Tourists in Lesbos find themselves next to refugees fleeing for their lives
Lesbos, the Greek island in the northern Aegean Sea off the coast of Turkey, has received tens of thousands of refugees who have crossed perilous waters.
The Red Cross, one of the humanitarian charities that the Guardian is supporting through the appeal this year, has deployed a mobile rescue team to rescue people from the water, distribute survival blankets and provide first aid.
Ben Webster, British Red Cross head of emergencies, has been working on the frontline of the refugee crisis and has just come back from Lesbos; he wrote this account for the Guardian.
Lesbos: welcome to the melting pot of world turmoil
As a father, I cannot contemplate putting my own children into a flimsy dinghy and setting sail across the sea.
When you reach the coastline of Lesbos you see it is littered with discarded life vests, deflated rubber boats and the detritus of thousands of desperate journeys.
People feel this is their only viable option. They are prepared to risk their own lives and their children’s lives in order to make it to . It’s scary to think just what they are trying to escape from.
My colleagues who are helping refugees and migrants when they make land said that some spoke of feeling guilty. Guilty that they’d risked the lives of their children by putting them through such an ordeal, but that they have no alternative.
It’s hard to find the words to describe just what it’s like on Lesbos. I’ve become accustomed to working around the human suffering that surrounds humanitarian crises, and you learn to deal with it. But Lesbos was different. This is Europe. A holiday destination where tourists find themselves alongside those fleeing for their lives.
Of the 669,000 people to have arrived in this year, 387,340 have arrived on the shores of Lesbos. Syrian refugees are the most ubiquitous. They rub shoulders with Afghans, Iraqis and Eritreans. I met a group of Afghans from the Hazara tribe. They told me that threats had been made against the lives of their families and friends. They showed me photos of people they knew who had been killed – women and children were among them. What choice do they have but to flee?
I came away feeling an overwhelming sense of frustration and sadness. Frustration that we, the international community, have not been able to find a political solution to the crisis. Sadness that the conflict in Syria is still ongoing after years of fighting and is set to get worse.
We are living in an unprecedented era. An era when conflicts have no end and the number of people forced from their homes is at its highest since the second world war.
Countries that have hosted the overwhelming majority of Syrian refugees – Lebanon, Turkey and Jordan – do not have the infrastructure or facilities to continue providing extensive support.
For refugees who have been living in such bleak conditions for so long, the promise of Europe and a better life is the most logical option. Who of us would not make the same decision for our families, given the alternatives?
So what’s the solution? In the short term, refugees and migrants need a safe and legal route into Europe. But for a long-term solution, it is going to take something much greater.
The number of people to have arrived in Europe since the turn of the year will soon surpass a million. The situation is untenable and needs an immediate political solution.
The world is at a turning point. Protracted conflicts have led to a world at war and millions in need of humanitarian support. Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen, South Sudan, Central African Republic, Ukraine … I could go on.
Unending violence and conflict mean people will continue to flee their homes and undertake perilous journeys in search of safety.
The international community and nation states must find sustainable solutions to the conflicts. Only when the guns have fallen silent will people be able to return to their homes and rebuild their lives.