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Greek volunteers win Nansen Refugee Award for helping vulnerable refugees

Konstantinos Mitragas on behalf of the Hellenic Rescue Team (HRT) made up of some 2,000 volunteers and Efi Latsoudi, the human rights activist behind “PIKPA village” on the Greek island of Lesvos, are joint winners of UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR)’s Nansen Refugee Award 2016.

Efi Latsoudi at PIKPA camp on the Greek island of Lesvos. ©UNHCR/Gordon Welters
Efi Latsoudi at PIKPA camp on the Greek island of Lesvos. ©UNHCR/Gordon Welters

UNHCR said the HRT were awarded for their round-the-clock efforts to save refugees and migrants in distress from the sea while Efi Latsoudi was awarded for her compassion and care for the most vulnerable refugees and migrants arriving on the island of Lesvos.

The Nansen Refugee Award is given annually to an individual or an organization in recognition of extraordinary and dedicated service to refugees and is the most prestigious honour conferred by UNHCR. The award consists of a commemorative medal and a US$100,000 monetary prize donated by the governments of Norway and Switzerland.

UNHCR High Commissioner Filippo Grandi said: “Hundreds of thousands of people fleeing conflict and persecution last year made the desperate bid to reach Europe in search of safety, many risking their lives in unseaworthy boats and dinghies, in a journey which all too often proved insurmountable.

“Both the Hellenic Rescue Team and Efi Latsoudi refused to stand by as they witnessed the dramatic humanitarian situation unfolding on their shores, and are fully deserving of the Nansen Refugee Award. Their efforts characterize the massive public response to the refugee and migrant emergency in Greece and across Europe, in which thousands of people stood in solidarity with those forced to flee, and the humanity and generosity of communities around the world who open their hearts and homes to refugees.”

The HRT, made up of more than 2,000 volunteers, has been rescuing people from the Aegean Sea and Greek mountains since 1978.

Konstantinos Mitragas (centre) on a training exercise with fellow HRT volunteers Antigoni (left) and Panagiotis (right). ©UNHCR/Gordon Welters
Konstantinos Mitragas (centre) on a training exercise with fellow HRT volunteers Antigoni (left) and Panagiotis (right). ©UNHCR/Gordon Welters

The volunteers worked 24 hours a day in 2015, responding to endless rescue calls in the middle of the night. During this time they undertook 1,035 rescue operations, saving 2,500 lives, and assisted more than 7,000 people to safety.

On Lesvos, PIKPA village provides a safe and welcoming environment on the island for particularly vulnerable refugees including women who had lost their children during the crossing and adults and children with physical disabilities.

Efi Latsoudi is one of the volunteers who in 2012 transformed the former children’s summer camp into a refugee haven with the help of local authorities. PIKPA has hosted up to 600 refugees a day, despite a capacity of just 150, and distributed over 2,000 meals each day.

UNHCR High Commissioner Filippo Grandi
UNHCR High Commissioner Filippo Grandi

Konstantinos Mitragas, a sea captain and The Hellenic Rescue Team’s (HRT) secretary-general, is a Thessaloniki businessman by trade. He said: “2015 was the most difficult year that we have ever faced as a rescue team. We lived absolute horror. There were many casualties, among them many children, which is the thing that affects you most.

“I believe it’s something in your heart that moves you and makes you volunteer and I can say our volunteers are heroes. No matter where someone comes from, or their religion, as a rescue organization we have to be there. We have to be united in periods of crisis.”

Efi Latsoudi, a trained psychologist and human rights activist, is a driving force behind PIKPA village. She said: “PIKPA started as a dream – a place where refugees would receive fair and decent treatment. Our idea of PIKPA village is a community of people; volunteers and refugees are part of this community.

“For me supporting refugees is not something exceptional, it’s something that we have to do.  I think the reason that Greek and international volunteers come to the island every day has to do with solidarity. I think this is something that comes in our blood.  There is a face of Europe that is very human and it’s amazing. It can do miracles and this is a miracle.”

The 2016 ceremony will be held on 3rd October in Geneva, Switzerland. Speakers and performers at the event will include Senegalese singer, Baaba Maal; World Poetry Slam Champion of 2015, Emi Mahmoud; professional dance collaboration, the Grey People, and Lyse Doucet, the BBC’s Chief International Correspondent.