According to a report published by the UN’s refugee agency, the number of people forcibly displaced worldwide has almost doubled in the past 10 years to 100 million, the highest figure on record. The statistics alone are shocking enough, but behind every number are countless desperate stories of individuals driven to flee their homes only to become victims of exploitation, human trafficking, and modern slavery.
Chartered accountant Sarah Crowhurst was so moved by the plight of refugees, after witnessing first-hand the desperate situation they faced in Greece, that her family, including two children aged 11 and 13, have moved to Athens to provide permanent support.
“Our first trip out to Athens was in 2016 and I remember coming out of one place in tears,” Sarah explains. “We were volunteering with a church helping refugees in a disused hospital in the centre of Athens. When you see the conditions these people live in – in some derelict building, with their children, reliant on people bringing them food – it’s heart-wrenching.”
The Crowhursts subsequently spent four weeks volunteering at a refugee camp on the edge of Athens. While the conditions there marked a distinct step up from the squalor of a disused hospital, it was the lack of humanity that upset Sarah the most. “The camp is miles from anywhere. One family we got to know quite well over those four weeks said to me: ‘They feed us, they’ve given us shelter, but we just feel like animals because we’ve got no purpose, we can’t do anything.’”
Sarah was also acutely conscious of the frustration caused by the transient help offered by visiting volunteers. “There are lots of volunteers who do amazing work, but most people are only there short term. We really felt there was a need for people who’d be willing to come and stay with a desire to support people on an ongoing basis.”
That trip was to mark a turning point for the family. “I always felt, after that four-week trip, that we’d left a piece of our heart in Athens,” Sarah explains. “At that point, as a family we knew we wanted to come and stay, so then it was just a case of working out the logistics of doing it.”
The family moved to Athens in July 2020. The ability to work remotely – thanks largely to COVID-19 lockdowns – has certainly oiled the logistical cogs. Sarah stepped down from her job as the chief executive of a homeless charity partnership and now works as an international tax and business planning consultant on a project basis, to fund her voluntary work. Her husband works remotely part-time as an urban designer for a local authority in the UK.
While there is no shortage of charities providing practical social action such as food and hygiene bags, and serving meals, the Crowhursts are focusing their energies on providing dignity, purpose and community to refugees, many of whom are struggling with the trauma of isolation. “Some of the guys we’ve got to know are stranded, separated from their wives who they haven’t seen for five years. Their kids have ended up in different northern European countries. We’re meeting people on a regular basis, having coffee, having them over for dinner, inviting them into our lives. We’re trying to be like family and give honour to people who are stranded in a country they know doesn’t really want them and who feel like nobody cares about them.”
The combination of not feeling welcome and the absence of jobs means that most refugees don’t see a future in Greece. “They may well have papers to stay, but they don’t see a future or hope.”
Sarah is involved with a team from the charity Damaris, which provides support, routes to rescue, and paths to legitimate employment for women trafficked into prostitution. “In the area of Athens we go into there are more than 200 brothels – street after street of brothels, operating in broad daylight, with men coming in and out. It’s blatant, like they’re shopping. It’s desperation. Some women have been sold the idea of a better life for their family. They want to escape but can’t.”
Invariably the prostitution is facilitated by organised crime. “This is not just a local problem,” Sarah warns, and explains that the war in Ukraine is contributing to the problem: “Criminals are waiting at the borders of Ukraine, promising people a better life. Sadly, many end up in a brothel somewhere in Europe. We want to be able to say we have a way out for you, there is a better alternative than this to provide for your family.”
In addition to the anti-money laundering checks and balances to break the chain of crime that involves organised prostitution and people-trafficking, Sarah believes accountants are well placed to offer business advice to those looking to escape a life of modern slavery.
“The only opportunity I’ve had to do that so far is with one refugee, who was rescued from the sex trade by a charity that fundraised for her to set up a shop. She’s a real entrepreneur, but she didn’t have much idea about finance. Being able to offer simple financial advice – that’s where I feel I can draw on my accountancy skills to help people set up their own businesses or get jobs so they can see a life and a future here.
“I’d love to see more employment opportunities created and to be saying: ‘You don’t have to be here in this brothel because we can provide a better alternative for you; you don’t have to get on a dinghy to cross the Channel and risk your life to start again.’”