It’s early morning, cloudy with a light breeze and we are on standby as a rescue team for any approaching refugee boats that might get into trouble. And then … we get the call! A boat has been spotted in a position east of ours. Survival suit on, boats started and we’re underway.
Anne Jensen operates a RHIB off the coast of Lesbos in December 2015 as part of joint operations between MSF and Greenpeace to provide rescue activities to refugee boats in distress. MSF and Greenpeace have carried out multiple rescues since the start of operations in November.
As soon as we approach the small, overfilled and poor-quality rubber dinghy (which we later found was carrying 52 Syrians), we could see immediately it was going to sink. We had to act and a brief moment of chaos ensued as we came alongside and started helping people onto our boat.
There were babies, children, women and men, but everyone was able to get safely onboard. “Is everyone okay? Anyone wet or cold?” we ask them, explaining that they are safe, that we will bring them safely the rest of the way to Greece.
Later, on the jetty, I had my arms around an elderly lady. She’s crying, relieved but also afraid. The gratitude in her eyes is something I’ll never forget. Every day in Lesbos is like this! Everyday refugees are trying to cross the sea to get to safety, to get to Europe.
It took this group of refugees two months of walking before they got to the Turkish coast, and in Turkey they paid a lot of money to the smugglers to be able to get a boat to cross the Aegean Sea. They carried only small bags with a few personal belongings and they made it!
The final leg of their journey to Europe is at an end and they’ll now be safe, right? Or are they?
The European Union, which evolved from the aftermath of World War II, is based on the core values of respect of human dignity, justice, freedom, democracy, human rights, and protection of minorities. Core values that in today’s current climate seem to be forgotten.
Every day there are hundreds, sometimes thousands of refugees and migrants landing on the beaches around Lesbos. They are fleeing their countries of origin, to avoid war and to protect their families, but how are they being greeted? Walls are being built, border controls have been implemented and they are being forced to stay in overcrowded camps or out in the winter cold.
Most recently and to my horror, ‘my’ government back home in Denmark now want the refugees and migrants to surrender their last remaining personal possessions of value as a payment for staying in our low standard camps. How can any politician, a human being treat other people this way? Is that showing human dignity?
Worse still, more than 3,700 people died in 2015 in the hope to making it to Europe. That’s an average of 10 lives lost every day. But instead of providing safe passage, instead of saving lives, Europe is sharpening its border controls!
Yet everyday on Lesbos, we have to deal with the ongoing arrivals of people by sea.
I am a seafarer by profession and the most important part of my work is to ensure safety of life at sea, which also means rescuing anyone in distress.
But on Lesbos, I see hundreds of people in distress every day and this is happening on the doorstep of the EU! Multiple NGOs and volunteer groups are providing rescues, performing a role the EU should be doing!
I believe in European values, of freedom and democracy and the universal human rights we hold dear. It’s time for EU leaders to wake up and remember our core values and adopt a humane stance towards those who still hold out hope of European safety.
That’s why I went to Lesbos, hoping for safe passage and a better future.
Anne Jensen was one of 30 people detained by Russian authorities in September 2013 for a peaceful protest against Arctic Ocean oil drilling; she was released on bail in November and accepted an amnesty in December 2013. She has been working with Greenpeace for 3.5 years.