Senior UK Church leaders and representatives have just returned from Idomeni, on the Greek–Macedonia (FYROM) border, where they met some of the thousands of refugees fleeing conflict.
The group, part of a Churches Together in Britain and Ireland (CTBI) delegation, also held discussions with local volunteers and activists, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) representatives, Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), Médecins du Monde, and local government officials.
The delegation was welcomed as a high mission and is the first of any kind from the UK to see the situation on the ground first–hand. In Athens it met with the UK Ambassador to Greece, the Interim Minister for the Interior, the Head of the UNHCR Mission in Greece and the Greek Church’s Ecumenical Refugee Programme (KSPM).
Revd. Bob Fyffe, General Secretary of CTBI, said:
“What we saw and heard was shocking and savage. The refugees carry their lives in plastic bags. Many are at the mercy of brutal smuggling gangs. How is that choice?
“Aid workers warned us that border closures would result in humanitarian disaster. Sadly, we now see this prophecy unfolding across Europe.
“As winter approaches, transit tents, temporary toilets and showers are finally being erected at Idomeni. But volunteers have been working with refugees in this area for two years with barely any support. This is a scandal.”
The unofficial border opening at Idomeni has seen up to 4,000 mainly Syrian refugees pass through every day on their way to Serbia and northern Europe.
Bishop Anba Angaelos, General Bishop of the Coptic Orthodox Church in the UK, and Moderator of CTBI, said:
“We saw the incredible desperation of refugees who were willing to risk journeys in what they themselves called ‘death boats’ as a means of escape; but we also saw the dedication of those who serve them, many of whom are volunteers.
“We stand united with and for those working tirelessly to protect the God–given human rights of these refugees, and those who save the lives of many forced to make this perilous journey.
“The preservation of dignity and protection of the vulnerable is our common cause.
“As more borders close, refugees who have already sacrificed almost everything will still find alternate routes because they have nothing to lose. In anticipation, we must collaborate to formulate a coherent and humane response.”
Rt. Revd. David Hamid, Church of England Suffragan Bishop in Europe, said:
“One of the refugees said: ‘In Syria we have a quick death with the bombs – but here on the road we have a slow death’. We must ensure ongoing safety and security is given to these refugees.
“A powerful unity emerged during the visit and a shared vision of working together to preserve human dignity and save lives. A future partnership is being forged dedicated to the spiritual and moral shared duties of protecting God–given human rights.”
The Inter–Church delegation visited the border area on Tuesday, September 15 and has called for:
- An alternative to border closures to mitigate against exploitation and allow safe passage
- Concrete measures to prevent exploitation by organised criminals, traffickers and smugglers
- Greater collaboration within and between states and agencies to support refugees
- Support to create large–scale emergency reception, assistance and registration efforts in the countries most impacted by arrivals
- More support for UNHCR proposals for purpose–built transit camps and central registration points in the Greek islands
- As winter fast approaches, efforts to support refugees need to be increased in order to avoid an even worse human catastrophe
- Whilst we are encouraged by the steps taken by HM Government to allow some entry from refugee camps, we stress the need to open our borders to receive some of the refugees now risking their lives to reach safety