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Italians are used to think about migrants who land in the Mediterranean area as if this phenomenon concerned only the Italian coast and weighted entirely on their shoulders. That is not the case and the Nansen Refugee Award of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) reminds us about it in 2016.

The award was won by a team of 2,000 volunteers involved in rescue operations at sea, credited with saving thousands of lives during the 2015 refugee crisis. They shared the award with a passionate activist for human rights – who has provided a safe haven for thousands of vulnerable refugees who arrived on the Greek coast -, Konstantinos Mitragas – on behalf of the Hellenic Rescue Team (HRT) -, and with Efi Latsoudi – from the “PIKPA village”, an area managed by the community and dedicated to the reception of refugees on the Greek island of Lesbos.

They were chosen for their hard work on the Greek coast during the 2015 refugee crisis: HRT volunteers for their tireless commitment to rescuing refugees and migrants at sea, and Efi Latsoudi for the dedication with which se assisted refugees and vulnerable migrants who reached the island of Lesbos.

This award celebrates volunteers’ work and the support and assistance provided by people in Europe and around the world over the past year. Many of these people continue to receive refugees in their communities, supporting them through their process of integration.

Over 850,000 people have arrived to Greece by sea in 2015; over 500,000 of them landed on the island of Lesbos. In October 2015, over 10,000 arrivals a day were registered on the island. Most of those people were fleeing the conflict in Syria, Afghanistan, and Iraq. In 2015, unfortunately, more than 270 people lost their lives in Greek territorial waters.

“Last year, hundreds of thousands of people fleeing conflict and persecution – said Filippo Grandi, the High Commissioner of UNHCR – made a desperate attempt to reach Europe, looking for safety. Many of them put their life at risk, crossing the sea on shaky boats and rafts, a fatal journey for many of them.

Both the Hellenic Rescue Team and Efi Latsoudi refused to remain the idle spectators of this tragic humanitarian emergency before their coasts, fully deserving the Nansen Refugee Award. Their efforts are emblematic of people’s reaction in Greece and in Europe towards the refugee crisis. Thousands have showed their solidarity, generosity, and humanity towards refugees around the world, opening their hearts and homes to them.”

At Lesbos, the Pikpa village offers a safe and friendly environment for particularly vulnerable refugees, including women who have lost their children during the journey, as well as adults and children with physical disabilities. Efi Latsoudi is one of the volunteers who transformed the former summer camp for children in a reception center for refugees in 2012, with the help of local authorities. Despite a capacity of 150 seats, the Pikpa village hosted up to 600 refugees a day and distributed over 2,000 meals a day.

Konstantinos Mitragas is a sea captain and secretary general of the Hellenic Rescue Team (HRT). He is a businessman from Thessaloniki who works in the trade. He stated: “2015 was the most difficult year our rescue team has ever faced. We lived through a nightmare. The most terrifying thing of all was the astonishing number of victims, many of whom were children.

“The Pikpa village was born from a dream – Efi Latsoudi, expert psychologist said –. We wanted to create a place where refugees could receive fair and decent treatment.” UNHCR appealed to governments around the world to work together and find common solutions to the current global refugee crisis through the #WithRefugees petition, which has been already signed by 700,000 people.

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