17 Sep 2015

Lesbos crisis: British family helping refugees from the sea

For tens of thousands of desperate refugees landing on the Greek island of Lesbos the only welcome has been from a British family, the Kempsons, doing their best to offer some humanitarian aid.

By Sharron Ward

Eric Kempson – a long haired ex-Safari Park manager from Portsmouth and his family have become the unlikely first responders to the tidal wave of humanity coming across the sea from Turkey to the northern coast of the Greek Island of Lesbos.

Lesbos has received the highest number of refugee and migrant arrivals in Greece: more than 93,000 have already landed in 2015.

At least 35,000 have washed up on the 10 miles of coast near Eric’s home. Most of them are Syrians fleeing the war and chaos in Syria.

In the absence of any aid agencies, help from the Greek authorities or the European Union, Eric and his wife Philippa along and their musician daughter Elleni, along with a handful of other volunteers and tourists, spend every day helping the thousands of vulnerable refugees and migrants who have landed near their home.

Sea of human misery

Every morning at dawn Eric and his wife Philippa make their way up to a vantage point on the coast overlooking their home, the sea and the Turkish coastline four miles beyond.

They look out for boats arriving across the narrow Mytilini strait from Turkey.

Smugglers wanting to maximise profit pack in as many desperate people into unstable inflatable dinghies as they can.

“Boats that are designed to carry 12 people are carrying 70. So the boats are so low in the water, they’re sinking from the beginning,” Philippa says.

“They think they’re going to die the whole way across,” says Eric.

Once the boats have reached the safety of Europe’s shores, some jubilantly cheer and kiss the ground; others stagger to the shore before breaking down in a wave of relief and despair.

It is a chaotic and humbling scene.

And there are children and new born babies, too. Dozens of them. Every day.

“It’s horrific, says Eric, it’s like a scene out of World War II.”

Eric’s first priority is to make sure the boats land safely and help the most vulnerable ashore.

He sighs with resignation when he has to explain to the arrivals that they’ve landed in the north of the Island. Here, because they are “undocumented illegals”, there are no facilities available for them — no aid agencies, no water, no toilet, food or shelter.

Traumatised refugees soon discover that they can’t pay for a hotel or eat in the local restaurant until they become “legally registered” — and still the Greek authorities do not set up a reception centre where tens of thousands of them land.

Instead they must register with the authorities in the South, in the capital of Mytilini. Until they do this they are not even allowed to take a taxi, instead they must walk a gruelling 40 miles in the searing heat across rugged terrain, carrying their life’s possessions with them.

Eric and his volunteers do their best to ferry the vulnerable — the disabled, the elderly and the youngest children – up and down the remote dirt road from where they land to a small makeshift transit camp in the nearest village of Molyvos. Here they rest on filthy bits of cardboard or sweat-stained mattresses, before their gruelling onward journey to the south.

Citing concerns over tourism revenues, the authorities in Molyvos have made clear to Eric that they don’t want the refugees in the town, on the beaches or on the roads.

He’s constantly abused by local villagers for helping the refugees, “They think if you make them suffer, they won’t come.”

Undaunted by the abuse, Eric dishes out bottles of water, feeds as many people as he can and deals with medical emergencies.

He’s had to attend to miscarriages, a severely dehydrated baby, and accidental stab wounds. One day a heavily pregnant Syrian woman nearly gave birth in his car.

“These people are fleeing a war zone, they’ve suffered enough and they don’t need to suffer anymore,” he says simply.

But he’s desperate for help. “We’ve been screaming out for a doctor here for 7 months and no one comes. I’m just a wood carver,” he says. “I naturally presumed when you ask for help, when you say there’s a big problem here the aid agencies come and help, but no, it doesn’t seem to work like that.”

Staring out to sea, always on the lookout for more refugees making the perilous crossing, Eric sounds a warning: “This is just the tip of the iceberg. Soon we could have tens of thousands coming through here and if we don’t get any help on the frontlines soon, this island is in for a big shock.”

Film edited by Steve Gibbs
Filmed, produced and directed by Sharron Ward. @KatalystProds
Lesbos SOS is a Katalyst Productions film for Channel 4 News.