March 2016 EU leaders agreed a heartless deal with Turkey which has left thousands of refugees and asylum seekers in limbo. Under the deal, every person arriving irregularly on Greek islands like Lesvos is expected to be returned to Turkey. In exchange, Turkey was promised €6 billion to help it cope with its growing refugee population. The deal, based on the flawed assumption that Turkey is a “safe” country, has left thousands of refugees languishing in squalid and unsafe conditions in camps on the Greek islands. Unable to move to mainland Greece, they remain stuck and their futures are uncertain. A recent decision by the highest administrative court in Greece paves the way for forcible returns of refugees to Turkey.

EU governments have also failed to live up to their promises to distribute asylum-seekers arriving in Greece and Italy.  When a two-year relocation scheme came to a close in 2017, just one EU country had fulfilled its quota. Others had failed to relocate a single asylum-seeker.

But in contrast to this startling lack of compassion, some people have shown great humanity in simple ways.

Watch Giorgos Sophianis' story

Giorgos Sophianis is a 55-year-old farmer who began finding refugees sleeping in his sheep enclosure next to the beach in Skala Sykamias in 2008. They were soaking and freezing, and Giorgos would give whatever he had to help them get through the next few hours – bread, cheese, spare clothes. Like Stratis, Giorgos does not think there is anything special about his response.

“You function mechanically,” he says. “All people helped, there were no exceptions. If we saw some children, we all rushed to help; some women in need, we all rushed, without exception.”

What has stayed with him from these experiences, Giorgos says, is the “disillusionment, the yearning of the people. They thought they were coming ashore to paradise, they were kissing the soil… I mean, where were these people coming from? To have such great desire, such pain.”

Aimilia Kamvyssi, an 84- year-old grandmother who also lives in the village, also makes a point of recognizing the circumstances that refugees are fleeing from. Aimilia’s own parents were refugees from Turkey, and she can understand the fear and desperation that drive people to leave their homes and risk their lives at sea.

“They came from the war, because they were being slaughtered, they were being killed,” she says.

Watch Aimilia Kamvyssi's story

When new boats arrived Aimilia and the other villagers would walk down to the harbour bringing clean dry clothes for the refugees to change into.

“The whole village took great care of them. We talked to them, they said “it gives us joy to see you here. We gave those people courage.”

In 2015 Aimilia and Stratis were both nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in recognition of their actions.  It’s amazing that their kindness has been recognized at such a high level, but their responses should not be the exception.

At Amnesty International, we don’t believe they are. Every day we see examples of ordinary people using their own initiative to help refugees, in spite of the indifference of their governments.

For example, in the past year a record number of Britons have hosted refugees in their homes. Interest in hosting soared after the 2015 photo of Alan Kurdi, a Syrian toddler who drowned trying to cross to Greece, drew global attention to the ongoing crisis. In Canada the photo also had a huge impact - more than 14,000 Syrians were resettled under private sponsorship schemes between November 2015 and January 2017.

Through the I Welcome campaign, Amnesty International is pushing for governments to do their fair share for refugees, including those stuck in Greece.

Meanwhile, we’re shining a light on the many communities worldwide that are taking matters into their own hands to welcome - from taking people into their own homes to sponsoring refugees stuck in camps in places like Jordan and Uganda.

If you want to help refugees there are lots of things you can do, big and small. With cooperation, compassion and a little bit of time, it is possible to overcome government indifference.

As Aimilia put it:  “I did what I could, that’s what I did. I just showed some love, nothing else.”

Join the movement of people uniting to welcome refugees in their own ways.

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