A Melbourne lifesaver has spoken of his first-hand dealings with desperate asylum seekers making the perilous journey by sea from Turkey to Greece.
By
SBS Staff

25 Jan 2016 - 7:59 AM  UPDATED 25 Jan 2016 - 10:46 AM

Simon Lewis is the captain of the St Kilda Surf Lifesaving Club in Melbourne.

But after he was confronted by images of children who had drowned trying to reach Europe he was inspired to act.

Mr Lewis spent ten days this month on the treacherous waters between Turkey and the Greek island of Lesbos.

"On day one, within the first hour of being on the beach, we had a boat of 200 refugees," he said.  “It was a real baptism of fire."

He and his international team quickly formed a human chain to help the occupants.

"Holding a child, seeing its scared-and-crying face, and passing it on to the Norwegian, the German, the French and other volunteers - it was like the international community just coming together."

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*hums Baywatch theme* I'll be there, I'll be theeeere.

But he also saw the dark side of humanity in the form of unscrupulous people smugglers.

People were equipped with poorly-built boats and fake lifejackets, often filled with little more than bubble-wrap plastic and straw.

"They make it in-house for about a dollar and they sell it for $500," Mr Lewis said.

In the first three weeks of this year, at least 113 people have died trying to make the sea crossing.

But for rescue teams it's not just a case of rushing to the aid of the desperate at sea. They must be conscious of international law, under which lifesavers themselves can be accused of people smuggling if they help occupants of boats that aren't sinking.

Mr Lewis said they were only allowed to assist when instructed to do so by Greek authorities. This led to a heart wrenching encounter with a mother who tried to throw her baby to him as their vessel approached his dinghy.

"We were very close to the boat and we had to pull away and put some distance between us and her and break her heart because we couldn't accept the baby," Mr Lewis said.

But when safely escorted to dry land, language proved no barrier to expressions of gratitude.

"Having had that experience of people saying ‘thank you’ just with their eyes has forever changed me."

That's left the 32-year-old with plenty to contemplate in the middle of an Australian summer - a world away from the harsh, wintery waters of the Aegean.