How Greece is criminalising solidarity with refugees

A boat carrying migrants is stranded in the Strait of Gibraltar before being rescued by the Spanish Guardia Civil and the Salvamento Maritimo sea search and rescue agency on September 8, 2018
7 min read
11 November, 2021
In-depth: Volunteers Sarah Mardini, Sean Binder, and Nassos Karaktisos are standing trial for helping refugees in distress off the coast of Greece, a move that criminalises humanitarian efforts to aid those fleeing war and persecution.

On the 18th of November, Sarah Mardini, Sean Binder, and Nassos Karaktisos will stand trial for helping refugees in distress at sea off the coast of Greece.

Legal experts and humanitarian groups have denounced the trial as “baseless” and “politically motivated”, and its outcome will have far-reaching effects not only for the three volunteers but for the rule of law across the continent.

Boat-spotting on Lesbos

Governments in Europe have restricted safe and legal routes for refugees to enter the continent. So every year, thousands of people seeking safety must pack themselves into flimsy boats to travel by sea.

National coastguards and the EU’s own border agency, Frontex, rarely offer assistance to these boats, making the journey dangerous and sometimes deadly.

"The so-called 'evidence' in this trial misrepresents search and rescue as something criminal: the Greek government is attempting to characterise any civil society efforts to reduce suffering at the border as criminal"

Emergency Response Centre International (ERCI) was founded to help the people in these boats. By monitoring the coastline and informing the Greek coastguard of their precise location, they were able to make sure refugees got the help they needed and reduce deaths in the Mediterranean.

Sarah, Sean, and Nassos were all volunteers with ERCI in 2018. They spent the summer on the shoreline of Lesbos, taking shifts watching the waters day and night for boats in distress and communicating their whereabouts.

Sarah knows just how vital these operations are; she made the same journey six years ago. Sarah and her family were fleeing the Syrian war in 2015 when the engine on their dinghy failed. Her family and co-travellers only made it to safety after she, her sister, and two men jumped into the sea and swam the boat for 3.5 hours to Lesbos’ shores. She returned to the island in 2018 to save others from the same fate.

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Arrest and trial

Sean and Sarah were first arrested during a routine shift looking for boats along the Lesbos coastline.

“The funny thing about that night is that we were doing nothing out of the ordinary. We were doing the same thing that we did every night,” Sean tells The New Arab.

“When the police arrived we thought nothing of it: we always stood shoulder to shoulder with them, communicating about how to respond to those emergencies,” Sean explains. “So when they said that we had done something suspicious and that we were being arrested we were almost flippant about it: it seemed so ridiculous”.

"Governments in Europe have restricted safe and legal routes for refugees to enter the continent. So every year, thousands of people seeking safety must pack themselves into flimsy boats to travel by sea"

Sarah, Sean, and Nassos went on to spend 106 days in a Greek jail, released only after heavy campaigning by friends, family, and human rights organisations.

The three humanitarians have since been awaiting trial for a plethora of charges mounted against them. The police accuse them of espionage, people smuggling, and violating state secrets.

Manos Moschopoulos is a program officer for the Migration and Inclusion team of the Open Society Initiative for Europe. He is concerned by the proceedings.

“The so-called ‘evidence’ in this trial misrepresents search and rescue as something criminal: the Greek government is attempting to characterise any civil society efforts to reduce suffering at the border as criminal,” Moschopoulos tells The New Arab. “These charges are ridiculous”.

In-depth Keira
The Greek coastguard has been accused of collaborating with the EU’s border agency Frontex in illegal pushbacks of refugee boats. [Getty]

On some of the dates that they are accused of criminal activity on Lesbos, Sarah and Sean are verifiably elsewhere. On one date, Sean is documented attending his graduation in London. On another, Sarah was meeting the dean at Bard College in Berlin where she was a student.

What’s more, one of the crimes, “illegally listening to radio communications,” is no longer a part of the Greek penal code.

The trial may only be going forward because the Greek statute of limitations stipulates that as three years have elapsed the case must go to court or be dropped. The more severe charges, however, could take longer, bearing a heavy toll on the accused. Sarah has described the wait as “living under a heavy weight”.

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A climate of fear in Greece

The trial appears to be part of a broader government strategy to rid border regions of watchful eyes. Earlier in 2021, the right-wing New Democracy government made it illegal to disclose anything workers or volunteers see in the notorious refugee camps.

They have also brought back dictatorship-era anti-protest laws and drawn government-funded media outlets under the prime minister’s direct control.

“What this case implies is that simply witnessing what happens to refugees is somehow violating state secrets,” says Moschopoulos.

Sarah and Sean’s arrest was reported in 2018 in Greek news outlets as “the capture of a German spy and his Syrian assistant”. Such reporting has created a climate of fear for those acting in support of refugees and migrants, and manufactured consent for harsh laws against NGOs.

"Governments are attempting to marginalise refugees so much that it's illegal to help them, or even to watch what's being done to them"

The Greek coastguard has been accused of collaborating with the EU’s border agency Frontex in illegal pushbacks of refugee boats: pushing refugees in boats back into international waters or to the neighbouring coast of Turkey, a practice that violates national security and international law.

The lawyer acting on behalf of the accused is Zacharias Kesses.

“This trial is a characteristic example of judicial harassment by the local police in order to throw humanitarian organisations out of the Greek islands,” Kesses tells The New Arab.

If this is the motivation behind the trial, then it appears to have been successful: the ERCI has since ceased its search and rescue operations in Greek waters since its volunteers were arrested in 2018. The crossing has also become more deadly.

In-depth Keira
Since 2014, over 20,000 migrants and refugees have died while trying to cross the Mediterranean Sea. [Getty]

Criminalising solidarity with refugees

Solidarity is not just being criminalised in Greece; it’s happening all across Europe. In Switzerland, a pastor is being targeted by the state for sheltering a destitute man, and other refugees for supporting their family members.

In Italy, rescue organisations themselves are being penalised for saving lives. And in the UK, the Conservative government is trying to push through a bill that would make sea rescues, like those the ERCI used to perform, prosecutable as “people smuggling”.

“I have friends who are facing charges, the same accusations that I did three years ago,” Sean Binder tells The New Arab. “It’s my trial now, but now more than ever I feel like this is a part of a wider wave of criminalisation”.

Migration issues have often been used politically to strengthen public support for otherwise unpopular surveillance and police powers, with refugees becoming political scapegoats in Europe.

“Governments are attempting to marginalise refugees so much that it’s illegal to help them, or even to watch what’s being done to them,” says Moschopoulos.

"This trial is a characteristic example of judicial harassment by the local police in order to throw humanitarian organisations out of the Greek islands"

Fighting back

Sarah, Sean, and Nassos are fighting hard against their prosecution - and they are not alone.  Amnesty International is urging people to write to the Minister of Citizens’ Protection, Michalis Chrisochoidis, demanding he drop the charges and “make public statements acknowledging the legitimacy of humanitarian action and action to defend refugee and migrant rights”.

Meanwhile, friends, colleagues, fellow volunteers, and sympathetic strangers are organising the Free Humanitarians campaign to support the Lesbos three. Defence lawyer Kesses describes the time and energy poured into fighting the case as “simply countless”.

As the trial draws closer, Sean remains sombre but resolute.

“If this can happen to me, who’s done absolutely nothing wrong, then it could happen to anybody else reading this newspaper,” he tells The New Arab. “That’s what’s so distressing about this; it’s a backslide on the rule of law, and that affects all of us”.

Keira Dignan is a freelance journalist and librarian based in Athens, Greece. 

Follow her on Twitter: @DignanKeira