An Australian lifesaver who volunteered to help asylum seekers crossing the Aegean Sea to reach the Greek island of Lesbos says he had to stand by and watch 31 people drown because they were in international waters.
The 10-kilometre passage from Turkey to Lesbos can be extremely perilous, but it is the landing place of thousands of Syrians seeking refuge in Europe.
St Kilda Surf Lifesaving Club’s captain Simon Lewis went to Greece as part of a joint venture between the Greek Lifeguards and the International Surf Lifesaving Association.
He said his team alone helped save 517 people in 10 days, and said the emotion in the eyes of the people he helped was “electric”.
Another incident that stood out for him was the look of relief on a young man’s face when he and his team raced towards his boat.
“He got stuck with being the driver, and had never driven a boat before, let alone been on water,” Mr Lewis said.
“I remember coming around the boat, and I locked eyes on him, and he locked eyes on me, and all the colour came back on his face, the look of relief.”
But Mr Lewis said he also witnessed some horrors that would remain with him forever.
He said he had to stand by helpless as 31 asylum seekers drowned on the Turkish side of the sea, because his team was not allowed to intervene.
“That’s the nature of lifesaving, we put ourselves in that situation to help prevent people from drowning and yet because it’s across the way in international water you’re restricted and can’t actually do anything about it,” Mr Lewis said.
Volunteers are not allowed to assist unless boats are sinking because helping people over international borders could see them charged with people smuggling.
Mr Lewis said keeping his distance in those circumstances was the hardest part.
He said one case that stuck in his mind was of a mother trying to throw her child five metres to what she considered safety.
“We realised what she was about to do, you know, throw us the baby and so we had to pull away from her and put some distance between us. Just seeing her face, that heartbreak,” he said.
He said there were about 2000 refugees who travelled to the area in the time he was there.
“These boats are the dodgiest,” he said.
“[They are] kind of built like an inflatable boat, with a fake Chinese engine, they all have fake life jackets on and its on the lowest budget thing that you wouldn’t even put your family in.
“These people make the journey because they think it’s better than being on land, and that says everything to you [about] their situation, to try to get to freedom, because it’s a better option than anywhere else.”
As well as lending a hand, Mr Lewis ran a crowd-funding campaign that’s raised more than $22,000, for a new rescue jet ski for the Greek lifeguards.