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NI charity Refugee Rescue suspends work in Greek waters

Founder says Greek waters are too dangerous for its volunteers

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Refugee Rescue in action on the Greek island of Lesvos

Refugee Rescue in action on the Greek island of Lesvos

Mission on hold: Jude Bennett

Mission on hold: Jude Bennett

Refugee Rescue in action on the Greek island of Lesvos

After five years of saving the lives of refugees crossing the Aegean Sea off the coast of Greece, a Northern Ireland charity been forced to call a halt to its humanitarian operations.

Since 2015, Refugee Rescue has carried out its lifesaving missions along the North Shore of Lesvos, but the charity said the situation has now become too dangerous for it to continue.

Refugee Rescue was founded after artist Jude Bennett and musician Joby Fox travelled to the Greek island to help after shocking images of a three-year-old Syrian boy - Aylan Kurd, who drowned attempting to reach Greece - made global headlines.

With the support of people from Northern Ireland they launched a rescue boat, Mo Chara, and put together an international team of skilled search and rescue volunteers. To date over 15,000 people have been saved at sea and thousands more on the shore.

"It's incredibly frustrating, but the truth is it was becoming far too dangerous for us to operate and ensure the safety of our volunteers," said Jude, who hopes the current ending of operations will be temporary.

"The rising criminalisation of humanitarian organisations in Lesvos and the growing hostilities now pose a very real threat to our staff, assets and work - and we can not in good conscience continue to operate if we cannot guarantee the safety of our team.

"We have faced a number of challenges in the past five years but the hardline stance of the Greek authorities have made our mission impossible to pursue.

"Our decision to suspend operations for the foreseeable future does not in any way mean that search and rescue is not still urgently needed," she said.

"In fact, human rights violations have only intensified - from authorities leaving people stranded at sea for hours, to illegal pushbacks on Greek waters - which have all made the journey from Turkey to Greece more perilous than ever for those seeking refuge.

"The record low number of arrivals to the North Shore recently signals that people are being forcibly prevented from exercising their right to seek asylum. It deeply saddens us that we are unable to operate where independent search and rescue is desperately needed."

Jude said Refugee Rescue will now take time to consider its next step. "We had taken some time at the start of the year to reassess and we now have a new engine on the boat. We were ready to start operations again when Covid-19 hit, but we can't do anything at a time when we're needed most," she said.

"We have unique search and rescue skills and are looking into how they might be deployed elsewhere. Through their support for our work the people of Northern Ireland have saved thousands of lives. This is not goodbye. We will commit to monitor the situation closely."

Belfast Telegraph