Migrant crisis: Greek volunteers welcome Nobel nomination

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Volunteers help a woman who arrived on a dinghy with other migrants and refugees from the Turkish coast to the Greek island of Lesbos, on Tuesday, Jan. 26, 2016.Image source, AP
Image caption,
Volunteers are crucial to helping rescue migrants and refugees as they arrive on the islands

The leader of a volunteer group for refugees on the Greek island of Kos has welcomed news that islanders have been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize.

George Chertofilis, the president of the Kos Solidarity Group, said a win would "give meaning to the work we do".

Kos Solidarity is one of 16 volunteer groups from the Aegean Islands nominated on Sunday for the award.

They were nominated by more than 230 academics from universities including Oxford, Harvard, and Princeton.

In a private letter to the Nobel committee, shared with the BBC, the academics praised the islanders for responding to the crisis "with overwhelming empathy and self-sacrifice".

"They fundraised; opened their homes; dove into treacherous waters to save lives; took care of the sick and the injured; shared a meal or their garments with new arrivals," the letter reads.

It adds: "Despite persistent constraints and the continuous institutional inability to respond to this challenge in a respectful and efficient way, the nominees provide an example of possibility for action in the darkest of times and with the most limited of means."

Mr Chertofilis, a physics teacher on Kos, said the prize would be "a nice thing for individuals of course, but more importantly for the ideal of peace and solidarity".

"Ultimately we are not doing this for a prize, we are doing it because we are human beings and we must do everything we can to help each other," he said.

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According to the nomination letter, the prize money in the event of a win would be used to fund healthcare on the islands. Three unnamed volunteers have been chosen who would travel to Norway to collect the award.

In order to make the volunteer groups eligible for the prize, which states that only individuals or organisations can be nominated, they were joined in an umbrella network called the Aegean Solidarity Movement.

The network was pieced together by Avaaz, a grassroots campaign group that coordinated the nomination. More than 630,000 people have signed a petition on the Avaaz website to show their support.

Sam Barratt, a spokesman for Avaaz, said the campaign group worked closely with the Nobel committee to ensure that the network complied with the prize rules. He was keen to stress that the 16 groups included in the nomination represent many smaller groups and individuals who have given up their time to offer support to refugees and migrants.

Image source, AP
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Among the items carried by the volunteers are thermal blankets for those coming in from the water

Among the signatories of the nomination are Nobel Laureate Economist Sir Christopher Pisaridis, Professor Margaret MacMillan from Oxford University, and Professor Anthony Giddens from the London School of Economics.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu has also lent his name to the cause. He said: "Just imagine 900,000 visitors in desperate need arriving at the door of your reasonably modest establishment. Hungry, exhausted and in a state of acute emotional distress.

"They don't speak the same language as you or ascribe to the same cultural or religious beliefs. What do you do? You open the door. Incredible!"

More than 800,000 refugees and migrants arrived in Greece last year via the Aegean — over 80% of all those who arrived in Europe by sea — but authorities on the small Greek islands where many landed were overwhelmed by the numbers.

Volunteers stepped in to fill the gap, pulling stricken families from the sea, clothing, feeding and in some cases opening their homes to those in need. Mr Chertofilis continues to volunteer several days a week, patrolling the beaches at night in shifts, armed with warm clothes, shoes, and snacks.

"The prize would be a nice thing for the people of these islands, many of whom have helped," he said. "But we are doing this because we don't like to see people suffer."