Local on front line of refugee crisis

Children's soft toys and teddy bears being kept off the muddy ground at a refugee camp. INLT-12-701-con
Children's soft toys and teddy bears being kept off the muddy ground at a refugee camp. INLT-12-701-con

A St Vincent de Paul volunteer from Larne is working to alleviate the plight of desperate refugees in camps in Greece and France.

David Owens has been one of the organisation’s memebers on the frontline of the refugee crisis, battling to assist desperate families in need with the support of people across Northern Ireland.

However, with the crisis showing no signs of abating and major concerns over increasing health risks, SVP is appealing for renewed support to help feed the growing number of refugees fighting for their lives in squalid conditions.

David recently returned from refugee aid missions across Greece and France, which took his team to camps in Athens, Lesbos and Dunkirk.

“What we saw in these camps is unfathomable,” David recalled.

“People are in need of basics that in this day and age no one should be without.

“Images of Greece and France may conjure up sunny, happy holiday destinations however, where refugees are living is at the complete opposite end of the spectrum to this.

“The camps are best described as cold, dirty mud baths and any of the tents we visited were filthy as families have no way to keep the mud outside of living areas.

“Pallets are laid on the ground to try and provide a barrier between homes and the mud but this is futile as it just spreads everywhere. “It is so bad that once-loved and cherished teddies and toys are hung on trees as the children can no longer cuddle them and keep them clean due to the never-ending mud.

“We did what we could to help and in Dunkirk we worked on levelling the ground and building a distribution tent that could be used by volunteers giving out food and clothes, which was really appreciated by the people in the camp.

“It all has such a profound effect when you experience the suffering these people are going through first-hand.

“Life is very difficult for them each and every day. There is little food and what there is just isn’t enough for everyone. We bought supplies each day with money donated by people from Northern Ireland and the refugees were so grateful for the items.

“Numbers are growing in each camp and with the displacement of refugees from Calais’s notorious Jungle camp, there is an expectation that other camps across areas such as Dunkirk will see an influx of refugees, all of whom will need to be fed and sheltered.

Aidan Crawford, regional president of SVP NI, who was also part of the volunteering team, adds: “There are already more than 3000 refugees in the Dunkirk camp, mostly Iraqi and Syrian, and the authorities are trying to discourage more refugees from arriving here so are only letting in food, clothes and medical supplies. Jungle cough is a major problem in the Dunkirk camp and while ‘Medecins Sans Frontieres’ has a medical facility at the camp, its team is limited in what it can do.

“The winter is extremely harsh, however, the cold temperatures are doing their bit in keeping a number of diseases at bay but once the summer arrives, an explosion of illnesses may be unleashed, which will bring with it even more problems.”

As well as supplying food and clothes, SVP runs a ‘Shoe the Children’ scheme, collecting pairs of shoes for younger camp members whose feet are still growing. The organisation is also ‘adopting’ families through a support programme and donating a kitchen to the new Dunkirk camp.