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Volunteer tells of desperate and 'chaotic' conditions for refugees

Published 24/12/2015

Yazidi refugees from Iraq who arrived on Lesbos and reached the Greek-Macedonian border (AP)
Yazidi refugees from Iraq who arrived on Lesbos and reached the Greek-Macedonian border (AP)

A volunteer who helped refugees on two self-organised trips has described the desperate plight of hundreds of men, women and children as they sat cold and hungry in open fields on a torrid trek across Europe.

The sight of bewildered-looking refugees in "chaotic" makeshift camps was hellish, Gillian Seely said.

More than 60 million people have been forced from their homes, many seeking refuge in Europe, in what has been described by the United Nations as the biggest refugee and migration crisis since the Second World War.

Seeing the crisis up close was overwhelming, said Ms Seely.

"I think everyone (the volunteers) had the same feeling of being overwhelmed. It's like nowhere you'll have been before," said the 31-year-old American who lives in London.

"There's human waste everywhere, people wandering around, it's chaotic, kids are screaming - at times it felt like hell."

Like so many others, she was moved by the image of the body of three-year-old Syrian Alan Kurdi washed up on the shore of a Turkish beach.

While the shocking sight prompted global outrage and charity appeals, Ms Seely, a director of marketing at education company Pearson, and some colleagues decided to take action themselves by raising funds, loading up a van and driving to mainland Europe to hand out supplies.

They were shocked to be turned away from the Spielfeld camp in Austria in October, having been told by police they could not leave the clothing supplies they had brought.

Determined to make the trip worthwhile they drove to Slovenia, towards the border with Croatia, and were met by a shocking sight as refugees sat in a field without shelter.

"It was the first time we really had contact with groups of refugees," said Ms Seely.

"It wasn't like a camp, more like a pause in the journey - for people who couldn't keep up."

The group emptied the van, handing out clothes, and then restocked with food at the local shops.

They also visited Brezice camp, handing the supplies to people they suspected had not eaten in days.

She said: "We fed maybe 1,000 people in six hours."

The experience motivated her to make another trip. This time she and a few others spent five days on the island of Lesbos at Moria, a former prison which now acts as a registration point for thousands of refugees who have made the often-treacherous journey from Turkey.

Many arrive "soaking wet, straight off the boat", she said, and can be there for days as they wait to be formally registered before travelling on to Greece.

In such a difficult situation volunteers discovered skills they did not previously know they had.

Ms Seely said: "I found out I was really good at crowd control. I ended up being a line warden. It was generally OK, if you made eye contact with people and reassured them you were there to help."

Referencing criticism from some quarters of people continuing to make the perilous journey between Turkey and Lesbos, Ms Seely said: "People wonder why families make that journey from Turkey - but those I met told me staying there is simply not an option. It's not safe. If the police find you they will send you back to where you came from.

"And you can see Lesbos from the shore, it looks so achievable."

With the crisis showing little sign of abating Ms Seely is already planning another trip, this time with her husband Eric.

"It takes some time to adjust when you come back (to the UK)," she said. "You can't just forget what you saw. Help is still needed so we will go where we can to offer that help."

To make a donation towards the next trip visit https://www.gofundme.com/2heufw5g.

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