THREE firefighters from Sevilla have been arrested on the Greek island of Lesbos whilst helping Syrian refugees, accused of trafficking illegal immigrants.
The Spaniards are one of several teams of volunteers for the charity PROEM-AID, set up to help displaced Syrians fleeing the war in their home country in response to the photo of the toddler Aylan who was pictured drowned in the sea off the Turkish coast as his family attempted to make their way to a safe haven on a mafia-run, overcrowded craft.
One of the founders of the Spanish charity, José Pastor, said the three firefighters – two working for Sevilla city council's brigade and one for the provincial authorities – had only arrived in Lesbos two weeks ago, and were working with three others of the same nationality helping refugees who had made it to the island by boat.
They were due to be relieved of their duties this coming Sunday and to return home to Sevilla, where they would resume their regular jobs.
The Spanish embassy in Greece says the men are being held in a port authority cell waiting to appear before a judge, having been arrested by the Greek coastguard.
“What amazes us most is that we have a good relationship with the coastguard here – sometimes they call us and we work together as a team with them, as we did on Tuesday when they took care of one arriving boat and called us to deal with another,” said a confused José Pastor.
“And then this morning they go and arrest us. That was like a kick in the teeth, because we're doing a very crucial job here.
“The 12 of us, mostly firefighters and lifeboat crew, work on rescuing boats in trouble and accompanying others on the final leg of their journey to the coast to give them at least a minimum level of safety.”
PROEM-AID started their work in Lesbos on December 3, splitting themselves into two teams of six working on two-week shifts.
They work in groups of three, with one group going out to sea by lifeboat and another waiting on dry land to help the refugees when they reach the shore.
“In December alone, our lifeboat has accompanied and given safety support to crafts in which nearly 15,000 people in total were travelling,” Pastor reveals.
“We've carried out direct rescues, of boats cast adrift because they have run out of fuel or lost their way in the night – those have involved nearly 3,200 people.
“What we see in Lesbos is the migration of an entire community, almost as though the population of Spain had to flee to Morocco in boat – entire families, numerous children, babies in every boat, and boats overloaded with 60 or 70 people on board.
“Although we only intended to stay for a month, because we did not have the resources to continue for longer, we have managed to raise funds to allow us to carry on working in Lesbos throughout January, too.”
The charity founder says they are relying entirely on donations and on their own personal money, and use up their annual leave to go out to the Greek island or swap shifts with their colleagues in Sevilla to give them extra days.
“It's costing us money to be here, because I've stopped thinking about what I haven't got or what I need – I only now think about the faces of the people we've helped in Lesbos,” Pastor admits.
“I've seen families, children, university graduates, the elderly. Entire families,” he concludes.
Photograph by the charity PROEM-AID