A Melbourne lifesaver, who traveled to the Greek island of Lesbos to help Middle Eastern refugees coming from Turkey, has witnessed nightmares that have left him traumatized for life.
Simon Lewis, an Australian volunteer from St. Kilda Surf Lifesaving Club, was contributing in a joint venture between Greek lifeguards and the International Surf Lifesaving Association.
While volunteering on Lesbos, Lewis rescued 517 asylum seekers out of the Aegean Sea in 10 days. However, he was also forced to watch helplessly as 31 refugees drowned because they were in Turkish waters.
"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," the captain of the rescue expedition said.
The 10-kilometer journey over water between the Turkish port Ayvalik (which is a prime hub for Syrians seeking refuge in Europe) to the Greek island is extremely risky, made more so by traveling in dingy smuggler boats and wearing cheap life-jackets.
Volunteers are not allowed to assist unless boats are sinking because helping people in the Turkish side of the sea could be construed as smuggling people into Greece. Lewis said keeping distant from such situations was the biggest ordeal. He narrated a horrifying incident that made an indelible impression in his mind.
"We realized 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,” he said. “Just seeing her face, that heartbreak.”
International human rights lawyer Julian Burnside said Lewis’s story was especially important on Australia Day, celebrated on Jan. 26. He criticized Australia’s attitude toward the “boat people” and called it a “matter of shame.”
"There could be few better instances of lifesaving than saving the lives of desperate refugees trying to get themselves to safety," he said. "One way all Australians can help save the lives of people like that is by adopting a more enlightened approach to boat people generally."
Rather than working out an agreement with Greece to relax the international water laws in light of the refugee crisis, Turkey instead launched a booming trade of fake life jackets responsible for the deaths of dozens of asylum seekers.
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