On the cliffs of Lesvos, a team of lookouts keeps watch over the sea. At its narrowest point, the strait between the Greek island and Turkey is only seven kilometres. But even with binoculars and telescopes, it’s not always easy to spot the black dinghies, packed with dozens of refugees and migrants, against the backdrop of the deep blue sea.
The lookouts belong to Refugee Rescue, a British-registered charity that carries out search and rescue off the coast of Greece. Committed to preventing deaths at sea, the skilled search and rescue team aboard their speedboat Mo Chara (which means ‘My Friend’ in Irish) ensures that refugees and migrants safely find their way to shore after travelling to Europe across the strait. Since the charity began its work in 2016, it has helped close to 6,000 people and prevented countless deaths.
Co-founder and CEO Jude Bennett (left) explains the organisation’s mission from her office at VerdensKulturCentret in Nørrebro, Copenhagen. Originally from Northern Ireland, Bennett used to work in Britain’s art scene and ran a gallery in Wales. In late 2015, she got a phone call from a friend, Joby Fox, who had travelled to Lesvos as a volunteer to help the new arrivals landing on the beaches at the time. He told her how hazardous the situation was, with rescuers lacking the resources to help everyone who was making the journey. Boats were capsizing, and people were dying.
“He was working on Lesvos helping the refugee arrivals, and was traumatised after witnessing a shipwreck that left many dead,” says Bennett.
She immediately flew down to Lesvos and noted the conspicuous absence of aid organisations. Even the Greek Coast Guard was ill-equipped to find and assist boats in trouble at sea.
So she and Fox decided to gather a team and buy a rescue boat. She knew a trained lifeboat captain in Belfast who could operate the vessel, and they drew on her connections in the art and music world to raise money. Thanks to donations from high-profile artists, they managed to buy a rescue boat and head back to Greece.
“In the van on the way down, I was calling around trying to gather a crew. We were a ragtag group to start with, but on our very first mission, we managed to rescue 177 people who were headed towards the rocks.”
Help has its limits
Bennett is now pursuing a Masters degree in Disaster Management at the University of Copenhagen, having met her Danish husband while working on the island. While she oversees much of the daily operation from Copenhagen, the organisation has committed land and sea crews who work around the clock on Lesvos to prevent needless deaths.
One problem they experienced early on was that smugglers were sailing over the strait and dumping the refugees and migrants along hazardous and inaccessible parts of the coast before sailing back. But the rescuers were having difficulty keeping track of where the boats were going. So they created a land-based spotting team atop the coastal cliffs in order to give them a better overview. In one case, they managed to help the Greek Coast Guard intercept a smuggler on his way back to Turkey.
Ordinarily, the rescue boat is dispatched once the spotters see a boat heading over the strait. If it isn’t in distress, Mo Chara will guide the boat to a safe place to land. The coast is rugged, and often the boats head towards the Greek lighthouse on Lesvos, which is located on a particularly treacherous stretch. If they do land on rocks, Mo Chara will pick up the refugees and take them to the harbour. Similarly, if the boat capsizes, they will pull people to safety.
There are limitations, however, as the rescue boat cannot enter Turkish territorial waters, or head out to assist a boat that spotters cannot see.
“Once there was a shipwreck in Turkey, but we couldn’t see them, and if we can’t see a boat sinking, it puts the crew at risk by sending them out there. I was getting phone calls, and information through Whatsapp groups, saying they were drowning. We sent the rescue boats to the border and called the Turkish Coast Guard, but they wouldn’t let us cross.”
There to help
Refugee Rescue is the only remaining search and rescue organisations to continue operating on the north coast of Lesvos. Several fell foul of the Greek authorities and had their rights to operate revoked. So Bennett and her organisation walk a tightrope in trying to maintain a good relationship with the Coast Guard while doing as much as they can to save lives at sea.
And it’s been difficult. Soon after their arrival, the Coast Guard introduced new rules preventing more than one launch per day and requiring 24-hours’ notice before setting out. These rules jeopardised the organisation’s ability to respond to distressed boats, where time is of the essence.
“At that point I was like, they’re not letting us do our job, they’re fighting us every time we move. So we decided to put more media and legal pressure on the Coast Guard, and I eventually managed to speak to the harbour master. I got into his office and we explained that we are here to help, that we have trained rescuers, that we don’t cost them anything, and that we are abiding by the rules and borders. Something positive came out of it, and they call us up now. But the restrictions they put on us are officially still in place,” she says.
Once the organisation lands refugees, it helps guide them to UN assembly points where refugees and migrants are supposed to stay for twenty-four hours before being taken to the major reception centres. Bennett says both the assembly points and reception sites are overcrowded and under-resourced, and Refugee Rescue volunteers have had to step in.
“We focus on our rescue mission – no more deaths at sea. But it’s hard to stay that focussed, and we are expanding because there is a need. There was a lack of volunteers, so some people are helping in the kitchen and distributing clothes.”
Saving lives at sea is one thing. Helping the refugees on land is another, however. Some segments of the local population are deeply sceptical of Refugee Rescue, so the organisation tries to ensure its team doesn’t come across as unwelcome activists.
“We don’t want to risk having our boat detained or our crew arrested if what we’re doing doesn’t have a direct impact on saving lives at sea. The Coast Guard gets pissed off and detains boats. We have to be careful.”
Bennett doesn’t mince words about the poor state of the UN reception centres, or about the overall lack of humanitarian help for arriving refugees.
“I committed my life to this when I saw that the big organisations were not doing anything. It was shocking that the UN and the big agencies weren’t there. They are in the big camps, but these are old jails that are in disgraceful condition,” says Bennett, referring to the Moira reception centre that has been identified by the UNHCR as a site of sexual and gender-based violence.
The absence of international aid agencies can be explained in part by the belief of governments around Europe that expanding the humanitarian presence in Greece will only increase the ‘pull factor’ – in other words, it would make it more attractive for refugees and migrants to make the journey to Europe.
Bennett and her team are used to being called ‘egohumanists’ and a ‘taxi service’ for people smugglers. But she doesn’t believe that people decide to make the crossing lightly.
“It’s sheer desperation – wherever they came from, they didn’t make that journey for the fun of it. This affects the crew because it becomes about more than sea rescue, it’s about dealing with the silent effects of war. That was something that touched us all, we couldn’t believe it when we heard the media talk about these people coming here to steal our money and rape our women. These are outrageous accusations – they are regular people,” she says.
We have to accept the flow
The crossing refugees and migrants have to navigate a number of threats to make the journeys. Their iconic orange life jackets are often fake, packed with absorbent material that actually makes them sink when they go overboard. In November, Refugee Rescue witnessed the Turkish Coast Guard shoot at a boat and pull it back to the Turkish coast from Greek waters.
The organisation has its own challenges too, primarily in ensuring they have enough funding to keep the operations going.
“Now we are panicking about having enough money. We can’t plan more than two months ahead. It’s really hand to mouth. Someone gave us half-price engines recently, but if anything happens to the boat, it can halt operations. As CEO, I’m trying to be more strategic to keep operations running well on the ground. In the longer term, we would like to expand, but we don’t have the finances to make that a realistic option,” she says.
They have now approached big donors such as the Roskilde Festival, and hope that putting down roots in Copenhagen will help them find partners to work with long term. Bennett has also become involved in raising international awareness about the need for a more humane asylum system and about the risk to human life that has resulted from the EU’s deals with Turkey and Libya – including billions of Euros in cash being handed over to prevent refugee boats from setting sail.
“Hopefully we can find a way to move forward instead of funding a Libyan mafia to shoot at people and pretend it’s search and rescue,” she says.
“The push force behind refugee flows is something we have to accept. They will keep coming, and they are still coming.” M