Greek volunteers share UN refugee award


More than 2,000 sea rescue volunteers, who last year saved thousands trying to cross the Mediterranean to Europe, have won the annual Nansen prize, the UN refugee agency announced Tuesday.

The Hellenic Rescue Team (HRT) will share the prestigious award with Efi Latsoudi, a human rights activist on Lesvos who helped provide a safe haven to thousands of refugees on the Greek island, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees said.

HRT, represented by Konstantinos Mitragas, and Latsoudi, a volunteer at PIKPA village, “were both chosen for their tireless volunteer work during the 2015 refugee crisis on Greece’s shores,” UNHCR said.

It hailed HRT “for their round-the-clock efforts to save refugees and migrants in distress from the sea,” and Latsoudi “for her compassion and care for the most vulnerable refugees and migrants arriving on the island of Lesvos.”

More than 850,000 people – most of them fleeing conflict in war-ravaged Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan – arrived on the Greek islands last year alone after often risking their lives on unseaworthy boats and dinghies.

Around 500,000 landed on Lesvos, which at the height of the 2015 crisis saw more than 10,000 arrivals per day.

Nearly 800 people died or went missing trying to make the perilous crossing from Turkey to Greece last year, UN data shows.

“Both the Hellenic Rescue Team and Efi Latsoudi refused to stand by as they witnessed the dramatic humanitarian situation unfolding on their shores,” UN refugee chief Filippo Grandi said in a statement.

Volunteers with HRT last year carried out 1,035 rescues, saving 2,500 lives, and assisting more than 7,000 people to safety.

“We lived absolute horror. There were many casualties, among them many children, which is the thing that affects you most,” Mitragas said in the statement.

On Lesvos, PIKPA village meanwhile welcomed the most vulnerable refugees, including women who had lost their children during the crossing and people with physical disabilities. Latsoudi, a trained psychologist and human rights activist, was one of the volunteers who helped local authorities transform the former children's summer camp into a refugee haven.

During the peak of the crisis, PIKPA, which had the capacity to take in 150 people, was hosting some 600 refugees daily and distributing more than 2,000 meals.

“For me supporting refugees is not something exceptional, it's something that we have to do,” Latsoudi said in the statement.

The Nansen award was created in 1954 in honour of the first UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Norwegian Arctic explorer and humanitarian Fridtjof Nansen, to mark outstanding work on behalf of refugees.

HRT and Latsoudi will each receive $75,000 (67,000 euros) in prize money – to use to fund a project that compliments their existing work – at a ceremony in Geneva on October 3.