TWO Limerick women have returned from a week of volunteering on the Greek island of Lesvos, onto which thousands of refugees have poured every day.
Zoe Lawlor, from the South Circular Road, and Dooradoyle woman Colette Ahearn found the conditions in Lesvos “horrifying”.
Colette told the Leader: “It was the people, people in need. I saw the little lad wash up on the shore and that was it for me really.
“I wasn’t doing anything at home so we set up the Limerick to Calais donation drive and it all kind of went from there. We ended up going to Calais and then after that going to Lesvos,” Colette said.
What they found when they arrived on the Greek island appalled them.
“It’s abuse,” continued Colette. “From when they are in Turkey to when they get on the boat with the smugglers and to when they get to Greece.
“They are very afraid and scared when they come to shore and as soon as that subsides then it’s relief. After that it’s fear again because they don’t know what their next step is and what’s going to happen.
“It’s one after the other for them. It’s abuse.
“Even the likes of the ferry from Lesvos to Athens, the price has doubled for them. The price of public transport has also doubled.
“The prices of their buses from Athens to Macedonia have gone through the roof.
“These are people that have nothing. They are well educated and absolutely beautiful people, and are just being abused left, right and centre.”
The journey that the refugees undertake to reach the island is also as horrific as could be imagined.
“The week we were there the weather was ok so that’s lucky for everyone,” said Zoe.
“It’s literally dinghies coming in to a beach and people trying to help people carry their kids, carry their bags and get off.
“Some of the crossings are very scary, People are very sad and traumatised, some are very injured coming off. They are cold.
“If they have come in the dark they are much more scared. It’s just a constant flow.
“There was one day when we were down at one of the beaches and 10 boats came in an hour, which is 500 plus people.”
Colette told of the drive from the airport on the south of the island, to the north part of the island, where they were volunteering.
“When we came out of the airport, the whole drive we just saw hundreds and hundreds of men, women, children, babies, people in wheelchairs, old people just walking in the one direction, just following the crowd.
“They have no idea until they get there what reception they are going to get. The volunteers are amazing but the camps are horrific.
“There is no dignity, no respect. It is just into a field and there you go. If you arrive without a tent or a sleeping bag in the middle of the night well then tough, no matter what age you are.
“We transported three very old women at one stage from the beach to the bus station. From there they would have got a bus to the south which is an hour and a half away.
“By the time they would have got to Moria camp it would have been pitch dark. I enquired about them the next day when I was in Moria camp and nobody knew who i was talking about because there was approximately 6,000 people there.
“I was told that they would have just have had to fend for themselves. No sleeping bags, no blankets, nothing. These women were in their late Eighties with no family and nobody travelling with them.”
Both Zoe and Colette are in agreement of who is at fault for the continuing problems.
“I mean, it’s the EU I would blame the most, said Zoe. “There could be more support. Also the numbers Ireland are taking in is shameful, absolutely shocking.
“We would have met that number that Ireland are going to take in over four to five years in one day on the beach.
“The treatment of refugees and asylum seekers that are already in Ireland is also shameful and people that are going to come here are also going to be put through a similar system to Direct Provision which is terrible.”
“I think the EU are just closing their eyes and waiting for something to happen but while they are doing that, these people are dying,” Colette said.
“They come in with so much hope. When they arrive they are kissing the ground because they think this is freedom but they have no idea of what’s ahead.
“I have seen them when they get to Calais and they are broken. The sheer abuse alone from us, as Europeans we should all be ashamed of ourselves.”
Both women are also in agreement on areas that the EU and every country within it can do to help the refugees.
“Number one open the borders but as well as that we need proper structures for people to be received and safe passage,” said Zoe.
“People need safe passage badly. There is a ferry from Turkey to Lesvos. The people are coming. Let them get on the ferry.
“Nobody should be enriching traffickers and smugglers. Governments are going to have to accept that the movement of people is on and they have to open the borders to take more numbers.
“This notion of imprisoning people who seek refuge, which is what we do in Ireland through Direct Provision, has to end.
“People looking for asylum or a new way of life, as thousands of Irish people do every year, are being criminalised all over Europe.”
Colette and Zoe were also united in their response when asked if they would visit Lesvos again. The answer was an unequivocal yes.
Both women also called for the Irish Government to take action and welcome more refugees to the country.
“Why can’t Ireland set an example and say we can’t allow this to happen, this was done to us and open the doors and let way more people come in?” asked Zoe.
“Show some compassion and show some compassion to the people that are here already.