Lifeguard carried babies to safety in Aegean rock rescues
A British lifeguard who volunteered to help rescue migrants and refugees in the Aegean Sea has spoken of the harrowing moment he lifted month-old babies to safety and reassured their mothers they were alive.
Richard Heard, 32, from Hartland, Devon, has completed three missions to the Greek island of Lesbos to save lives on what he calls "the front line" of Europe's migration crisis, with hundreds attempting the crossing from Turkey to Greece every week.
The lifeguard dedicated around 14 weeks last year, initially going out at the beginning of 2016, returning in May to the south of the island and completing a two-month stint further north in Skala Sikamineas.
As team leader on an old RNLI lifeboat, he has spent the time on call 24/7 responding to distress alerts and saving between 50-60 people at a time from 10m inflatable dinghies he describes as "incredibly unsafe, incredibly unfit for the sea".
But more recently, the Refugee Rescue team have been conducting "rock rescues" - which involves patrolling secluded coves on the Lesbos coastline for small groups smuggled across in speedboats that stealthily zig-zag the usually-short route under the cover of darkness to avoid the authorities.
"Then they drop the refugees - if they're lucky - on to a nice sandy beach, but more often than not they just throw them in the water near the rocks and let the refugees swim the last few metres to Europe," he told the Press Association.
"As soon as we find refugees we would then go through the tasks of having to get them, half the time back off the land because they're stuck in secluded coves.
"They throw them in really nasty places and the reason is these places are quiet, the authority's boats can't come in close to catch them, so it's very, very dangerous for the refugees, especially at this time of year when it's getting very cold."
He added: "I was having to carry babies that were months old back into the water and out to the boat, numerous times.
"Sometimes in the dark, sometimes in daylight, freezing cold, and, as you can imagine, these people have just been through a massive ordeal, dropped on a strange coastline in the dark, their luggage, their phone - everything they own is either gone or soaked.
"They're stranded and we are the first faces they see. The mothers are asking me if their babies are alive, if their babies are OK. Half of them think I am the authority and am going to send them back to Turkey.
"It's a huge ordeal reassuring them, calming them down, getting them to trust you."
The 7.5-metre metre boat called Mo Chara ("my friend" in Gaelic), has helped nearly 3,500 people to safety, working alongside another NGO Proactiva, the Hellenic coastguard, the EU border agency Frontex and Nato warships.
While many of the refugees the crew encountered were wearing life jackets, Mr Heard said these were fake, stuffed with foam packaging that soaks up sea water and loses its buoyancy within minutes.
He said the migrants would buy them on market stalls in coastal towns after parting with thousands of pounds for a ticket to take them to Europe - "another part of the atrocity that people are taking advantage of and cashing in on".
"Every single boat or smuggler drop that we assisted there would be a good percentage of vulnerable people on them, whether they're elderly, disabled or injured, and every single boat would have infants or kids, families with children or tiny babies," he recalled.
"These dinghies are incredibly unsafe, incredibly unfit for the sea, and they are one of the main causes for the horrendous scenes we've seen - the drowning kids - these dinghies capsize, they become overwhelmed, deflate, their engines come off.
"In a nutshell, the thing that gets me now is screaming, crying babies and women and children. If I hear that on television, if I think about it, it's not very nice. Pretty much every boat that we met had screaming kids."