“Children never asked for this – that’s my motivation, simple.”
The Northern Ireland singer/songwriter flew to the Greek island of Lesbos in the winter of 2015. Leaving his wife and family back home, he felt compelled to offer what help he could.
In a documentary True North: The Crossing broadcast this week on BBC Northern Ireland – and available on iPlayer within the UK to watch on-demand until 29 November – Joby recalls his memory of the people in a boat arriving on the shores of Lesbos on his first evening in the resort island. A bag being passed to shore turned out to be a baby.
“These guys are risking everything, everything, for a better life. Take it easy on these guys. They’ve been through a lot … Show these people compassion for they’ve been through so much … Once you’re exposed to something like this, you feel responsible to these human beings … who need me.”
Joby realised that helping people on the shoreline ignored those who were drowning at sea and never reached land despite the relatively short crossing. His next step was to get a boat and a skilled rescue in place to join the existing rescue efforts off the Turkish coast.
Related post – 31 October 2017 – Sharp increase in number of arrivals at Greek islands
An anonymous benefactor provided a boat which was named Mo Chara (‘My Friend’ in Irish) and transported out to Greece within two weeks. Two lifeguards from Devon were joined by Rathlin Island Ferry skipper Michael Cecil to make up the first volunteer crew.
The skipper poignantly pointed out that in his job he normally ferries 70+ people in a modern two storey vessel between Ballycastle and Rathlin Island off the north east coast of Northern Ireland. In Lesbos that number of people could be found travelling a similar distance but crammed into a 30 foot rubber boat with a rubber floor, wearing inadequate lifejackets most likely filled with parcel packaging.
“Sixty people in the water would be a major emergency in the UK. Every helicopter available would be sent to it. Lifeboats would be sent to it. And it would be headline news all round the world for days and days. But it’s just a daily occurrence in Greece.”
Some traffickers drop migrants into the water off the Lesbos coast at night leaving them to swim to shore. Helmet-cam footage showed one of the lifeguards wading through the water to help a wet family stranded on rocks.
“It’s hard to imagine how traumatic and how bad things must have been for a father or a mother to put their children in a boat and take then across … it shows that there must be something driving them forward, making them do that, things must be so bad where they are that they have no choice to get out of it.”
The film captures the change as the EU started to put pressure on Turkey to block the routes to Europe and examines the role of the Greek coastguard and military who were providing border security rather than life saving, not informing rescue crews when people were in danger, and requiring 24 hours’ notice before Mo Chara could set out to sea, leaving the rescue crew to pick dead rather than living people out of the water.
Art curator Jude Bennett travelled out to Lesbos for a couple of weeks in solidarity with her old friend Joby. But she stayed much longer, directing the operations for the charity Refugee Rescue UK they formed, keeping the crew working within the legal framework, and raising money for fuel to keep Mo Chara at sea (€60 a night). She gradually realises that while those travelling are undergoing intense trauma, she too is being traumatised and affected by what she is seeing.
Visiting some of the overcrowded refugee camps on Lesbos, Joby questions where Christianity and goodwill are?
“It’s so easy to flick off the TV, shut the door and just forget about it all.”
The documentary ends with a statement that “the Mo Chara crew have been involved in saving more than 5,000 lives.”