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Greece | “A criminalization of solidarity”



A group of humanitarian workers who came to the aid of migrants in distress in the Aegean Sea find themselves in the sights of Greek justice.

The trial, which opened earlier this week on the island of Lesbos, targets more than twenty people, including a Syrian refugee, Sarah Mardini. The young woman had shown remarkable courage in 2015 by deciding, after a breakdown, to swim with her sister in the overloaded boat used for her crossing, an episode that inspired a Netflix film.

Several human rights organizations denounce the proceedings launched by the Greek authorities, described in a European Parliament report as “the most important case of criminalization of solidarity” on the continent.

“Greece seeks to intimidate those targeted and to discourage any other humanitarian organization wishing to pursue similar activities. It’s a show trial, ”denounces in an interview Catherine Woollard, who heads the European Council on Refugees and Exiles (ECRE).

It is increasingly common, she said, for states on the continent to use the courts to discourage civil society from intervening in support of migrants, at sea or on land.


“If helping is a crime, we are all criminals”, can we read on this banner displayed in front of the court of Mytilene, in the island of Lesbos.

Bill Van Esveld, a Human Rights Watch analyst who follows the Greek case closely, notes that the authorities have done everything to “take things upside down” and portray aid workers as criminals.

Charges of espionage were in particular retained, he affirms, under the pretext that the defendants had listened to radio exchanges, freely accessible, to try to identify the position of ships in distress.

NGO workers

The targeted aid workers were working for a non-governmental organization, the Emergency Response Center International (ERCI), duly registered with the Greek authorities.

Its staff came to the aid of migrants arriving on the Greek islands and went out to sea to help boats in distress, sometimes even collaborating with the coast guard, explains Mr. Van Esveld.

Mme Mardini, who had settled in Berlin, Germany, after arriving in Europe, decided to take a break from her studies to work for the organization and found herself in the crosshairs of the authorities in 2018.

Apprehended as she was about to board the plane, she had to spend more than 100 days in detention before being allowed to leave the country. Several ERCI leaders were detained during the same period, which led to the interruption of all support activities for migrants.

The ongoing procedures have had a huge impact since there are no non-governmental organizations currently carrying out rescue operations at sea near the island of Lesvos. People are afraid of being arrested.

Bill Van Esveld, Human Rights Watch analyst

In addition to being accused of a series of misdeeds, the people targeted are being investigated for human trafficking, another aberrant accusation denying, they say, the validity of their intentions.

“What we did is legal”

“We desperately want the trial to go forward since we know what we did is legal and we want the judge to recognize it,” commented one of the defendants, Sean Binder, in a video relayed online by Human. Rights Watch.


One of the defendants in the case, Sean Binder

The German national believes that the slowness of the proceedings served to unduly persecute the defendants, who earlier this week demanded that irregularities in the case lead to their acquittal. The court is expected to rule on this shortly.

Mme Woollard notes that the judicial crackdown on aid workers is just one of the problematic ploys used by Greece to send the message that the country is not welcoming and to reduce the influx of migrants.

The coast guard, which denies any practice of this type, has notably been accused on several occasions of returning boats intercepted in Greek waters to Turkey, sometimes in a perilous way, without regard to international law.

Many European countries rely on Greece to prevent refugees from arriving on the coasts of the continent and to this end tolerate the violent methods used by the authorities.

Catherine Woollard, who heads the European Council on Refugees and Exiles

In a recent decision, the European Court of Human Rights blamed Greece for failing to carry out a thorough investigation into the death by drowning of a dozen migrants who were in a boat that capsized when it was fired by the coast guard in 2016.

The verdict “partially” does justice to the plaintiffs, but seems unlikely to influence the country’s practices in the long term, notes Mr. Van Esvald.

European funding is used to support migration control activities that are “violent” and flout the laws in force, but there is, he regrets, no condemnation in high places from the European Commission, the branch executive of the European Union.

“In the best of cases, we can say that they prefer to put their heads in the sand,” concludes the analyst.

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