This is a picture of one of the boats that arrived yesterday, packed with men, women and children. If you look closely, you will see that it is essentially a homemade vessel with a thin plywood bottom. It is astonishing and shocking to think that 40 or 50 people trusted their lives to such a flimsy craft.
It is just one of the many boats abandoned on the shore. The beaches are also littered with thousands and thousands of bright orange life vests. Some of them have brand names on them, but when you take a close look, they are "knock offs", cheap imitations made of thin plastic foam that would certainly not provide adequate flotation for anyone.
Today we had an orientation session with Starfish Foundation, one of the locally based organizations that has been providing much of the support here over the past several months. The coordinator who spoke to us, Tracy Myers, is amazing. She described the refugee experience - from hiding in the Turkish forest for up to 4 days waiting for a boat to being forced onto the overloaded boats at gunpoint.
During the summer and early fall, the smugglers were using rubber pontoon boats. These boats would carry 50-60 people. When they got in trouble, the Coast Guard could assist them and offload the passengers onto a Coast Guard vessel. With the heavier seas in the fall, many of the smugglers have switched to larger wooden boats. The refugees are told that these rickety wrecks are safer. Some of the boats carry up to 300 people at a time with the women and children stowed below decks where it is even more dangerous in the case of a sinking.
The problem with these larger boats is that the Coast Guard doesn't have the capacity to deal with a sinking ship with 300 people on it. The wooden boats sink quickly, leaving many people in the sea. The smugglers are also preying on those who don't have as much money as other refugees by offering "bad weather" discounts, placing vulnerable people at even greater risk. And the price for the journey? Usually around $1000 US with a discount for children.
Over the next few days, we will be working at a variety of jobs with Starfish. Tomorrow, we will be helping to organize one of the warehouses where they store donated clothing. The following day we will be assisting in the Molyvos harbour, where rescued refugees are brought in by the Coast Guard for processing. The following days we will be working at OXY, one of the transit camps where arriving refugees are given dry clothing, food and water before being transported to the UNHCR registration camp.
Today we drove two sets of refugees from the beach to the Skala transit camp. The first was a group of three distinguished looking middle aged men from Iran. They didn’t speak any English, so we couldn’t ask them why they had made the decision to leave Iran. The second group was a lovely young couple from Afghanistan. They had arrived at the beach earlier in the day and had been transported with their family members (about 12 people) to the Skala transit camp. At that point, they realized that they had left the two plastic shopping bags that contained all of their worldly possessions at the beach where they landed. We drove them back to the beach and they found their bags. It is hard to imagine having so little…