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Rescue workers say they cannot help people cross international borders

Australian lifeguard says his team was helpless as 31 people drowned on far side of EU border

"As a lifeguard, you want to help everyone," rescue worker says

CNN  — 

On one recent and frightening day, two boats maneuvered close to each other in the Aegean Sea.

In one boat stood a mother, holding her baby. In the other stood an Australian volunteer lifeguard named Simon Lewis.

The mother, desperate, wanted to throw her baby the 15 feet or so to Lewis – maybe to guarantee the infant had a better life, or maybe just to ensure the child survived the crossing.

The migrants were trying to get to the Greek island of Lesbos from Turkey, thereby reaching the European Union.

And here was the problem: If Lewis caught and took the baby back to Lesbos, he knew, he could be charged with people smuggling, even though the mother and child had already crossed into Greek waters.

So, unable to help, he put distance between his boat and the other, telling the mother no.

“And she looked at me like that,” Lewis told CNN, indicating with two fingers a direct gaze. “Those eyes. And you know, she stared me down, and I will never forget that moment. We broke this poor lady’s heart – I broke this poor lady’s heart. You know, not receiving her baby in the middle of the Aegean Sea.”

‘As a lifeguard, you want to help everybody’

That experience is part and parcel of lifesaving efforts in the Mediterranean these days as the conflict in Syria and poverty in North Africa drive more and more families to try to reach EU soil.

Migrants arrive on the Greek island of Lesbos after crossing the Aegean Sea.

With borderless travel among most EU countries, getting one foot onto the beach can end up meaning permanent residence nearly anywhere in the 28-member union.

According to maritime law, refugees must cross borders under their own power, and volunteers who help them cross a border can be charged with people smuggling. Even helping a boat inside Greek waters, if that boat is not in imminent danger, can be legally risky.

The issue of helping people on the far side of the EU border can hamper rescue efforts of all sorts – although if people are actually in the water and in trouble, rescuers are then allowed to help.

Lewis, who was among a team of Australian lifeguards who were helping overstretched and exhausted Greek rescue workers, said if a boat was in trouble outside EU waters, his team could not touch it, much less attach a rope to it and tow it to safety in Greece.

He and his team knew at one point that a particular boat headed their way was in trouble in Turkish waters, and the team prepared to receive it. But the boat never made it out of Turkish waters, he said. Out of Lewis’ sight over the horizon, 31 people drowned as his team waited on the Greek side of the border.

And it hurt.

“As a lifeguard, you want to help everybody,” he said. “It’s your job – your job is to kind of look at everybody the same, irrespective of their language, their race, their religion or creed.”

‘They say everything in their eyes’

He saw migrants who made it to Greek soil as well – and in Greek waters, he and his team helped guide people to safe landing spots and away from hazardous places where they might yet drown, so close to their goal.

Often those who made it wept.

“You know, they say everything in their eyes,” Lewis said. “They can’t verbalize it because they’ve got so many mixed emotions going on.

“And they’re just like, ‘I’m here! I’ve landed! I’m free!’ You know, ‘We’ve actually made that journey!’

“And they start crying,” Lewis said. “And they start realizing that, ‘I’m not going to get bombed.’ It’s hard to put it into a context of words that would have any meaning unless you’ve seen it with your own eyes.”