Greek island community finds private ways to help refugees | Europe| News and current affairs from around the continent | DW | 10.07.2015
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Greek island community finds private ways to help refugees

Greeks living on the front lines of the country's growing refugee crisis have begun relying on tourists and foreign donations to help provide humanitarian aid. Nick Barnets reports from the island of Lesvos.

Greece's eastern Aegean islands have seen tens of thousands of migrants, most of whom are refugees from war-torn Syria, arrive on their shores. Some 9,000 people landed last week on the island of Lesvos alone.

The majority of refugees who reach Lesvos arrive on the northern coast - where the sea crossing from Turkey is less than 10 kilometers (6.2 miles) and at its shortest. Refugees have been arriving daily, typically starting just before daybreak. Their dinghies - packed with as many as 30 men, women, and children - can often be spotted while they are still at sea.

Sometimes the boats of questionable seaworthiness do not make it to land, sometimes they are picked up by the Coast Guard, which has been struggling to cope with the increasing number of refugees. Most, however, arrive on shore and walk to nearby Molyvos, a town of just over 2,000 people and often dubbed the tourist capital of Lesvos.

Melinda McRostie, who owns the dockside restaurant The Captain's Table, has worked with a group of local residents in Molyvos to deliver aid to the refugees passing through. Locals have organized donations of food, clothing and other items - some even as simple as hats to protect from the blazing summer sun. Tourists have also chipped in to help and have brought help in the form of extra supplies from home.

"Every day we get more and more," McRostie said. "Luckily, we are supported by tourists with food and everything."

Men, women and children arrive every day

Through visitors and a Facebook page called "Help for Refugees in Molyvos," McRostie and others provided information on fundraising initiatives across Europe, updates on donations and lists of items that are needed. Items range from shoes to diapers, baby powder, clothes, milk, nonperishable foods.

Eric Kempson, a British expat who has lived just outside Molyvos for more than 15 years with his wife and daughter, said he has watched boats filled with men, women, and children arrive every day. For more than two months he's uploaded daily video updates to YouTube describing the situation, efforts to help the refugees, and even describes intimidation he said he received by some who are opposed to helping refugees as critics maintain it will encourage more to come.

"We keep getting rumors things will change, but nothing does," Kempson said, describing the lack of an effective response by the government and the United Nations Refugee Agency to help the situation.

Greece has now outpaced Italy in the number of migrant arrivals, with the Greek islands having already received 50 percent more refugees this year than in all of 2014.

Give a ride, go to jail

Kempson sends McRostie a headcount of new arrivals every morning so she and her team will know how much food and other forms of aid will be needed for the day.

Griechenland Reste eines Migranten-Schlauchbootes

Greece is unable to cope with the number of people landing on its shores

Molyvos being a small, rural town lacks the facilities to host the large numbers of refugees who arrive. As a result they must travel to the island's main town of Mytilene, more than 65 kilometers away, often walking at night along the dark mountain roads as daytime temperatures reach 35 degrees Celsius (95 degrees F) and higher. Buses and taxis are not allowed to take them and neither are people in private cars as Greek law deems providing transportation for a person in the country illegally as aiding human trafficking.

The United Nations on Friday urged European countries to step forward with aid to avert a looming humanitarian crisis. More than 77,000 refugees have reached Greece by the sea since the start of the year, 60 percent of whom are fleeing the war in Syria, with daily arrivals having reached a rate of 1,000 per day.

"The influx is creating an unprecedented refugee emergency at a time when Greece is financially unable to cope," said UNHCR spokesman William Spindler.

Greece's economic crisis and the lack of an organized international response have left those living on the front lines of the refugee crisis in Molyvos largely to fend for themselves and rely on the generosity of neighbors and visitors to the area who take the initiative to help them.

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