Greece: From refugee life vest to sleeping aid

Piles of lifejackets on Greek island are testimony to an often harrowing journey made by thousands of refugees to Europe

Mads Damgaard Peterson (centre), a Danish volunteer, stands in front of a large mattress made from repurposed life-jackets at Moria refugee registration centre on Lesvos. Lifejacket foam is both comfy and insulates against the cold.  © UNHCR/Hereward Holland

LESVOS, Greece, Jan 14 (UNHCR) - Vast piles of lifejackets clogging the idyllic beaches of the Greek island of Lesvos are testimony to an often harrowing journey made by thousands of refugees and migrants crossing to Europe.

But now in an effort to salvage practical use from the growing eyesore, a small portion of the discarded life vests are being repurposed as insulated mattresses for refugees now facing a bone-chilling winter on dry land.

"We were seeing this enormous problem on the island with all the mess, at the same time as seeing all the refugees sleeping on the ground," said Mads Damgaard Peterson, a volunteer from Denmark who has given up his time to help refugees who reach the island after a sea crossing from Turkey.

Damgaard Peterson came up with the solution with fellow Danish volunteer Anezka Sokol: re-use the foam inside the life-vests to create insulated emergency sleeping mattresses.

"We were sitting on them because the ground was cold and we thought, 'let's make a mattress.' We had the cable ties already and in five minutes we had a product," Sokol says, picking up a dozen discarded life-jackets off the beach.

"It's a closed-cell material, that's why you can use it in a life-vest. It insulates pretty well because it's full of air."

Last year, more than one million refugees and migrants reached Europe by sea, while some 3,735 were missing, presumed drowned, at sea. Nearly half of all the arrivals made landfall on the pebbly beaches of Lesvos.

Most of the hundreds of thousands of lifejackets discarded by them ended up tossed on the municipal dump in Molevos, until the environmentally minded Danish volunteers had their big idea.

They made their first prototype by stringing three life vests together in a row. They made 20 and distributed them at the Moria refugee registration centre where the refugees often have to wait for several days.

"People are staying in tents and have nothing to lie on. It was -6 degrees centigrade the day after New Year's (day) and you just don't want to be on the ground," Sokol said.

The refugees were initially sceptical because the life jackets are a vivid reminder of their torturous journey across the sea, in which an average of ten perished every day in 2015.

The re-use of such mattresses was also a hygiene concern. The team are now prototyping an interlocking design that can be laid underneath the groundsheet of tents, creating a comfy, insulated, fire retardant sleeping surface that can also be wiped clean.

"Inside I'm a big, big environmentalist and it breaks my heart to see so many resources going to waste," says Sokol.

By Hereward Holland, Lesvos, Greece