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Visiting the Northern Greece refugee camps with Tim Farron

April 18, 2016 5:12 PM
By Vinous Ali in Liberal Democrat Voice

Northern GreeceOn Monday last week I flew out to Greece with Tim ahead of his visit to the camps in the North on Tuesday. Hours earlier UNHCR informed us they would no longer be able to facilitate the visit of a 'high-profile' individual given the security concerns after the clashes the day before. I tried desperately to reassure them that it was not exactly a 'high profile' visit, there would be no security team, huddle of staff and no media crew following him around- something that I don't think they really believed.

So we flew into Greece with 'fluid' plans let's say.

I spent Monday night manically emailing all the contacts I had working in the field to see if we could line up briefings for Tim the next day and had a surprising response. Everyone was very keen to meet Tim to tell him what they were doing and what they needed from the UK Government. One organisation who wasn't even currently in Idomeni, the informal camp we visited on Tuesday morning, came over especially to give Tim and an overview of what was happening on the ground day in, day out.

The truth is, for the refugees not a lot does happen. Boredom and a lack of hope pervade the air. Families just wait - for food distributions, in hour long queues to use the showers, for borders to open and for Europe to act. As an Arabic-speaker I was able to translate for Tim giving him the opportunity to speak directly to those families who didn't speak very good English - although many were able to tell Tim themselves. We met a teacher, a mechanical engineer and others from professional backgrounds - all of whom fled Syria with their families to give themselves a chance to live and prosper. And here they were languishing in a camp on the borders of Greece.

The most heart-breaking thing I heard was from a mother who asked me "do people know we are here? Is the news reporting it?" She was convinced that if only people knew that this was happening on their doorstep then surely they would be putting pressure on their governments to do more. When I told her that yes this was on the news almost every day you could see the confusion set on her face.

Tim told everyone he met that he would go back and tell everyone their stories and dispel the myth that the camps were full of young, male, economic migrants. They exist - it would be wrong to deny that, but the vast majority of those we saw were families, often with young children.

Waiting for the flight back to the UK it was clear that Tim was trying to gather his thoughts, figure out how to make a positive difference and get people and politicians in the UK to see these people for who they really are - desperate individuals who have taken desperate measures to try and regain some dignity and security. I know he will keep raising awareness about the issue and pressuring the Government to do more - not only for those in the region but for the 50,000 trapped in Greece.

Editor's Note: Vinous didn't tell me this, but a quick glance at her Twitter account told me that she's decided to run the London Marathon to raise money for UNHCR (the UN High Commission for Refugees). If you would like to support her in this valiant endeavour, you can do so here. Good luck, Vinous. We'll all be rooting for you!

* Vinous Ali advises the Liberal Democrats on Home Affairs, Justice and Equalities