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EU Declares Freezing Conditions In Greek Refugee Camps 'Untenable'

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Here's the harsh reality for some refugees. Some parts of life have gotten harder since they fled. Just listen to Mohammad Mehdi (ph). He escaped religious persecution in Afghanistan. We reached him on his cell phone at a camp on the Greek island of Lesbos. People are packed in camps, living in flimsy tents, and it has snowed recently which reminds Mehdi of Kabul.

MOHAMMAD MEHDI: The difference of here and Kabul is that we have a roof there. So unfortunately, the air is too cold because we don't have a roof on us.

GREENE: No roof on Lesbos, but a roof in Kabul - though, Greek government officials do say they hope to get all refugees out of tents in the coming days. Now, Philippa Kempson lives on Lesbos.

PHILIPPA KEMPSON: There is 4,700 people living in this camp. Many of them are sick and getting sicker with flu and different infections because of the conditions.

GREENE: Tens of thousands of refugees have landed on the beach in front of Philippa Kempson's house the last couple years. She sees them from her window, and she told us what she saw just the day before.

KEMPSON: The weather conditions were awful. We had two boats. The first one arrived some time in the middle of the night containing 59 people and I think five children amongst them. They weren't spotted because it wasn't safe for our rescue teams to be out there, so they actually walked for hours before anyone found them.

GREENE: They were just walking along the shore of the island?

KEMPSON: Yeah, pretty much trying to find help. Thankfully, they were spotted by one of the local residents who alerted everybody. And they were given dry clothes to await the transportation to the detention center.

GREENE: And what do you do when you see one of these boats approaching the beach?

KEMPSON: Well, we've been doing this for two years because of where we live. We're - you can't take your child to school and drive past women and children on the beach freezing and crying, so we would go with whatever we could find. We gave away our own clothes, whatever food we could afford to buy.

As the conflict in Syria gained momentum, we went from one or two boats with 50 people and maybe a couple of kids every day to - in October 2015, there was 200 boats a day coming.

GREENE: Wow.

KEMPSON: The two boats we had yesterday were predominantly Iraqi people coming from Mosul and Syrians also. So every time there's a new conflict, these people have to go somewhere.

GREENE: When did you move to Lesbos?

KEMPSON: We moved in the spring of early 2000.

GREENE: And you moved there - I imagine...

KEMPSON: For a quiet life.

GREENE: ...Not thinking you would be...

KEMPSON: (Laughter) Yeah, we moved here with my daughter who was just a baby at the time. We just wanted a quiet, out of the rat race kind of life basically.

GREENE: Do you think about leaving and looking for a different quiet place ever?

KEMPSON: To be honest, we're going to have to leave eventually. I mean, we're staying at the moment because there is no one else here who is dealing with the refugees arriving, but we had to send our daughter back to the U.K. a year ago.

We're constantly under threats here by different groups who don't like what we've done. We've had many death threats. Yeah. It's not an easy place to live now.

GREENE: Why are they threatening you?

KEMPSON: They blame us for bringing the refugees. Apparently, if we didn't help them, they wouldn't come.

GREENE: Do you believe that in any way?

KEMPSON: Of course not, of course not. That - I mean, these people were fleeing anyway. It's just a case of we couldn't stand by and watch them drown.

GREENE: What needs to happen if anything is going to ease this crisis?

KEMPSON: I don't know the solution to this. But I know what doesn't work is making these people criminal, refusing to give them any sanctuary, even temporary. The rest of the world seems to treat this like some kind of plague they need to keep out instead of seeing it as humanity they need to help.

GREENE: Well, Philippa, thank you for talking to us. We really appreciate it and appreciate hearing the work that you're doing.

KEMPSON: OK. Thanks for listening.

GREENE: Philippa Kempson lives on Lesbos and helps refugees. We spoke via Skype. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.