A Perth woman who sends aid to refugees in Greece has told of her difficulties in shipping the charitable goods out post-Brexit.
For the last two years Suzanne Milne has regularly been visiting the former Moria refugee camp on the Greek island of Lesvos and filling shipping containers full of clothes, toiletries and medical supplies to send.
She has now set up a new collection point at Cash for Clothes in the Ladeside Business Centre, but has been warned she will be faced with “significantly” higher shipping and custom costs now the UK has left the European Union.
‘I need to do something more’, after experiencing the horrors of the refugee camps first hand
Suzanne Milne initially went out to do humanitarian work with the charity Attika Human Support two years ago and is now the charity’s UK coordinator.
She said: “Two years ago in February I went to Lesvos to do volunteering.
“I was only there for a short time but it was pretty dire.
“There were 8,000 people in the camp which was designed for 2,500 people, tops.
“We were distributing clothes, shoes, blankets and tents and when I came back to Scotland I thought ‘I need to do something more, I can’t switch off from that situation’.
“I started to collect clothes from people locally in April 2019 to send out a 40-foot container and a lot of businesses got involved to pay the £4,000 shipping costs and it went out in August 2019.
“On the day of loading that container we decided we would get another container sent in October 2019.
“After that Brexit didn’t happen but people were still messaging me on a daily basis to collect clothes for the refugees so we sent out a third container in February 2020 and I went back out to Lesvos for it arriving.
“But when I went back to Lesvos the situation had changed drastically.
“There were 26,000 refugees on the island by that point and it turned out to be a very difficult experience because there was a lot of unrest and riots happening between the local people and the Greek government.
“The container was delayed and didn’t arrive until after I had left.
“I didn’t do a lot in the summer because I needed to decompress, it was very intense, but I did another appeal and sent out a container in October.”
There is still a huge need to help refugees in Greece, says Suzanne
There are still 8,000 refugees in Lesvos and 16,000 across the Greek islands, including some tourist destinations.
There are a further 35,000 in Athens and 45,000 across the rest of mainland Greece.
It is thought more than one third of all refugees in Greece are children, and seven out of 10 of those are under the age of 12, including some unaccompanied minors.”
A fast-track asylum scheme has been introduced by Greek authorities but Suzanne said this means refugees have to leave the camp and, without enough cash to live on, end up sleeping rough.
“When someone claims asylum the European Union gives them a payment of €75 a month however as soon as the asylum application is accepted that help stops and they have to vacate the camp,” Suzanne said.
“There is zero government support or help from Europe at that point, which is why so many people end up on the streets.
“Since I was there last year boats coming to Greece are being illegally pushed back.
“Between Turkey and the island of Lesvos there is four miles of water – two miles from Turkey is Turkish waters, and two miles from Lesvos is European waters.
“So if someone gets on a boat and gets 2.1 miles in, they are in European waters and can claim asylum.
“These people are fleeing war and political and religious prejudices and need safety from what they are experiencing in their own countries.
“The numbers are smaller, but they are still coming.”
Lack of clarity on sending charitable goods post-Brexit
Suzanne is trying to get another container full of aid out to Lesvos in the next couple of months, but this will be the first one she has sent since Brexit.
She doesn’t know exactly what to expect, but has been told shipping and customs fees could be several thousands of pounds more than what she paid before.
She said: “I didn’t know what would happen with Brexit and I didn’t know how feasible it was to send another container after Brexit.
“But lots of people had a clear out after Christmas and donated even more clothes.
“When I called the shipping company to find out, I was the first person this year asking for information like this so they didn’t know.
“But the cost has increased by thousands of pounds.
“My last container cost £7,000 because I had to purchase the actual container as well as pay for shipping because Greece is in lockdown and there are not enough volunteers there to unload the container.
“I had to purchase it and leave it there but it is also very difficult to find space on ships for containers and the custom charges could be several thousands of pounds as well.
“There are not many shipping containers for sale in the UK at the moment and I need to be able to buy one and leave it on the island because of Covid-19 restrictions.
“Space on the ships is also limited so charges are at a high rate for that premium.
“I am still waiting for confirmation of the actual costs to ship it but it will be significantly higher.
“When the containers previously arrived on the island anything that needed to be paid was covered in the cost of shipping but I don’t want the charity to be hit with a bill of several thousands of pounds to get the container out of the port.
“The UK doesn’t have specific things in place for this post-Brexit and I am struggling to find answers.”
A spokesman for the UK Government said: “Customs duty will not be owed on humanitarian goods because both the EU and the UK provide relief on these items.
“However, customs procedures will still need to be followed in order to move them.
“The procedures involved depend on the destination of the goods so charities should check with the relevant member state or read the guidance they have published online.”
New collection point set up at Cash for Clothes in Perth
In the past week Suzanne has managed to set up a new donation collection point at Cash for Clothes in the Ladeside Business Centre.
Residents can now drop off clothes at the depot on St Catherine’s Road, and once there is enough donations they will be shipping out to the Greek islands.
Suzanne said: “The physical aid is vital because these people have nothing and last September the Moria camp burnt to the ground.
“The government has since created a temporary camp but the conditions there are absolutely horrendous.
“Attika has a general principle of not going into the camp to do the mass distributions because they don’t want to support the inhumane operations in the camp.
“There have been two fires in the new camp, children as young as six are attempting suicide and people have frozen to death in recent weeks.
“The aid is still going directly to the camp, but the charity is not in the camp, they are working alongside the people who are.
“Cash for Clothes asked where I was getting the clothes from and then said they were interested in setting up a dedicated space at their depot for people who want to donate anything that would otherwise go to the skip.
“That is really beneficial just now, especially as charity shops are closed right now in lockdown.
“It is such a generous gesture from Cash for Clothes.”