One third of the 1000 Syrian refugees to be relocated in the UK before Christmas will be coming to Scotland, with the new arrivals shared across half the country’s local council areas. A Scottish government minister has said Scotland’s response to the humanitarian crisis has been phenomenal, with everyone working hard to ensure a warm welcome to those who come here seeking protection, safety and security.
Scotland’s first refugees will be settled on the Isle of Bute, a small island in the Firth of Clyde on Scotland’s west coast. Over the next five years the UK government has pledged to take in up to 20,000 refugees.
The Scottish Minister had recently visited the island of Lesbos where boatloads of refugees are landing after a hazardous sea journey across the Aegean Sea. Most of the refugees are fleeing civil war in Syria, staying until recently in camps bordering Syria, and are seeking sanctuary and a safe place to raise their families.
The island of Lesbos is, like Rhodes, not far from Turkey, though further north. As I mentioned in my previous piece, the hills of Turkey could clearly be seen from our hotel balcony, with the Greek border running close to the Turkish coast.
Greece is a country still suffering severe economic problems. Its Prime Minister, Alexis Tsipras, has said the country is unable to cope with the thousands of refugees arriving daily on its shores and has appealed for help from the European Union. The island of Lesbos, with a population of 85,000, saw the arrival last month alone of 111,000 people, more than doubling the island’s population, making the UK’s target of 20,000 refugees over five years look extremely paltry.
Many of the refugees are families with children who are sick and starving, fleeing violence, persecution, and human rights abuses. According to the media, people smugglers are offering discounts to those willing to risk their lives on inflatable dinghies rather than boats for the 10km journey, and on crossings during bad weather. The going rate is seemingly $1,000, half for children, extra for life vests. A great deal of money for people who have already lost everything in the conflicts they are fleeing. We had wonderful weather in Rhodes, sunny and warm with balmy evenings. But the weather in Lesbos has been colder with rain and winds, and will only become worse as winter approaches. Most hope to travel onwards – Germany and Sweden favoured destinations – but others will make it no further as they now lie in unnamed graves on Lesbos soil.
Many of the Greek islands are rocky with little vegetation (Rhodes, we were told, imported most foodstuffs, although olives are grown, and vines for wine), but Lesbos seems to be reasonably fertile with plentiful fish and seafood. Nevertheless, in an area reliant on a six month tourism season and little else, it is hardly surprising that accommodating and feeding 111,000 people is stretching resources to beyond breaking point.
We weren’t aware of refugees in Rhodes, although we were mainly in the tourist areas. But we were told if we didn’t want to take all our clothes home the hotel staff would collect them to give to refugees. We were told by other visitors who had travelled to Symi, a two hour boat journey from Rhodes, that they had seen a sunken boat belonging to refugees. Had they not sunk the boat they would have been ordered to reboard it and sail back to where they had come from. With the boat sunk, that of course was not possible.
As we left, there were hugs and kisses for many of the hotel staff and for Stephanie our holiday rep. After a few days at home (in Scotland) Stephanie was off to a new post in Egypt. With mounting UK government suspicions that the Russian jet that crashed a week ago in Sinai with 224 passengers on board was brought down by a bomb, flights from the UK to Sharm el-Sheikh have been cancelled apart from special planes to bring back holidaymakers (though the Egyptian authorities appear to be preventing the planes landing). So Stephanie, if you are caught up in this, our thoughts are with you.
The wave of refugees attempting to move across Europe has been in the news for months. But it’s only when you have been close to what is happening on the ground that the full horror and extent of it comes home to you. We enjoyed a wonderful holiday, yet on another similar island not so far away, a human tragedy is playing out, lives have been turned upside down, the future looking bleak, the only hope that some country will provide a new home where they can try and rebuild something of what was destroyed.
And yes, I did leave some t-shirts behind, though I have to admit more to lessen the weight of my case than to provide clothes for refugees as I can’t think short-sleeved cotton t-shirts will be of much use in the coming winter storms.