First faces of fortress Europe

Feature story - 30 March, 2016
It’s officially spring in the Northern Hemisphere but nobody seems to have told the weather gods in Lesbos. As 50-knot gusts of wind thump the island from the south, at least they bring welcome warm air and time to put some thoughts to paper.

MSF and Greenpeace Launch Life Saving Operations in the Aegean Sea

It's the prevailing north wind that raises our guard as it puts the Turkish beaches in the lee and gives refugees the wrong impression of sea conditions further out on their perilous journey. It's a colder wind that brought snow and countless cases of hypothermia in the past. Beware the northerlies.

At the end of March, Greenpeace is wrapping up its refugee rescue operation on the Greek island of Lesbos and handing over to Médecins Sans Frontières/Doctors Without Borders (MSF) who are ready to take full charge of the operation for the longer term. The last few weeks have been quiet with only the odd refugee boat managing to break through the new dictate from Brussels.

We have seen off the winter and should be proud of it. Nearly 100 Greenpeace staff and volunteers have donated their time, skill and energy over the past five months in a spirit that can only be described as "old school". MSF and Greenpeace have acted as one throughout, and much of the handover is in name only as many of the hardened crew continue their work under a different badge.

MSF and Greenpeace Launch Life Saving Operations in the Aegean Sea

Summing up the last few months is a tricky task – no two days have been the same. It's easiest explained in numbers, but numbers fail dismally in this crisis of humanity, especially with politicians and media banding them around like a currency on the stock exchange. Numbers fail to describe the pictures etched into our minds: an outstretched hand, a semiconscious gaze or even the reassuring nod from a colleague as life and death decisions unfold amidst hysterical screams.

MSF and Greenpeace Launch Life Saving Operations in the Aegean Sea

The numbers

MSF and Greenpeace assisted 18,117 people at sea between November 28, 2015 and March 23, 2016 and conducted 361 operations on the north coast of Lesbos.

Operational Data

Guidance to shore


Guidance to shore with towing


Mass man overboard / capsizing / transfer of people on our boats


Other kind of assistance (such as guidance to solve engine problems)


There are two main categories of refugee boats. Neither is fit for purpose. Inflatables carry up to 70 people and come in variable quality, occasionally with the glue still sticky. ‘Wooden boats' describe any type of boat that isn't a rubber duck, and these are the most dangerous: they tend to capsize and sink quickly when they take on too much water, or break up as they hit the shore. Both types of boat are filled with petrified souls, but when the term ‘wooden boat' rings out over the VHF radio it quickens the pulse and hand to the throttle.

Crew onboard a Medecins Sans Frontiers (MSF) / Greenpeace inflatable boat during an operation assisting boats in distress off the northern coast of Lesvos, Greece.

Our team up on the hill (call signs Romeo & Juliette) perform a dizzying array of tasks, from spotting and guiding refugee boats to relaying information between officials and non-governmental agencies responding on water and land. Here's a glimpse of what goes on behind the statistics.

Guidance to shore – 171 boats

On a calm day this can be a happy affair. When the people in boats realise we are friend not foe, the singing can start. After all the hardship endured (one can only imagine) they are about to make it! Smiles emerge as we exchange the thumbs up sign and cultural mediators and medics begin to assess the condition of the new arrivals from a safe distance.

Along the stretch of coastline we cover, there are about a dozen safe landing beaches. We know them well now and I no longer need to refer to GPS coordinates as I radio an estimated time of arrival to Romeo/Juliette: "send the medics to Yogi or Chapel" or "ground support required at Aphrodite or Sheep Farm".

Mostly it's just a case of tweaking their course, as they are not accustomed to sailing. Before today, many had never seen the sea, so they are not to know that a lighthouse signifies danger – and lives have been lost on the rocks.

MSF and Greenpeace Launch Life Saving Operations in the Aegean Sea

Other kinds of assistance (such as solving an engine problem) – 141 boats

"Check the fuel, check the fuel and check the fuel again" is the phrase I remember from the ‘Beginners Guide to Outboard Maintenance and Troubleshooting'. How true in this case. Outboards don't run for long if the air valve on the tank is closed, the choke is out and 10 people are sitting on the fuel line. The lucky ones break down after they have crossed the Greek/Turkish border where help awaits.

We are not authorised to cross the red dotted line on the GPS that signifies the border, so unless there's a "mayday" case, boats here are left to the mercy of the Turkish coastguard (we have seen some shocking footage). And I very much doubt if the refugees  get a refund from the smugglers. Anything up to 3,000 euros is paid per person, making it the most expensive six-nautical mile journey on the planet. Anywhere else and you could charter your own helicopter.

A dead boat in the water is also highly exposed to the weather. Waves lap over the sides and people stacked in the middle get soaked (usually the most vulnerable – children, women and elderly). Getting the engine going again quickly is the best solution. Our cultural mediators (many of whom were once refugees themselves) are now well versed in Outboard Troubleshooting.

MSF and Greenpeace Launch Life Saving Operations in the Aegean Sea

Guidance to shore with towing – 24 boats

When troubleshooting fails but the boat is still in reasonable condition, towing is the best solution. But first we must secure permission of the Hellenic Coast Guard – we do not want to risk being accused of ‘people smuggling'. It's a complex political game out on the water! There are many players to navigate: the EU border agency Frontex has Norwegian, Portuguese, Bulgarian and Swedish boats out there. Add to that NATO warships, Spanish lifeguards and German, Greek and Dutch volunteer boats ... the Greek Coast Guard has the final say.

Then there are the practicalities of towing a rubber boat. Most have no reliable anchor points and there's a danger that you can pull them apart at the seams. The solution we've found is to put a thick towrope down the middle of the boat and ask the stronger people on board to hold tight with their bare hands. You won't find this technique in any RYA Manual of Seamanship but then you won't find this situation either. It works pretty well and is quick to deploy with the help of our interpreters.

MSF and Greenpeace Launch Life Saving Operations in the Aegean Sea

Mass MOB (man overboard) / MOB / capsizing / swamped / evacuation / transfer – 25 boats

This is the statistic that haunts our dreams at night. On 25 occasions many lives would have been lost had we not been on the scene. As it was, a total of four people died during our operations. Each occasion was different and the statistic covers a wide range of interventions.

On the lighter occasions it may be a swamped inflatable with a broken engine, but that could mean the kids in the middle were up to their necks, babies being held precariously aloft and hypothermia and panic in equal measure. The transfer of people from their boat to ours was rarely a calm affair. We'd do a co-ordinated sandwich manoeuvre with our two boats and try to offload the kids and babies first. We soon realised that it was important to take some mothers too as there is not much you can do with a baby in each arm! Sometimes outright panic would engulf the boat and a mad scramble would ensue. Often a stern word was required to maintain control.

Other occasions brought medical emergencies. There is a limit to how much medical treatment can be done during a rescue although we did carry oxygen and medical supplies. On one occasion the MSF medic successfully resuscitated a baby that had been in the water and had stopped breathing. On another we lost a four-year-old boy to the elements. Many arrived in the first, second and third stages of hypothermia so we would pull space blankets from our pockets like magicians. We were usually only a few miles to the nearest port and a waiting MSF ambulance, so in most cases the best option was to scoop up shivering children and run.

Wednesday 16th December 2015. Two children and three people missing as boat carrying over 150 refugees from Iraq capsizes off the coast of Lesbvos, Greece.

The worst incident was on December 16. Shortly after being threatened with arrest from Frontex (we are not allowed to patrol) a wooden boat capsized and sank. A total of 85 men, women, children and babies were in the water. We were the first responders to arrive, within 20 minutes. It was a scene from the Titanic. Death hung in the air. The Greenpeace boats were magnificent. Our crew grabbed, hauled and wrestled folks on-board, but still we lost two people that day. The Frontex boat couldn't do much as their freeboard was too high – they put out ropes instead! They don't threaten us with arrest any more and these days often request our assistance. I pray we never get another day like that, for everyone on the water it was traumatic, a day we will never forget.

MSF and Greenpeace Launch Life Saving Operations in the Aegean Sea

As with all these rescues it's the faces that we remember. Our contact with the refugees is intense, but it is over quickly. We check their pulses and breathing but there is no time for names or life stories. What happens to them after we deliver them ashore is not in our hands … I wish I knew more. Even if they make it to Germany or Sweden or wherever they want to go, I'm quite sure that many will grow up with a phobia of the sea, or perhaps it just blends into the multitude of horrific experiences they have had and continue to endure. Most are Syrians running from hell. 

MSF and Greenpeace Launch Life Saving Operations in the Aegean Sea

Finally as we start the process of packing for the journey home I find myself staring at my passport. How fortunate I am to have a bit of paper that allows me to fly over these man-made frontiers. An accident of birthplace. I feel privileged to have been the first face of Europe to many and hopefully a friendly one. 

Dave Logie worked as Greenpeace boat coordinator on Lesbos.