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Criminalizing NGO search and rescue workers endangers the lives of asylum seekers

The work of humanitarians is vital to the security of people who have been forced to live beyond their home countries’ borders

EuropeHuman Rights

Migrants on a boat crossing the Mediterranean Sea on January 29, 2016. Photo by callmonikm/Flickr.

With the start of the New Year, it seemed like all of Europe breathed a deep sigh of relief. After being charged by the Greek government with a series of misdemeanors in 2018, the high-profile trial for 24 humanitarian aid workers on the Greek island of Lesbos came to an end.

The aid workers, some of them facing 20 to 25 years in prison, had been charged with acts of espionage, illegal access to state communications, money laundering, and assisting criminal activity. The charges were based on police reports that the group collected information on refugee flows in the Aegean Sea through the unlawful use of radio frequencies and communicated with and assisted traffickers bringing migrants into Greece from Turkey.

The trial began in Mytilene on January 10 and adjourned four days later. The court ruled that the cases needed to be refiled by the prosecution on procedural grounds, including a failure to translate the indictment and the vagueness of the espionage charges. The charges are likely to be dropped in early February when Greece’s five-year statute of limitations expires.

All 24 defendants—seven Greek nationals and 17 foreigners—worked for Emergency Response Centre International (ERCI), a now-defunct NGO that operated on Lesbos from 2016 to 2018. ERCI’s mission was to assist and save the lives of migrants attempting the treacherous sea crossing from Turkey’s western coast to the eastern shores of Greece. Since 2015, the high point of these crossings, more than one million migrants have entered the European Union. Search and rescue efforts have been crucial to saving the lives of migrants making these sea journeys. The charges against the 24 aid workers came as Greek authorities sought to suppress this traffic and limit entry into Greece by refugees and asylum seekers.

The trial has sparked global outrage and brought attention to a crisis that has been unfolding in the eastern Mediterranean since 2015. The European Parliament has called the trial “the largest case of criminalization of solidarity in Europe,” and, on January 14, just hours before the court’s decision to refile, the United Nations called for the charges to be dropped. The trial, which has been denounced by the United Nations as “chilling” and by Amnesty International as “farcical,” is part of a wider movement by some EU member states to criminalize humanitarian workers in order to deter aid workers and volunteers from assisting or rescuing migrants fleeing war, violence, and starvation. This rebranding of humanitarian assistance as a criminal act under charges of people smuggling has proven detrimental to migrants and aid workers alike.

While the ERCI aid workers may breathe easier, the ruling does not put an end to the ongoing efforts by European governments to criminalize aid workers and thereby thwart new arrivals of asylum seekers. Indeed, the problem runs deeper than the trial in Lesbos. It is a tale of growing xenophobia and of the rise of right-wing governments in Central and Eastern Europe.

Europe’s shifting façade

Back in 2015, when a million refugees landed in Europe—the highest number of migrants to enter the continent in its history—an estimated 3,500 people died along the way. More than 75 per cent of these arrivals were people fleeing violence in Syria, Afghanistan, and Iraq. The mass migration of peoples into the continent dominated headlines, and opinions were formulated. While some communities and governments made efforts to support the new arrivals, others used the situation to present anti-migrant messaging and rally support for their political agendas.

The government of Viktor Orbán in Hungary, according to an essay in Upping the Anti, built a fence along its southern border and encouraged police to attack refugees and asylum seekers as they tried to enter the country. Alongside anti-migrant public messaging placed on billboards throughout the country and a costly referendum on refugees, the government’s new laws increased the criminalization of actions intended to support refugees. The result was a diminishment of refugee rights activism and further impediments for migrants seeking to enter the country.

Such government intervention in aid work persists today and may be gaining momentum. In Italy, the newly elected far-right government of Giorgia Meloni recently introduced a set of stricter laws targeting search and rescue teams in the central Mediterranean in order to limit new arrivals by sea via Italian ports. The new laws, which came into effect in January, state that following a rescue, ships must immediately find a port rather than continuing their rescue mission. After retrieving a single person from the sea, a charity ship must now continue to port without seeking or helping others stranded, even if the ship passes by someone in the water. If they do not follow the rules, they can face fines of up to €50,000 (CAD $72,645) and have their boats impounded—an impossible financial situation for NGOs.

A group of NGOs, including Doctors Without Borders, has collectively responded with a statement warning that “the decreased presence of rescue ships will inevitably result in more people tragically drowning at sea.” Indeed, Italy’s move will inhibit the ability of search and rescue organizations to respond to distress calls, undoubtedly causing more deaths in the already treacherous crossing of the central Mediterranean. Ignoring people stranded at sea is in direct contravention of international law, including the International Convention on Maritime Search and Rescue and the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea.

There is a growing number of cases, across the Mediterranean, of people being criminalized for assisting migrants at sea. In 2021, a Somalian man, Mohamed Abdi, was convicted of people smuggling by a Greek court and sentenced to 142 years in prison. As Abdi asserted, however, he steered his dinghy to the shores of Lesbos after a trafficker had deserted the vessel in the midst of the journey—a fact corroborated by fellow passengers. In so doing, he saved the lives of 33 people that day (tragically, two drowned). The 28-year-old Abdi’s case was overturned on January 9, after receiving legal support from EU lawmakers.

Beyond the current legal implications for search and rescue workers, reports of migrant “pushback” have increased. In central and southeastern Europe, there are widespread accounts of police and coast guards carrying out informal returns of migrants back across the border they last crossed. Such pushbacks are both illegal—denying migrants the right of asylum—and unethical in that they are often violent and sometimes deadly. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) states that 540 such incidents have been reported in Greece since 2020. Most reports name the Greek coast guard, but Frontex, an EU agency in charge of monitoring European borders, has been identified as assisting the coast guard and covering up pushback incidents.

These actions of these states are part of an interconnected web of efforts to deter migration into the European Union. At the cost of the lives of both migrants and aid workers, governments and other authorities are committed to halting access to the right to seek asylum in Europe. In so doing, however, they will not be successful because, even without assistance from NGOs on the shorelines of Greece or Italy, people will use whatever means are necessary to flee war, violence, and poverty. Without sincere search and rescue efforts, the result will only be more deaths at sea.

The Mardini sisters

While the most dreadful outcome of prohibiting migrants from entering the EU is loss of life at sea, aid workers have also suffered. Of the 24 workers charged in Lesbos in 2018, two of them—Sarah Mardini and Seán Binder—were arrested simultaneously but detained in different Greek prisons on pre-trial detention for 106 days, before their eventual release on bail. The two search and rescue workers had been detained on suspicion of human trafficking, and, although an investigation is underway, currently no charges have been laid.

The trial has drawn wide attention because of the public profile of Mardini, who is the sister of Yusra Mardini, who swam for the Refugee Olympic Team in Rio in 2016, and again in Tokyo in 2020. The sisters, both refugees, undertook the trip from Turkey to Lesbos in 2015 in search of asylum. Fleeing Syria, the young women (Mardini was a minor at the time) famously swam an overcrowded dinghy to the shore after its engine failed, saving the lives of 18 people on board, including a toddler. In their pursuit, the Mardini sisters made their way to Berlin, where Mardini began swimming competitively and became an ambassador for the UNHCR. Immediately following her sister’s triumph in Rio, Sarah returned to Lesbos to assist migrants who found their way to the island’s shores.

Netflix featured the Mardini sisters’ story in The Swimmers, which premiered last year at the Toronto International Film Festival, and then released on the platform in November 2022. The inspirational film focuses on the Mardinis’ heroic journey across the Aegean Sea and Mardini’s eventual success as an Olympic swimmer. Although little information was given about the details of the arrests, in Greece, of Mardini and her colleagues, the film does mention the trial in the closing credits and has successfully drawn mainstream attention to the tumultuous experiences of sea arrivals fleeing their countries of origin.

In a recent TED Talk, Sarah Mardini disclosed that she was recently diagnosed with PTSD and depression. She noted, however, that the reasons for these traumas were related neither to her experiences living through the war in Syria nor to the treacherous (albeit heroic) crossing of the Aegean, nor even to the arduous months she spent in a refugee centre located in a hangar on the outskirts of Berlin with her sister, awaiting housing and services. Rather, Mardini states that her trauma stems from being detained in the Greek carceral system for 106 days for the ‘crimes’ of handing out water and blankets, and providing translation, on the shorelines of Lesbos, for survivors of the same perilous journey she had made with her sister three years earlier.

Mardini’s mental health has suffered not because of what she has endured as a human being but because of the harassment and cruelty enacted upon her and her colleagues who have shown the world what true compassion and bravery can look like.

Finding a path forward

It is imperative to save the lives of migrants making dangerous journeys in search of a better life, but it is also critical to support the aid workers who are on the frontlines of those journeys. The work of such humanitarians, and specifically of search and rescue teams, is vital to the security, and even salvation, of people who have been forced to live beyond their home countries’ borders.

The Mardinis’ escape from war in Syria and dramatic crossing of the Aegean Sea happened at a point when the highest numbers of migrants in history were landing in Greece and in Europe more widely. The influx into Greece of asylum seekers and refugees became the impetus for an expensive deal between the EU and Turkey, struck in 2016, aimed at keeping migrants behind the Turkish border. This deal has further strained an already tense relationship between Greece and Turkey: since the deal was reached, one country often blames the other for its cruel treatment of migrants. But to expect two countries to entirely handle, between themselves alone, an ongoing crisis of so many people fleeing violence and poverty is not fair to either country.

While repercussions for individual acts of violence by coast guard forces against migrants should be a part of a strategy of handling mass migration routes, greater international support would be a more logical and much-needed measure for ensuring that migrants are treated with respect and dignity in their search for a safe and comfortable life—a right that every human being on the planet deserves.

The means by which this situation could be rectified—or at least by which some of the hardships experienced by both migrants and aid workers might be alleviated—are set out in a document published by the International Rescue Committee in March 2022 (certain points have been modified for purposes of this article, to make the recommendations more directly relevant to aid workers and to include the Western countries of North America rather than specifically concerning the EU):

  • Examine applications for asylum based on individual merit rather than country of origin. Currently, because of Greece’s Joint Ministerial Decision relating to the previously mentioned EU-Turkey deal, Turkey is considered a safe third country for people from Afghanistan, Syria, Somalia, Bangladesh, and Palestine. Because of this, it is estimated that around half of the applications of migrants from those locations, who arrive in Greece, are not considered. Discrimination of applications based on a person’s country of origin feeds a growing xenophobic environment that strengthens a state’s ability to prosecute aid workers who have been assisting migrants from those places. The practice should be stopped in all countries, including Canada.
  • Create a fairer, more accessible relocation system throughout the European continent to relieve stress on frontline countries like Greece and Italy, and to stop externalizing responsibility to countries like Turkey and Libya. The impressive response to individuals fleeing Ukraine, and the support and resources given to Ukrainian asylum seekers and refugees, indicates that the EU—as well as Canada and United States—have ample capacity and space to accommodate persons arriving from elsewhere. What is required now is the will to do so.
  • Strengthen safety measures and legalize travel routes into the EU so that migrants’ journeys are safer. This will make the work of search and rescue teams more manageable and ensure that aid workers will be less at risk with regard to their personal safety and free from judicial harassment in frontline EU member countries.

A spokesperson for the UNHCR, Elizabeth Throssell, has noted that trials such as that of the 24 humanitarian aid workers in Greece, “are deeply concerning because they criminalize lifesaving work and set a dangerous precedent.” Indeed, this is a frightening situation that could portend the normalization of prosecution of the work of saving lives. Criminalizing NGO workers undoubtedly harms the many migrants in need of assistance, but today it also causes needless hardship and suffering for the workers themselves.

Kimberly Wilson is a member of Canadian Dimension’s coordinating committee. Kim currently works as a community literacy worker in Toronto’s West End. She is a freelance editor and writer and holds a Master of Arts in Canadian Studies and Indigenous Studies from Trent University.

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