Gay British couple fleeing Greece wildfires with son ‘gobsmacked’ after being refused shelter

A person stares at the wildfires across Greece.

A gay couple have accused a homeowner of denying them and their child shelter as they fled deadly wildfires, because they were not “a man and woman”.

Sean Palmer and Matt Smith were left blindsided after being told by the homeowner, who had initially offered them shelter, that they were not a family.

The UK couple were forced to flee their hotel in the coastal resort of Pefkos, on the Greek island of Rhodes, while on holiday with their six-year-old son.

They said that they had hit “panic stations” during the evacuation, during which they could see flames from their balcony, while ash fell “like it was snowing”. They were forced to spend a night in a local school.

“The water and electricity was on and off at the hotel,” Palmer said. “By the Friday, you could tell the fires had gotten a lot worse because you could smell the smoke.”

After being offered a place to stay until their flight back to the UK, the homeowner arrived and told them he was expecting a family, to which Palmer responded: “We are a family.”

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The individual responded: “Not a man and a woman,” and left them behind.

“We were absolutely gobsmacked,” Palmer told the news agency PA. “I guess it’s up to them who they have in the house. You can’t really fault that, I suppose, but if we had been a man and a woman, we would have been given a house.”

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Wildfires caused by a deadly heatwave across southern Europe ripped through parts of Greece last month and have, so far, burned hundreds of square miles of parched land – far above the average for the past 16 years. At least 667 fires have erupted, according to the country’s climate change minister, Vassilis Kikiliasr.

Greek officials reassured locals that the majority of fires across the Peloponnesian peninsula were under control by Friday (30 July) but experts warned that the risk of further outbreaks remains.

Palmer and Smith said they knew the situation was unravelling after electricity in their hotel began fluctuating in the early afternoon.

“It felt closer because the fires had obviously reached the main electricity supply,” Palmer said. “We probably went to sleep around 11pm and left our phones on loud, just in case.”

The family received an emergency alert from the government less than an hour after going to sleep, urging those in Pefkos to evacuate immediately.

“I felt sick and thought: ‘Is this really happening? How close is the fire getting?’

“We went to reception and there were alarms going off everywhere. It just didn’t feel real.”

The family stood with hundreds of evacuees waiting for a bus to take them to a nearby school, where the slept for the night.

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Following the incident with the homeowner, the couple were instead offered a room at a nearby shelter for homeless people, where they stayed until their journey home.

“Once we got there, we tried to keep cool and act normal for my partner’s son,” Palmer said. “We had been awake from six o’clock on the Saturday morning until 11 on the Monday.”

They were then contacted by tourism company TUI, who had organised the holiday, and told to pack their bags and head to the local airport where they left on a flight to Manchester, 160 miles from their home in Newcastle.

A spokesperson for TUI UK and Ireland said: “We understand how distressing and difficult it’s been for those who had to leave their hotels and curtail their holidays due to the wildfires.

“We have offered Mr Palmer’s group a pro-rata refund for the nights of their holiday that were affected, as well as expenses that were incurred after flying back to the UK on one of our emergency repatriation flight. Mr Palmer has also been offered an additional holiday voucher as a gesture of goodwill.”

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