Minister 'Heartbreaking' Lesbos Scenes

5 October 2015, 14:47

A Scottish Government minister has described the "heartbreaking" scenes he witnessed on the beaches of Lesbos, where thousands of refugees arrive daily on their journey to Europe.

International development minister Humza Yousaf helped arrivals as they came ashore on the small Greek island, which is struggling to cope with the tide of humanity coming largely from Syria via nearby Turkey.

He called on governments across Europe to do more to assist amid "utterly chaotic'' scenes on the island.

Speaking from Athens, Mr Yousaf said an estimated 5,000 people had arrived on the shores of Lesbos in the 24 hours he was there.

He saw refugees collapse in shock as their rubber dinghy made it to the beaches, toured makeshift camps and visited a cemetery where bodies recovered from the sea are laid to rest, many marked only by a number and date.

Mr Yousaf said: ``It is hard to describe in words how shocking and heartbreaking it is.

"You're talking of mothers, pregnant women, the elderly, children - all just desperate to find safety, security and a home.

"The first thing that hits you when you see the coast is the thousands, if not tens of thousands, of life jackets piled up on the shores.

"The emotions of the people who disembarked ranged from delight that they'd managed to make it to safety, to shock - one woman collapsed in front of us with shock - to fear because the journey had been so treacherous.

``It's a scene that should leave every single one of us thoroughly ashamed of ourselves, that this is happening on our doorstep and we're doing next to nothing to assist.''

Mr Yousaf said those he spoke to had told ``harrowing'' stories of giving up everything to flee civil war and conflict.

He said: ``What struck me about the people I spoke to is that every single one of them had a life back home, most of them Syrian but a number from Afghanistan.

``I spoke to a teacher, I spoke to a mechanic, I spoke to a tailor. I spoke to people who had jobs back home, they had a house back home, they had a good life back home until the civil war broke out, until conflict broke out.

``The common theme from all of them was that they weren't asking for much. All they wanted was a home and they wanted some safety.

``It wasn't luxury, it wasn't mansions, it wasn't to live off the state. They wanted to work.''

One conversation with a tailor from Aleppo in Syria reminded him of his own tailor grandfather's journey to the UK from Pakistan.

He said: ``I said to him that I hope that wherever he ends up in Europe he has the same luck that my grandfather had.''

Mr Yousaf praised the ``heroic'' efforts of the humanitarian agencies on the ground but said refugees are met with little assistance or co-ordination, and face a 50km (31-mile) walk in sweltering heat to the capital Mytilene, and then a ferry onwards to Athens.

He said: ``I wouldn't put the blame on the Greek government. I would say that governments across Europe have single-handedly failed the refugees who arrive on the shore of the island of Lesbos.''

The Scottish Government is providing £300,000 for humanitarian aid for those arriving in Europe and has pledged to accept at least 2,000 refugees.