The Hellenic Rescue Team’s (HRT) tireless efforts to rescue refugees across the Greek islands have earned the recognition they deserve, after the organization was named as one of two winners of UNHCR’s 2016 Nansen Refugee Award.
When flimsy, dilapidated boats packed with desperate refugees multiplied off the coast of the Greek Islands last year, Konstantinos Mitragas and volunteers from the HRT did not ignore their haunting cries. Instead, they pulled on life jackets and set out to save lives. “It was absolute horror for them and us,” recalls Mitragas, the organization’s secretary-general. “It was something you can’t describe.”
Greece has been at the centre of Europe’s escalating refugee crisis since 2012. On the island of Lesvos alone, record numbers of refugees and migrants arrived last year, as conflicts in Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq continued to uproot people from their homes. Other Greek islands, including Samos and Kos, also became safe havens. Freezing waters, fake life jackets and surging storms all became risks worth taking – the last in a long line of hurdles.
For many, the heroic actions of HRT volunteers in 2015 turned out to be the difference between life and death.
HRT’s 2,500 volunteers have been rescuing people from the Aegean Sea and Greek mountains since 1978. With 42 branches and 16 sea stations spread across the Greek islands, the rescue organization endured a dramatic 2015 in which volunteers regularly went beyond the call of duty to save lives. Many worked day and night, using limited resources and often risking their own lives. Together, they showed extraordinary courage and perseverance amidst adversity.
Mitragas, a captain and the organization’s secretary-general, is a Thessaloniki businessman by trade. Like his colleagues, he works on a voluntary basis, overseeing everything from training to media relations.
“I believe it’s something in your heart that moves you and makes you volunteer,” says the father-of-two. “Of course many times we are frightened. This is what keeps us alive. If you are not frightened, you are not human.”
“Many times we are frightened. This is what keeps us alive.”
HRT mainly recruits its volunteers through annual training sessions that take place over several weeks. These sessions equip trainees with a broad understanding of search-and-rescue skills, including mountain rescue, sea rescue, natural disasters and first aid. Over the last two years, HRT has experienced a significant increase in volunteers. However, it has called for more, in order to expand its operation following the 2015 influx.
Yanis Charalampous, a 33-year-old paramedic and HRT volunteer on the island of Samos, spent much of last year on high alert, often taking calls from the Greek Coast Guard in the middle of the night. He knows how important a quick response can be. In the water, it takes just 30 minutes for hypothermia to set in. Many refugees also arrive with heat stroke, dehydration, injuries and other medical problems. “We try to be out and on the road in 30 minutes,” he says. “In September, it became 20. We never had so much need to rescue people from the water before 2015.”
Charalampous will never forget the memory of two children holding each other as they floated, having died from hypothermia before rescuers could reach them. Panagiotis Konstantaras, a farmer who volunteers as a diver with HRT on Lesvos, also recalls retrieving countless bodies from capsized boats. For many volunteers, 2015 was traumatic. But often, they found strength in each another. “Talk,” advises Konstantaras, “or the water will break your heart.”
“We never had so much need to rescue people from the water before 2015.”
During 2015, HRT volunteers worked 24 hours per day, undertaking 1,035 rescue operations, saving 2,500 lives and assisting more than 7,000 people to safety. They often worked side-by-side with the Greek Civil Protection, the Greek Coast Guard, the Fire Service and the Hellenic Air Force. In their tireless and cooperative efforts to save so many people, who looked to Europe in their time of need, HRT volunteers set an example to the world.
“I hope that we will never live that again,” says Mitragas, shaking his head. “This is something we’ll carry with us for the rest of our lives.”
“We have to be united in periods of crisis, as we did with our other Greek volunteers and the rest of the world who came here to assist us,” he says. “The planet will have difficult situations in the future, so we have to be together in order to assist in saving lives.”
By: Kate Bond and Gordon Welters in Samos, Greece