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Doing more for refugees

April 1, 2016 1:17 PM
By Adam Hanrahan in Liberal Democrat Voice
Originally published by South Lincolnshire Liberal Democrats

Last 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.

That 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.