6000 refugees a day: New Zealand woman volunteering at Athens ports

Refugees arrive early at the Port of Piraeus in Athens, Greece.
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Refugees arrive early at the Port of Piraeus in Athens, Greece.

A New Zealander assisting shiploads of refugees disembarking in Athens says she sees more refugees in 20 minutes than New Zealand's quota allows in a year.

Judy Boyle, founder of anti-trafficking education campaign The No Project, was back in Nelson this week to arrange talks on human trafficking at Nelson College and Nelson College for Girls.

Boyle has been independently volunteering to feed and clothe refugees before ushering them onto tour buses to Greece's northern border.

Judy Boyle and Kristina Alicia of Belgium wait with shopping trolleys full of goods donated for incoming refugees.
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Judy Boyle and Kristina Alicia of Belgium wait with shopping trolleys full of goods donated for incoming refugees.

She estimated she sees up to 6000 refugees a day, or 40,000 in a month, pass through Athen's largest port, Piraeus on their way to Germany and Austria.

"I feel like I'm stuck in a surreal, dystopian documentary. There was a woman virtually giving birth the other day but she still got on the boat."

Boyle said the usual problems facing refugees were poor health — frostbite and gangrene were not uncommon — and a lack of money, but insufficient emergency housing and restrictions on the nationalities accepted at the border were also troubling.

Judy Boyle, second right, and fellow volunteers Maureen Hurley of Canada, left, Sherry Duray Kelaidis from the U.K and ...
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Judy Boyle, second right, and fellow volunteers Maureen Hurley of Canada, left, Sherry Duray Kelaidis from the U.K and Belgian Kristinia Alicia, right.

There were only two available housing shelters in Athens, meaning many recently-arrived refugees would sleep in parks, she said. Only Syrian, Iraqi and Afghani refugees were accepted at the border into Macedonia, and in most shelters.

"If you're Pakistani, forget about it."

There was no sure way of knowing who would be be deported, turned away or let through at the border, she said.

Volunteer Anna McPhee is working at a refugee camp in a gas station in Northern Greece.
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Volunteer Anna McPhee is working at a refugee camp in a gas station in Northern Greece.

A Facebook page Are You Syrious? gave invaluable daily updates on the numbers being accepted across the border, but Boyle said much of the work done by her core group of four volunteers, bolstered by outside helpers, was "guesswork".

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"Suddenly a boat will come in at the wrong port, but word is getting out there that people need support.

"We wait at the port at daybreak standing there with shopping trolleys full of fruit juice that has been donated."

Increased volumes of refugees over the Christmas period made their work especially difficult, she said.

"It would be four in the morning and I would get a text saying there's a boat coming in at 5.30[am]. You just get up out of human decency."

A psychologist by trade, Boyle said many refugees she sees are "lost" and arrive in a state of shock.

"Sometimes you don't see the problems because it's internal, it's silent. 

"[There are] five-year-old kids who should be playing on swings, but they've probably seen dead bodies floating in the sea."

While the demand for nappies and hygiene items from the Netherlands has risen, so too has the need for body bags, Boyle said.

It's a harrowing reality she found hard to shake upon her return to Nelson.

"I saw a woman walking down the street with a small shopping bag and I had to stop myself," she said.

"It was probably eggs and butter but I'm used to seeing people with bags that are their life."

Boyle has lived in Athens for 20 years and plans to continue her work there. She found some New Zealanders' attitudes towards refugees distressing.

"I hear these things like 'first of all we have to look after New Zealand'.

"It's not one or the other, it's both."

'PANICKED AND ANXIOUS, OCCASIONALLY CELEBRATING'

Another New Zealander working with refugees in Greece, Cantabrian Anna McPhee says up to 5000 refugees a night camp in a gas station where she volunteers before walking the final 15 kilometres from Polykastro in northern Greece to the border with Macedonia.

"They will have usually spent a number of days waiting in Turkey, then up to eight hours risking their lives on rubber boats. After that they stay on one of the islands in a camp for a few days, then get on a eight-to-12 hour ferry to either Athens or Kavala. Sometimes they wait in camps there."

After bus journey between three and 20 hours long depending on their port of arrival, road blockages and the availability of buses, many will stay in one of the UN tents erected on the site last week before being cleared to move on.

Those who survived the journey were "exhausted physically and mentally," McPhee said.

"They tend to have headaches and stomach aches a lot of the time, colds and flus ... Some of them have also walked a long part of the journey in broken or ill fitting shoes.

"Some people travel with young babies, many travel pregnant and some even give birth along the way."

She and other volunteers helped sort supplies and administer first aid at the makeshift camp, but would likely be charged with people smuggling if they helped refugees cross into Macedonia, she said.

"If you are from the 'wrong' country or are using false registration papers, or sometimes for unknown reasons, they will get turned back at the border and be escorted back to Athens by the police.

"It is emotionally very challenging even for those in good health. They often don't know where they will end up."

McPhee travelled to Lesvos, a Greek island 10km off the coast of Turkey, in January to welcome disembarking refugees with blankets and food.

She relocated to Polykastro a few days ago when she realised how close she was to the crisis there and "felt a strong pull to get involved".

"I originally was only going to stay a couple of weeks, but when I arrived I realised that I would stay involved here for much longer."

 - Stuff

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